“Free at last,” Lee says with a snort of laughter as I meet up with him, Rob and Neil at the end of another long week of college. “You got much work to do this weekend on your course?”
“Umm, not much,” I shrug. “Been getting a good head start the last few weeks.”
“Smart man,” Rob says with a chuckle.
“Just had plenty of free time lately,” I shrug, leading to an awkward silence as all of my friends know exactly why I’ve had so much free time lately.
It’s been just over two months since I attended the football match hosted by Heavenly Talent in London, and that date was also the last time I have set foot in the nation’s capital.
Immediately after I returned from London, I fell into a funk, drowning my sorrows in junk food and videogames for a whole week. I didn’t shower, I hardly changed my clothes, I barely spoke to my friends (in London or Cardiff) and I slept for at least fourteen hours each day (apart from days I was at work). Grandma, obviously, had a few things to say about this, but I wouldn’t be deterred, even- no, especially when my weight increased by half a stone and my face broke out in spots. I’d probably still be in my funk today, if it wasn’t for one remark, one simple sentence from grandma.
“You remind me of your mother when she was your age,” grandma said.
Within an hour, I’d shaved, showered, changed my clothes and was on my way to the gym to start to shed the extra ‘padding’ I’d gained as a result to my depression (it’s all gone now, thankfully). Within another 24 hours, I was back in my funk yet again when a notification came on my Facebook that I’d been dreading for months- ‘Ella Henry is in a relationship’. Within ten days of the last time we’d had sex, she’d met another guy- or had maybe even met him before we’d last had sex- started a relationship with him and was serious enough to take it onto Facebook. As much as I tried to remind myself that men are supposed to sleep around, that we’re supposed to go from girl to girl and not be tied down- especially when you’re the age I am- it still hurt, it still made me feel used and unclean… Especially as I didn’t have a girl of my own in Cardiff.
Or, at the very least, not a girl who wants anything to do with me. I started my second year of college in September and picked up from where I left off the previous year- unpopular due to my hobbies and my more obvious ‘status’ (I still feel anxious whenever I go into the men’s toilets) despite the fact that over a year on testosterone (which I wasn’t able to celebrate, thanks to my depression) has significantly changed my body. Stubble, hair on my legs and arms (and even a little on my chest), biceps, a six pack, tougher, rougher skin… Girls who don’t know ‘about’ me look at me with pure lust in their eyes. Girls who DO know about me look at me with disgust- none more so than one Miss Hannah Barnard. Her making my day at the beach a misery obviously wasn’t enough for her, as she has dropped into the game store where I work every. Single. Saturday since August, each time looking at me like I’m something she scraped off the bottom of her shoe. She never says anything, of course- she knows that any verbal abuse wouldn’t be tolerated by management, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling like a steaming pile of shit every time I serve her.
Fortunately, my friends have always been there to support me, even when I’ve been too miserable to be any fun. Our board game nights have continued uninterrupted, as have our videogame nights, and the guys have been sensitive enough to stop making jokes about ‘going down under’ after Ella got herself a new boyfriend- even Lee, for whom sarcasm is the biggest part of his diet. He’s even promised to let us know soon why we’ve been donating aluminium cans to him for the last several months. I am lucky that I have such good friends in Cardiff, as my ‘friends’ in London haven’t been quite as ‘open’. I wouldn’t expect them to be, of course, and I certainly wouldn’t expect them to come all the way to Wales just to see me, but what little contact I had with them prior to my last trip to London has dropped off considerably. The only person I still occasionally talk to- by way of Facebook messenger, of course- is Stuart, and the conversation always goes the same way. He asks me if I’m alright, I say yes, we talk about football a little (he supports Chelsea and I support Arsenal so we usually have a few strong words for each other), then the conversation gets really awkward, we say our goodbyes and repeat the whole thing a few weeks later. I’m pretty certain even these messages aren’t his idea, that he’s pushed into sending them by his wife, but he is at least making contact- some of the ‘friends’ I’d made in London don’t even have me as Facebook friends anymore. Tellingly, though, every transgendered friend I’ve made- up to and including the likes of Jamie-Lee Burke and Stephanie Abbott- still not only have me as a Facebook friend but regularly like the posts that I make.
One person who I haven’t had contact with, though, is my ‘mother’. Ever since our argument in the car park after the football game, she has remained absolutely silent, not contacting me or grandma once. This is undoubtedly upsetting grandma, and making me feel guilty too as I can help but feel responsible for the rift between the two of them, but it just proves the point that I made two months ago- that my ‘mother’ never cared about me as a person, that her attempts to reconcile with me were purely because she saw me associating with celebrities and wanted to leech off what little fame I was building. Now that I’ve turned my back on ‘fame’ and gone back to being an ordinary seventeen year old nerd, she unsurprisingly wants nothing to do with me. It’s telling that my counsellor in Cardiff, who almost always takes an impartial view and plays devil’s advocate a lot, agrees with me about my ‘mother’. Obviously, my ‘father’ hasn’t made contact either, but then again, he barely did when I was living with him. And the less contact I have with his mother, the better.
Unfortunately, with it being October, it means that December is just around the corner, bringing with it the double whammy of both Christmas- a time when I know there’ll be a massive argument with all members of my family- and five days later, my birthday, and not just any birthday, but my eighteenth- the most important birthday of them all. I will be an adult, legally free to do whatever I want. I can vote in an election, legally buy and drink alcohol, I can get a tattoo… I can also arrange a mastectomy with a hospital, or a hysterectomy, or a phalloplasty… These aren’t easy decisions, but they’re ones that will need to be made soon. As is deciding whether to go to university (my grades are good enough to make this an option), get a full-time job, find a place of my own… I have a lot of decisions ahead of me. I feel like I’m at a crossroads, but I have no idea which way to go, and no one to help me make any of my decisions.
“Hello, Ian!” Grandma says with a smile as I close the front door behind me and drop my bag onto the sofa, though despite my tiredness, I know better than to drop myself onto the sofa. “Weekend now, you know what that means!”
“No schoolwork,” I reply with a chuckle. “Housework, garden work and actual employed work, but at least no schoolwork.”
“All three of which you get paid for, so stop complaining,” grandma playfully chastises me. “And I’ll only need you to cut the grass and run the hoover around on Sunday so you’ll have plenty of time free to play your games with your friends.”
“Thanks,” I say with a grin, before heading through to the kitchen to help grandma prepare dinner- noting that it, like the washing-up and drying I’ll have to do after dinner, is a piece of housework grandma didn’t mention…
Fortunately, no further chores are sprung on me after dinner, leaving me free to jump into Lee’s father’s car when it arrives to take me to our traditional Friday night gaming session.
“Alright mate?” Lee asks as I slide onto the seat behind him. “Got any aluminium for me?”
“Hello to you too,” I snort in response, earning a chuckle from my friend’s father.
“In fairness he did say ‘alright mate’ first,” Mr. Charlton reminds me.
“Eh, fair enough,” I shrug. “And no, I don’t, and when ARE we going to find out what you’re doing with all our cans?”
“Very soon,” Mr. Charlton replies. “Trust me, a lot sooner than you think.”
“Finally,” I chuckle. “And I would have more cans but grandma’s not what you’d call a supermarket or a ‘brand’ person, she still prefers shopping at, like, independent butchers, market stalls, that sort of thing.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” Mr. Charlton shrugs. “Frankly more people should be doing that rather than be reliant on Tesco or places like that.”
“Does create a lot of extra work though,” I sigh. “There’s, like, twice as much washing-up, three times as much rubbish to take out and six times as many shopping bags to cart home, and as grandma’s seventy-five and suffering from arthritis and I’m seventeen and covered in muscles, no prizes for guessing who gets to carry it. One thing about Tesco, they at least deliver.”
“So you’re half grandson, half maid, then?” Lee asks, laughing as I reach forward and give him a smack on the back of his head.
“You earned that one, Lee,” Mr. Charlton- who, obviously, knows my ‘status’- tells his son.
“I’m not suggesting you wear the uniform,” Lee retorts as the car pulls up outside Rob’s house and I slide over to allow him onto the back seat.
“Hi Rob,” I say to my friend, who smiles in response.
“We were discussing whether or not Ian should wear a maid’s uniform,” Lee says, laughing as his dad gives him a smack on the back of the head.
“I trust you quickly arrived at the answer ‘no’,” Rob says. “Got some cans in the bag, by the way.”
“Excellent,” Lee says. “Ian can clean them when we get to Neil’s.” Despite the insult, I’m forced to chuckle as Rob gives Lee his third smack on the head in as many minutes.
“Seriously, not funny,” I snort. “Especially as Abbey-Gayle actually chose that exact costume for her boyfriend’s birthday party a few months ago.”
“Lucky him,” Lee says.
“Lucky ME,” I retort. “There but for the grace of god…”
“Guess we’ll have to change the theme for your eighteenth next month then, Lee,” Mr. Charlton says to his son, earning genuine laughs from myself and Rob.
“You can laugh about it when I’m the butt of the joke, then?” Lee asks.
“If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out,” I remind my black-haired friend. “And no, I don’t mind the odd joke. Sometimes need to remind myself that none of you ever met ‘Kayleigh-Ann’.”
“And we’re not in any rush to,” Rob says. “In fact, we don’t want to, ever. We like Ian, full stop.”
“Get a room,” Lee says, laughing as yet another smack finds its way to the back of his head.
“Neither of us are gay, we’re both only interested in girls, end of story,” Rob retorts, flashing a kind smile at me that helps to calm my nerves. I often get ‘reminders’ like this- that the guys unquestionably accept me as one of them- and sometimes they can feel patronising, as the guys aren’t exactly the most sensitive people in the world. On other occasions, such as this one, they really do settle my nerves and make me feel like I have a place where I truly belong- something ‘Kayleigh-Ann’ never had.
Many places, in fact- which I’m reminded when the three of us enter Neil’s bedroom and I’m handed a can of Coke Zero (I’m still eager not to put any weight back on) and an Xbox controller. Of course, this is the same thing that happened whenever I went to Ollie’s house, but unlike then, I know that my friends are genuine- and more importantly, I don’t have to stop being ‘Ian’ at the end of the night.
“Remember to s-“ Lee begins.
“Yes, we’ll save the bloody cans!” Neil interrupts, making me snort with laughter and nearly shoot cola out of my nose.
“Apparently we’re going to find out REALLY soon what all the cans are in aid of,” I say. “And Lee’s dad is as involved as Lee himself.”
“Probably a bit more involved, actually,” Lee shrugs. “Surprised none of you have figured it out yet.”
“I’ve got an idea,” Rob says. “If it is what I think it is, then it’s definitely something I want a part of…”
“Care to clue the rest of us in?” Neil asks.
“Does this ‘project’ involve the numbers three, two and one in that order?” Rob asks.
“Give that man some kudos,” Lee says with a smug grin that only confuses me and Neil further.
“Do you have a name yet?” Rob asks.
“We’re thinking ‘Chwilen’,” Lee says.
“Welsh for beetle,” Rob says.
“Yep,” Lee says with a smirk. “We were originally thinking ‘Draconis’ or ‘Draconid’ to make it even more, you know, ‘patriotic’, but all the good dragon-related names were taken.”
“…Any more clues?” I ask.
“Tell you what- get round to mine tomorrow after your job and I’ll show you,” Lee says. “Might even have a practical demonstration depending on how much I can get finished tomorrow morning. I will guarantee one thing, though- it’ll definitely put a smile on your face!”
“I’ll hold you to that,” I say, making Lee snort with laughter as a knock comes from Neil’s bedroom door.
“Ah, speaking of ‘holding’ and ‘putting smiles on faces’…” Lee teases, laughing as Neil throws him a packet of crisps that hits him square in the middle of the face, before standing up and opening the door to his bedroom.
“Hey babe,” Neil says with a smug grin as he exchanges a brief kiss with the petite eighteen year old girl stood in the doorway. “Sorry my room’s a bit, well, ‘manly’ today…”
“Nothing manlier than videogames about cars,” the girl teases, casting an awkward glance in my direction before making herself comfortable on Neil’s bed.
“You knew what you were getting into when you agreed to go out with me,” Neil says with a smug grin as he sits on the end of his bed and lets his girlfriend rest her feet on his lap.
“Even if there’s not much ‘out’ in our going out,” Neil’s girlfriend retorts.
“Oh- you know I can’t into anywhere without ID,” Neil sighs. “Five months, then I’ll be eighteen and we’ll be out every night you want, I promise.”
“Should’ve gone out with me instead,” Lee laughs. “Eighteen next month, the oldest of the four of us, in fact.”
“Umm, yeah, no,” Neil’s girlfriend snorts.
“Kaboom,” I say, laughing as Lee gives me a not-very playful shove- unsurprisingly, he’s the only one of the four of us to have not yet been in a relationship, and he’s a little sensitive about it. Assuming you count me and Ella as a ‘relationship’, of course…
“Best behaviour, boys, there are ladies present,” Neil says, before stammering as he realised his faux pas. “Umm, A lady present, I mean, umm…”
“Game on,” I order, silencing the room- though the dirty look I get from Neil’s girlfriend through our first gaming session speaks volumes. The question I don’t answered, though, is whether she dislikes me because I’m a nerd, because I’m transgendered, or worst of all, because she’s scared I want to steal Neil from her…
Unsurprisingly, with Neil’s girlfriend in the room and growing increasingly agitated, we cut the gaming session shorter than usual to allow our friend a little ‘private’ time, though as we leave, my tension levels rise again as we run into yet another young woman.
“Hi BOYS,” Rhiannon- Neil’s sister- says with a smug grin.
“Hi Rhiannon,” Lee- who has an obvious crush on the older girl- replies with what I assume is meant to be a confident smirk, but is definitely anything but confident.
“Smooth,” Rob says as the twenty year old woman heads into her bedroom.
“Yeah, she wants me,” Lee says with a shrug.
“About as much as she wants a vindaloo enema,” Rob retorts. “And she already has a boyfriend. And besides, you wouldn’t have enough time for girls if ‘Chwilen’ is what I think it is.”
“There’s always time for girls,” Lee retorts.
“As long as you don’t, say, drop everything and head to London at the snap of the girl’s fingers,” I muse, making both of my friends bite their lips.
“…Meh, I probably still would be doing if it was me,” Lee shrugs. “Then again, lady parts are my kryptonite, so yeah.”
“Which explains why you’re not dead, then,” Rob says, laughing as Lee gives him another not-quite-playful shove on the way to our lift home.
Before heading to bed, I switch on my phone to check Facebook and roll my eyes when the first story on my news feed is a picture of Neil and his (for once, smiling) girlfriend. The next picture beneath that is a photo of my friends Nikki and Sarah partying at a nightclub, and the one beneath that is a picture of Ella wrapped around her new boyfriend… And that’s enough to make me switch off my phone, climb into bed and swear off of Facebook for the next hundred years.
Despite the following morning being Saturday, I’m still awake early to shower and shave off what little facial hair I have, before getting dressed in my work uniform and heading downstairs to help grandma make breakfast.
“Good to see you shaved off that fuzz,” grandma says as I enter the kitchen. “Don’t want your employers thinking you’re a scruff now, do we?”
“To be fair, most of my colleagues have beards,” I reply. “Though to be fair, most of them are ACTUAL beards…”
“And so is yours,” grandma reminds me. “But blond men never suit beards, and neither do you. Even if it does, well, hide the, umm, shape of your face…”
“…Maybe I’ll dye my hair brown,” I shrug. “You don’t really see many men with hair my colour anyway...”
“It’s your hair,” grandma shrugs. “What little there is of it! And if you want to pay for it, it’s your money too.”
“Something to think about for next year, maybe,” I say with a smile as I sit down and tuck into my bacon sandwich.
As I head to work, though, I can’t help but stroke my now-hairless chin and reminisce on how many times when I was younger I’d wished to be able to actually feel genuine hairs growing out of it. Grandma was right when she said that my beard was real. It’s hair growing out of my face, which makes it as real as my colleagues. Even if it is thinner and patchier in places than theirs. And certainly slower growing. But the important thing is that it DOES grow.
And, as seems to be the theme for recent times, the main thing on my mind is how most of the girls at college or the girls who come into the shop seem to like guys with a bit of stubble…
“Morning!” Dean says as I walk into the store, drop my coat and bag in the back room and log onto the register. “Expecting a quiet one today, it’ll be really busy next week with the new WWE game though.”
“Looking forward to it already,” I laugh. “Dean, quick question…”
“Shoot,” Dean says.
“What’s the policy on facial hair again?” I ask, laughing as my supervisor rubs the scratchy black hair on the side of his face.
“Well my personal policy is ‘the more, the better’,” Dean laughs. “We’re a game store, mate, not Lord Sugar’s boardroom.”
“Thought so,” I say. “Just my grandma has been on at me to shave more often, because she says beards don’t suit me because, umm, I’m, you know, blond…”
“You don’t have to worry about it here, mate,” Dean says. “As for blond men not suiting beards, has she never heard of Chris Hemsworth? Or Chris Evans, for that matter?”
“She’s in her seventies, she probably hasn’t even heard of Chris Evans the ginger,” I retort. “Let alone the Captain America one.”
“Heh, harsh, I like it,” Dean chuckles. “Yeah, don’t worry about being clean-shaven, mate. Besides, girls like a bit of stubble. And no offence, but I- I’d have thought that, you know…”
“I should be grateful just to be able to grow a beard at all?” I ask. “Believe me, I am. I sometimes feel sympathetic for MtF transsexuals, you know? We’ve both got difficulty ‘passing’, this damned bandage around my chest is proof of that, but you look at someone, see stubble and think ‘definitely male’ without a second thought never mind if they’re wearing a shirt or a dress. And if they’re wearing a dress, well, god help them… Reckon if I lost my mind and pulled on a dress, I would have a hard time passing. Kinda like that, actually…”
“Can imagine,” Dean laughs, before grinning as our first customer of the day enters the store.
As always, Saturday proves to be busy. A new Mario game came out yesterday for the 3DS and the new Forza game (that I was playing last night) came out for Xbox earlier in the week so a lot of people have come in to pick it up and there’s the usual crowd of people picking up merchandise and trading in old games. Just before lunch, however, is the time of the week I’ve come to dread.
“Hi,” Hannah mumbles as she places two packets of Pokémon cards on the counter for me to scan.
“Hi,” I mumble, trying not to frown as Hannah visibly shudders at the sight of me touching her merchandise. “That’s £6.98, please.” The rest of the transaction passes in silence as Hannah hands me her money, and with a deep scowl, leaves the store with her cards. As always, I let out a long sigh and try not to let my emotions get the better of me as Dean slides up next to me and places a soothing hand on my shoulder.
“Take your lunch now, mate,” Dean says, taking over at the till as I head to the back room to eat… Which I only do once I’ve let off steam by kicking an empty cardboard box around the store room.
It’s not like we’re the only videogame shop in Cardiff. We’re not even the only shop of this chain in Cardiff. And there are a million other places that sell Pokémon cards. And yet, every Saturday, like clockwork, that red-haired bitch comes into my shop- MY shop- purely to sneer in my face and make me feel like dirt. And that’s just it- she makes sure she doesn’t do anything that’d cause her to get banned from the store, she does just enough to get her ‘point’ across and no more. And obviously, with college commitments, I can’t NOT work on Saturdays. I try to put it behind me for the rest of my shift, and things like Rob and his brother dropping in to say hi definitely help, but as always, I have a frown on my face when I bid Dean farewell at the end of the working day.
“Think of it this way, mate,” Dean says, “at least she doesn’t come in on Sundays, heh.”
“Yeah, true,” I sigh. “See you tomorrow, mate.”
“Got anything planned for this evening?” Dean asks.
“Umm, yeah, actually,” I say, remembering Lee’s ‘invitation’ from yesterday. “Just going round a mate’s, says he has something that might cheer me up. Doubt it, but it’s worth a try, right?”
“That’s the spirit!” Dean chuckle. “See you tomorrow, mate.” I force a smile on my face as I wave at Dean, before leaving the shop and hopping on the nearest bus to Lee’s house, where Neil, Rob and even Rob’s brother Simon are already assembled in the dimming light of Lee’s back garden.
Lee’s back garden, much like Rob’s game room, is a nerd’s delight- but for very different reasons. The garden contains not one, not two, but THREE sheds, each of which contains countless numbers of tools, workbenches, old engine parts, antique lawnmowers and old motorcycles. Lee’s father is a mechanical engineer by trade, and seemingly spends every second of his free time tinkering with some bizarre machine. By far the most impressive part of the garden, though, is what I assumed at first to be a well, but is in fact a forge in which Lee’s father can smelt his own metal- undoubtedly the place where our aluminium drinks cans have ended up over the past few months.
“Hi guys,” I say to the other four teenagers. “Well, we’re all finally here…”
“Indeed,” Lee says with an incredibly smug grin. “Gentlemen, the waiting is over. And if this doesn’t put a smile on your face, I don’t know what will.”
“After the day I’ve had, I’ll need it,” I snort.
“Ah, another run in with the only ginger in the world more annoying than Chris Evans?” Lee asks, chuckling as I nod. “Well next time, just imagine her in front of THIS baby. Rob, you recording?”
“Ready when you are,” Rob replies, pointing his camera phone at one of the sheds in the garden.
“Then, without further ado,” Lee says, picking up an elaborate remote control device from a nearby table. “Three… Two… One… ACTIVATE.” I watch the shed intently as a loud whirring sound comes from inside, before jumping back in horror as the door literally explodes outwards, sending splinters and scraps of wood flying in all directions. Once the debris has cleared, sat where the door used to be is a massive metal machine, about the size of an end table, with a deadly-looking spinning metal blade on the front.
“Gentlemen,” Lee says, smiling like a proud father, “I give you… Chwilen.”
“It- it’s a robot!” Neil says in an awestruck voice. “Like- like Robot Wars!”
“That is exactly what it is,” Lee says, mercifully switching off the spinning blade and driving the robot around the garden a bit. “Me and dad have entered a few local competitions before but only with lightweight robots, fifteen or twenty kilos. This is our first heavyweight, one hundred and seven kilograms of spinning DEATH.”
“Aluminium armour, then?” Rob asks.
“Naturally,” Lee says. “Maybe not as strong as titanium but it’s lightweight, tough, thick and, most importantly, cheap. And there are a few layers of thermoplastic in there as well just for some extra strength.”
“How heavy’s the blade?” Neil asks.
“Twenty-two kilos,” Lee says with a smug grin. “Now THAT is steel, rather than aluminium. The extra weight packs a punch. Got the starter motor from an old Transit van powering it, with another one driving the wheels and two car batteries powering the whole thing.”
“She is a thing of beauty, mate,” Rob gushes. “Put the smile back on your face then, Ian?”
“Umm, a little,” I mumble. “Why- why exactly have you built this, again?”
“Umm, to destroy other robots,” Lee says with a chuckle. “You’ve seen Robot Wars, right?”
“Not really,” I say, trying to remember back to any time in the past when the four of us have gone to such an event.
“Oh mate, it is THE best TV show ever,” Lee says, causing my eyes to go wide.
“T- TV show?” I ask, earning confused looks from my friends.
“Yes…” Lee says. “We must have talked about it before, surely? Hosted by Dara O’Briain, BBC2?”
“Not something I remember watching,” I say. “So- so you’re going to go on TV with this?”
“WE are going to go on TV with this,” Lee says confidently. “I’m not hogging all the limelight for myself, even if I do deserve it!”
“Oh, mate!” Neil says with an excited giggle. “Can I have a go?”
“Wait your turn,” Lee says, laughing almost maniacally as he does a donut with his robot. “Si, your birthday’s next week, isn’t it? Want a go?”
“Hell yes!” The fourteen year old says, laughing as he takes the control from Lee, who instructs him how to drive the robot.
“Ah, this is fucking awesome!” Neil says, almost giddy with excitement. “Is this what you thought it was, Rob?”
“Had a hunch,” Rob shrugs. “Me and my dad have thought about building one before but we never really had the technical skills… makes sense when you think about it, Lee’s studying electronics, his dad’s an engineer, it’s the perfect combination!”
“Looks like the perfect robot, too,” Neil gushes. “That thing will SHRED anything that goes up against it!”
“I dunno, some of the recent robots have pretty tough armour… Hey, Earth to Ian?” Rob asks, snapping me out of my ‘trance’.
“Hmm?” I ask. “I’m listening!”
“Can’t believe you’ve never watched Robot Wars before,” Neil says, making me sigh and roll my eyes.
“I’ve only been- well, you know, for fourteen months,” I retort. “Got a lot of catching up to do.”
“Make Robot Wars the priority,” Neil practically orders. “Ah, this is awesome! We’re going to be on TV!” Yeah… I think to myself. ‘Awesome’ is not the word I’d use there…
“Hey, Ian!” Lee yells, calling me over to where he and Simon are stood with the robot.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“You do graphic design at college, right?” Lee asks.
“Yes…” I reply.
“Perfect,” Lee says with a smug grin. “As much as I love Chwilen, right now she is basically just a metal box on wheels. Do you think you could, you know, make her, you know… Pretty?”
“…Are you taking the piss?” I ask, prompting a genuinely shocked response from my friend.
“Wh- what?” Lee stammers. “No, honestly, mate, I- ah… Shit.”
“Yeah, even I spotted that one,” Simon says, nervously glancing at me. “Asking a transgendered man for tips on making something pretty, right?”
“Right,” I say. “But that’s not all. You know the history between me and my mum, right? The way she’s been pushing me into being the next Charlotte Hutchinson, or Katie Price? She’d love nothing more than for me to become a TV idol.”
“Maybe on a show like Love Island, or Big Brother,” Lee retorts. “She sees you on a show like Robot Wars her head’ll probably explode, I thought you’d appreciate that.”
“Well- maybe?” I say, racking my brains for a counter argument but being forced to agree that Lee actually has a point.
“And you’re the one who chose to study graphic design,” Lee reminds me. “The most memorable robots are either the ones that cause the most carnage, or have a memorable design. So if you have both, well, yeah.”
“O- okay,” I sigh. “I can design some decals for the side, I guess.”
“Can you do a team logo for t-shirts too?” Lee asks.
“Seriously?” I ask.
“Most teams have branded gear,” Lee shrugs. “I’d design the logo myself but, well, kinda busy designing the actual robot. And I want this to be a TEAM effort. I do the building, Neil and Rob can do a team website and computer stuff, you can do the graphics side of things.”
“Okay, sure,” I say. “Happy to help, I guess.”
“And you don’t have to be on TV if you don’t want to,” Lee says with a sigh. “Me and the other guys can hog all the limelight instead!”
“Good,” Simon- who’s still happily driving the robot around the garden- says.
“Though you can have a go at driving anyway if you want,” Lee says, rudely snatching the control out of the 15 year old boy’s hands and placing it in mine.
“Okay, no idea what I’m doing,” I say.
“Ever played Katamari?” Lee asks, smirking at the blank expression on my face. “Okay, A- you should, and B- controls are very similar. Two thumb sticks, one controls each wheel, forwards and backwards. Doesn’t get any simpler than that.”
“Okay, then,” I say, pushing the thumb sticks forward and trying not to giggle as the robot moves under my control. I steer it around for a few seconds and, much to my surprise, quickly get the hang of it. I find myself actually having to concentrate so as not to let out a girlish giggle as the robot does a donut, leaving tyre marks over Lee’s parents’ patio.
“You’re a natural!” Lee laughs. “One thing to remember though is that the controls will be reversed if the robot gets flipped upside down. Easy way to get around that is to think of the back of the robot as being the front. If you could do separate decals for the front and top of the robot I’d be grateful too.”
“Easy enough,” I shrug. “And is it likely to get flipped upside down? I thought you said this thing weighs over a hundred kilos? That’s, like, twice as much as I weigh!”
“You’d be surprised,” Lee laughs, before calling Neil and Rob over for their turn at the controls.
Naturally, Neil, Rob and even Simon leave Lee’s house with wide grins on their faces at the prospect of being on one of their favourite TV shows. I, on the other hand, am terrified. Lee’s probably right when he says that my ‘mother’ would have a fit if she saw me on a show like Robot Wars, but then again, it WOULD be TV exposure, and eventually she would calm down and use it as an excuse to persuade me to send my ‘profile’ to various talent agencies… Despite her words at the football game in August, I’m convinced that she’d accept me as her son if I was a male model, or an actor, or a TV personality like Steve Jones or someone like that. She’d much rather, of course, that I was a female model, or an actress, or a TV personality like Stacey Solomon or Charlotte Hutchinson… And she’s hardly the only person who thinks that.
I don’t know anything about the Robot Wars community, either the fans or the participants. I don’t know their typical ages or genders (though as it’s a nerdy thing I can hazard a guess), and most importantly of all, I don’t know how they’d react to having a transgendered person as part of their community. Obviously, this is a challenge that will face me my whole life- it faced me when I started college, when I started work, when I started attending the church I regularly go to, and I was accepted in all of those places- well, for the most part, anyway- but that doesn’t mean I’ll be accepted everywhere I go. Even the fact that most of the community are likely to be geeky like me isn’t any guarantee- Hannah is proof of that.
The one advantage I do have is that I have plenty of friends who understand my situation perfectly, and they’re all only a Facebook message away if I need them. Unfortunately, each message I send increases the chance of me gaining unwanted ‘fame’…
After a quick dinner, I spend the rest of the evening watching clips of old Robot Wars episodes on YouTube, and I’m forced to admit that it really does look like a lot of fun (even if it’s disappointing that Lister from Red Dwarf isn’t the host anymore). I’m not surprised to find that the roboteers are mostly male and ‘obsessive’ like Lee (and, I suppose, me) and the audience is full of kids, which leads me to believe that they wouldn’t have any ‘problem’ with me, but as always, there’s no guarantee. Worse yet, they may use me as an example of ‘diversity’ and I end up being even more famous than I would have otherwise…
I try to put any thoughts of robots and TV out of my head as I climb into bed, which isn’t easy when you’ve spent all evening thinking about it, so naturally when I wake up on Sunday morning, it’s literally all I can think about. This doesn’t go unnoticed as I walk downstairs in the smart shirt and trousers that make up my church clothes.
“Good morning, Ian!” Grandma says with a cheerful grin. “Sleep well?”
“Okay, ish,” I shrug. “Just got a lot on my mind after yesterday.”
“Oh yes, you were at your friend Lee’s, weren’t you?” Grandma replies. “You never did tell me what you got up to, just came home and jumped straight on your iPad…”
“Oh, umm, Lee’s built a robot,” I explain. “A fighting one, like on the show Robot Wars…”
“Oh,” grandma says with a surprised look- though that look quickly gives way for a happy grin. “How exciting! Has he applied to be on the TV show?”
“Umm, yep,” I reply, surprised by the old woman’s excitement. “Think he needs to, umm, qualify first…”
“Now that WILL be a fun adventure for the four of you!” Grandma says, actually letting out an excited giggle.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I say.
“What- what’s the matter, Ian?” Grandma asks, her face falling.
“I- ugh, I dunno,” I sigh. “I think ‘TV’ and I think ‘mum’…”
“Well that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” grandma says. “It’s not like you’d have to become a girl again to go on Robot Wars, or perform like on one of those Simon Cowell shows. Honestly, I’d be surprised if your mother has even heard of Robot Wars.”
“Well- yeah, but-“ I argue.
“Well, you don’t need to make a decision now,” grandma says. “Plenty of time to talk it over with your friends later. But now we don’t want to be late for church, do we?”
“…No,” I sigh as I follow grandma down to her car, which whisks us to the small inner-city church where we’ll be spending the next couple of hours.
The service goes the same as always- prayers are said, wafers and wine are consumed and Reverend Stubbs delivers a sermon, and at the end of the service, I shake hands with the young vicar as usual, but before we leave the church, grandma can’t help but share my ‘good news’…
“We might be seeing my grandson on a TV screen soon!” Grandma says with a proud grin, blissfully ignorant of the anxious grimace that’s spread over my face.
“Really?” Reverend Stubbs asks. “Anything I might watch?”
“Umm… My friend- that is, me and a few friends are applying for Robot Wars,” I mumble in response.
“Ro- Robot Wars?” Reverend Stubbs asks with the same surprised look grandma had on her face when I told her. And, much like grandma, his facial expression quickly changes to one of sheer delight. “I used to watch that when I was younger! Didn’t realise they were still making it.”
“Think they, umm, started making it again recently,” I mumble. Even him? I think to myself.
“Ah, well let me know when you’re on and I’ll keep an eye out for you!” The reverend says with an excited giggle as we head back to grandma’s car.
“Looks like you’ve got another fan, Ian,” grandma says with a grin, making me sigh as I buckle my seatbelt and we head into the centre of Cardiff. “Don’t be like that! I know it’s making you anxious, and I know why it’s making you anxious, but everyone you’ve told so far has been on your side. I’m excited for you, Reverend Stubbs is excited for you, your friends are obviously excited, as they’re the ones who are responsible for applying for the show! Everyone is behind you, Ian. There’s no need to be so anxious!”
“…I know,” I say, trying not to sigh. “I just- ugh, I dunno. Had so many setbacks lately, I- I-“
“You’re going to look a gift horse in the mouth?” Grandma asks. “There’s a difference between being cautious and being paranoid. You see this Robot Wars thing and all you see is an inevitable confrontation with your mother.”
“And articles in newspapers saying ‘look at the tranny and HER robot’,” I spit, momentarily silencing my grandmother.
“…If any so-called ‘journalist’ writes THAT headline I will sue them myself,” grandma says in a low voice that immediately tells me that she’s not bluffing. “But think of the positives that could come out of it. It could lead to GOOD publicity, it’s something to put on a CV, you will make new contacts, new friends… Might even meet a nice young woman, too.”
“…Really?” I retort. “From Robot Wars?”
“It’s not impossible,” grandma says with a smug smile as we pull up outside my place of work. “Do you have your work uniform with you?”
“Yeah, I’ll- I’ll change in the back,” I say as I jump out of the car, allowing grandma to head home.
Naturally, I muse on grandma’s words as I change out of my smart shirt into my company polo shirt. She’s undoubtedly right when she says that being on TV has countless positives attached to it, and probably the biggest would be ‘not letting my friends down’ over anything that grandma suggested. This is something Lee has clearly wanted for a long time, and I’m not going to stand in the way of his dream- after all, he’s always enabled my dream, something I realise when I stare down at the thin, soft hair growing in what I used to (reluctantly) call my cleavage.
“Alright mate?” Dean asks as I step out onto the shop floor and take my usual spot behind the till. “Should be quiet today, the weather and all that…”
“And everyone will still be indoors playing FIFA, hopefully,” I muse. “No doubt my grandmother would have a thing or two to say about THAT, people playing football on a screen indoors instead of playing it with a real ball down the park…”
“Hey, if it keeps money in our till, I’m not complaining,” Dean shrugs. “Though it is fun to, you know, get your hands dirty from time to time…” Like building a real-life robot instead of coding one into a computer game? I think to myself.
“Yeah,” I say, suddenly remembering grandma’s words about the support of friends. “Dean, do- do you watch Robot Wars?”
“I catch it if I can,” Dean shrugs. “Used to love it when I was a kid, when Craig Charles was the host. Why, you thinking of building a robot?”
“My mate Lee HAS,” I explain, chuckling and rolling my eyes as Dean lets out an excited gasp.
“Ah- seriously?” Dean asks. “Cool! What’s its main weapon?”
“Massive spinning blade at the front,” I reply. “Smashed the hell out of an old shed door last night. Think Lee might’ve put it on YouTube, I know he was having it recorded.”
“Sweet, I’ll see if I can find it,” Dean says, grabbing one of the store’s iPads and opening up YouTube. “Kinda naughty using company Wi-Fi for this but whatever. What’s the robot’s name?”
“Chwilen,” I reply. Within seconds, Dean has the video loaded on the iPad and is happily chuckling away at the sight of the metal machine tearing Lee’s garden to shreds.
“Ooh, yes, THAT will go far!” Dean laughs. “Excited by the prospect of being on TV, then?”
“Less than you’d imagine,” I sigh. “You know the history of me and my mum…”
“Ehh, that’s true…” Dean says with a grimace. “Ah well, I’ll take your place if you don’t want it, heh!”
“You- you’ll have to take that up with Lee,” I chuckle as the first customer enters the store.
The day goes as Sundays usually go- quieter than Saturdays, but still plenty of people coming in to buy games and accessories. Eventually, though, 3:55pm rolls around, and both Dean and I are about to breathe sighs of relief when the door opens and one last customer enters the store- and my nerves instantly fray when I see who it is.
“Seriously?” I whisper to my supervisor as the petite, ginger-haired girl browses the pre-owned games section. “I thought you said she didn’t come in on Sundays?”
“She usually doesn’t,” Dean sighs. “But it’s a free country, not like I can ban her…”
“I know,” I say. “Just have to be stressed for the rest of the day, I guess.” I force my usual neutral expression on my face as Hannah approaches my till- though instead of her usual scowl, today she has a sickeningly sweet smile on her face. She’s also wearing a lot more make-up than usual…
“Hi!” Hannah says with a girlish giggle, handing me a copy of Uncharted 3 for the PlayStation 3. “And, yes, I know, hehe!”
“Know… What?” I ask cautiously as Hannah reaches into her handbag.
“…My ID, of course!” Hannah giggles bashfully. “Good job you’re good looking, hehe!” I exchange a quick look with Dean, who is clearly as flummoxed as I am, before glancing down at Hannah’s student ID- and all of a sudden, things become a lot clearer.
“Chloe Morgan Barnard,” I read aloud. “Born 27th of February 2001.”
“Which makes me sixteen, which means I can buy this game,” the ginger girl- who, on closer examination, is obviously different to Hannah in a lot of subtle ways- says, handing me her money. “Did- ahh… Did you think I was my sister?”
“…She does come in here a lot,” I mumble.
“She is a TOTAL nerd,” Chloe snorts. “Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you, hehe!”
“It’s not her worst characteristic,” I spit, immediately grimacing as I realise I’ve not only insulted a customer, but a family member of my current customer. What happens next, though, comes as a total surprise to myself and Dean.
“Ugh, tell me about it,” Chloe spits. “You know, over the summer holiday, she went to the beach and got chatting to a guy, only to find out that he was transgendered?”
“Fancy that,” I say, grimacing again as Dean barely suppresses a snort of laughter.
“Like, he was born a girl, but now living as a boy,” Chloe continues. “Hannah went BALLISTIC, actually said she was going to accuse him of raping her. Probably would’ve done if I hadn’t pointed out that they were in the middle of a crowded beach and she’d have had a really hard time trying to prove it.” My stomach churns at the thought of facing a criminal charge as severe as rape, even if, as Chloe says, the charge would’ve been impossible to prove- the mere accusation would’ve undoubtedly destroyed my life…
“Does- does she ever talk about, you know, him?” I ask.
“Not really,” Chloe shrugs. “She’s always been, you know, ‘wrong in the head’ like that… She HATES gay people, thinks they’re disgusting, reckons all Muslims are terrorists, hell, she even admires that orange-faced arsehole in the White House!”
“So- so you’ve got no problem with, umm, LGBT people, then?” I ask, smirking despite myself as Dean gives me a playful elbow in my side.
“Would I be wearing this if I did?” Chloe asks, unzipping her raincoat and proudly displaying the ‘Out of Heaven’ t-shirt underneath. Slightly more noteworthy, however, is her necklace, which is shaped like a Star Trek chevron… “Got tickets to see them at Wembley Arena later in the month. REALLY looking forward to it, hehe!”
“Cool,” I say, trying to wrap my head around the idea that a girl might like Out of Heaven AND Star Trek- and remembering grandma’s advice not to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially as, unlike her sister, Chloe’s already stated that she has no problem with transgendered people. And she thinks I’m good-looking…
“It drives Hannah MAD, of course,” Chloe giggles. “Almost as mad as my Jeremy Corbyn t-shirt, hehe!”
“Yeah, I know someone like that,” I say, leaning forward onto the counter and grinning happily. “Though she’s my grandmother rather than my sister, heh.”
“Oh my god,” Chloe says, a look of delight creeping across her face. “I am SO calling her ‘grandma’ when I get home, that’ll drive her mad, hehe!”
“Heh,” I chuckle, my grin widening as Dean gives me another elbow in my ribs, reminding me that the shop has technically closed and I’m still here flirting with a customer. “Umm, you know, it’s kinda- kinda a small world, heh.”
“Why do you say that?” Chloe asks.
“Ian Freeman,” I say, extending my hand, which Chloe shakes with a confused look on her face. “Born ‘Kayleigh-Ann Walker’ just under eighteen years ago, and called a ‘freak’ by your sister just over two months ago.”
“Oh- you- no way!” Chloe giggles girlishly. “You- but you’re hot!”
“Thanks, you’re pretty cute too!” I reply, giggling as I earn a squeak of excitement from the ginger-haired girl.
“Ugh, I- I am so, SO sorry for my sister,” Chloe babbles. “She is SUCH a-“
“Don’t worry about it,” I say. “I’ve met the better Barnard girl now, heh!”
“Hehe!” Chloe squeaks excitedly. Okay, I think to myself. Second time lucky…
“We- we, umm, we’ve got to close the shop now,” I say with an exaggerated sigh. “Do- do you, you know, want to get a coffee some time?”
“Sure!” Chloe almost immediately responds, making me giggle.
“Oh- cool!” I say, taking a scrap of paper from behind the till and a pen. “This is my Facebook page, add me when you, umm, want…”
“Will do!” Chloe squeaks, taking the web address and leaving the shop with an obvious spring in her step.
“And you didn’t even tell her about your robot,” Dean teases as he locks the door after Chloe, making me roll my eyes.
“First, it’s not MY robot,” I retort.
“…And second?” Dean asks.
“And second…” I say with a grin. “She is REALLY into me!”
“Hell yeah she is!” Dean laughs, giving me a firm pat on the back as we finish cashing up and locking up the store.
Naturally, I have a smile on my face as I walk through my front door, something that doesn’t go unnoticed by the other resident of the house.
“Good day at work, then?” Grandma asks.
“Definitely one of the better ones,” I chuckle.
“Your colleagues are excited about the robot, then?” Grandma asks. “I’m surprised you’re not over at Lee’s house playing with it some more.”
“Think he needs to work on it tonight, we’d just be in the way,” I say. “No, I- I kinda, umm, got talking to a- a girl, who, um, came into the shop…”
“Oh, okay,” grandma says. “Is she nice?”
“Mm,” I mumble in the affirmative. “She’s cute, she likes the same things I do… Though she is- do you remember when- when I went to the beach? That girl who insulted me?”
“I remember how miserable you were afterwards,” grandma says. “Don’t tell me it’s the same girl, or one of her friends?”
“…Sort of in the middle,” I sigh. “Her sister, younger sister I think.”
“Oh,” grandma says. “You know that won’t be fun when you go to meet her family.”
“Assuming we even end up going out,” I say.
“…But you DO want her to be your girlfriend, don’t you?” Grandma asks.
“…Yes, probably,” I reply. “Almost certainly, like I said, she’s cute, she’s-“
“Well I’m sure she’s very nice,” grandma says. “I would just be cautious if I were you.”
“Didn’t you tell me this morning not to look a gift horse in the mouth?” I ask, biting my lip as my question silences the elderly woman.
“…Yes I did,” grandma concedes. “But I also said that being cautious wasn’t the problem, being paranoid was. Though I am pleased to see the smile back on your face. Should’ve realised that the only thing that would do that would be a girl. Typical seventeen year old boy, heh.”
“Hardly ‘typical’, heh,” I snort.
“Does this girl think you’re ‘typical’?” Grandma asks, making me start to blush.
“…Maybe,” I mumble. “What- what’s for tea?”
“Roast beef, as usual,” grandma says. “You can come and help me with the vegetables. I trust that I don’t need to remind you of my rules regarding girls in this house?”
“You don’t, no,” I say, making grandma smile as she hands me a bowl of potatoes to peel. The ‘rules’ are, obviously, no sex under her roof (well, when she’s there, anyway) and the girl must leave before grandma goes to bed. However, there are no rules against me staying at the girl’s house (as proved by my short-lived relationship with Ella)- though as grandma pointed out, that’s not a very pleasant prospect when it comes to Chloe’s house…
After dinner- which is as delicious and filling as usual- I grab my iPad to watch more Robot Wars clips, and a smile quickly spreads across my face when I see the notification ‘Chloe Barnard has sent you a friend request’. Obviously, I approve the request, and mere seconds later my iPad pings to inform me of a new instant message.
‘Hey Ian,’ Chloe’s message reads. ‘Thanks for approving my request!’
‘You’re welcome,’ I reply with a ‘grinning’ emoji. ‘You at home>’
‘Yeah,’ Chloe replies. ‘My brother’s come round so I’m trying to avoid him.’
‘You got a brother and a sister?’ I ask.
‘1 brother, 2 sisters,’ Chloe replies. ‘All annoying in their own way. Matt is just as Nazi as Hannah, probably more even. Rosie looks up to Matt so she’s a pain too.’
‘Aww,’ I type with a ‘hugging’ emoji that Chloe immediately reciprocates. ‘Only child myself. Don’t even live with parents anymore, live with my grandma, parents didn’t react well to my coming out.’
‘Aww,’ Chloe types with another ‘hugging’ emoji that I happily reciprocate. ‘Your parents live in Cardiff too?’
‘London,’ I reply. ‘Dad works for a big company, mum spends his money and spends the whole day pretending she’s important. She was a serious ‘stage mom’.’
‘Sounds horrible,’ Chloe types with a ‘sad’ emoji.
‘It wasn’t fun,’ I type. ‘Much happier in Cardiff. More friends, genuine friends too.’
‘I can tell from your photos,’ Chloe types with a ‘winking’ emoji, which I reply to with a ‘blushing’ emoji, which earns a ‘sticking out tongue’ emoji in return from my new friend.
‘There’s a lot of nerdiness in those photos,’ I type with another ‘blushing’ emoji.
‘Nerds are cool,’ Chloe types. ‘Some are even sexy!’ Yet more ‘blushing’, ‘winking’ and ‘sticking out tongue’ emojis are exchanged.
‘Even when playing Star Trek Attack Wing?’ I ask with a ‘sticking out tongue’ emoji of my own.
‘ESPECIALLY then,’ Chloe replies with a ‘grinning’ emoji. I start typing a response, but only get down a couple of letters when Chloe sends down another message- a much more urgent one than her previous one: ‘OMG!’
‘?’ I reply.
‘OMG!’ Chloe repeats. ‘OMG OMG OMG!!!!!!’
‘What’s up?’ I type, my panic levels rising at the ginger girl’s sudden outburst.
‘YOU KNOW STEPH ABBOTT!!!!!’ Chloe types, making me sigh and roll my eyes as she follows up her message with a photo from my page of me with the aforementioned singer.
‘We’ve met a couple of times,’ I type. ‘We did a photoshoot together for the Sunday Globe earlier in the year, we kept in touch on Facebook. I used to have a girlfriend in London so I’d go down from time to time, that sort of thing.’
‘Oh my god that is so awesome!!!!!!!!’ Chloe types. ‘OMG does that mean you’re one of the IX?’
‘The ‘IX’?’ I ask.
‘I remember seeing that Steph Abbott and Jamie-Lee Burke did a photoshoot with a few other transgendered people,’ Chloe types. ‘They all got a tattoo afterward like the Fellowship from LotR, did you get a tattoo too?’
‘Only seventeen, not allowed,’ I type with a ‘winking’ emoji. ‘But yes, I was one of that nine!’ I giggle as Chloe’s side of the conversation becomes a barrage of ‘shocked’, ‘grinning’ and ‘shaking with excitement’ emojis.
‘When you said you lived in London I was going to ask if you knew the Angels,’ Chloe types. ‘Figured that’d be too much of a stereotype lol.’
‘Not every transgendered person in London knows each other,’ I reply with a ‘sticking out tongue’ emoji. ‘Though if my mum had her way I’d probably already be Steph Abbott’s best friend.’
‘She pushed you hard, then?’ Chloe asks with ‘sad’ and ‘hugging’ emojis.
‘Put it this way- I’m the only 17 year old male Star Trek fan who works in a videogame store who knows how to do a grand jete,’ I type. ‘Whether I like it or not.’
‘My little sister does ballet,’ Chloe types with a ‘rolling eyes’ emoji. ‘Me and Hannah dropped it when I was ten but Rosie just got really into it, she is such a girly girl.’
‘Tbf from your photos you’re not exactly a tomboy,’ I reply, earning a ‘bashful giggle’ emoji from my new friend.
‘I do like fashion and make-up,’ Chloe replies. ‘Actually do fashion design at college, but I really like designing costumes more. Me and Hannah have sometimes gone to conventions dressed as TV show characters.’ I giggle at the ‘blushing’ emoji that follows Chloe’s message, wasting no time in replying with a ‘hugging’ emoji.
‘I do graphic design,’ I type, happy to finally be steering the conversation away from celebrities. ‘Probably applying to uni next year.’
‘OMG you should go to uni in London!’ Chloe types, making my heart sink- I know where this is going… ‘That way you can hang out with the Angels too! Then in 2019 I can go to uni in London and maybe you can introduce me?’ It’s all I can do not to let out a very loud, very long swear word at Chloe’s message. Here I was, thinking she was a sweet, nerdy, intellectual girl, when instead she’s another Georgie, superficial and celebrity-obsessed…
‘Maybe,’ I type.
‘Something wrong?’ Chloe asks after a brief pause, making me sigh. ‘Have I done something?’ Erm, yes, I think to myself.
‘It’s not like I’m BEST friends with the Angels or Out of Heaven,’ I type. ‘I don’t chat with them the way we’re chatting now, if you’re expecting to become part of their inner circle, you’re going to be disappointed.’
‘OMG do you really think that’s why I’m chatting with you?’ Chloe asks with an ‘angry’ emoji. ‘I didn’t even know you knew the Angels when I sent you that friend request!’
‘Sorry,’ I type with a ‘blushing’ emoji.
‘It just came as a surprise that I get chatting to a hot guy and find out they personally know one of my favourite bands,’ Chloe types, earning another ‘blushing’ emoji from me- which is exactly what my real face is doing too. ‘Most guys who were trying to hit on me and saw me wearing an Out of Heaven t-shirt would probably fire at me every photo they have of them with the girls.’
‘I don’t want to lean on that,’ I type. ‘I’m not famous, I don’t want to pretend that I am either. I can’t stand wannabes.’
‘You’re hardly a ‘wannabe’,’ Chloe types. ‘Though I get what you mean, I think- you’ve spent so much time being someone else, you want someone to like you for who you are?’
‘Exactly,’ I type, my ‘smiling’ emoji again reflecting my flesh and blood face. ‘Sorry again for implying you were- you know.’
‘It’s okay,’ Chloe types with a ‘smiling’ emoji of her own. ‘Guess I was a little full-on. And yes, I like you for you!’ This time, I reply to Chloe’s ‘sticking out tongue’ emoji with a ‘giggling’ one.
‘I like you too,’ I type. ‘And I might be able to arrange a meeting with Angels or Out of Heaven…’ Much to my surprise, my ‘winking’ emoji gets a ‘rolling eyes’ emoji in return.
‘Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Freeman,’ Chloe types with a ‘sticking out tongue’ emoji. ‘Doesn’t make you any less sexy if you never appear on TV!’ Okay, I think to myself. Decision time- I can easily ‘reel her in’ with the robot, if I don’t mind being a hypocrite (and committing myself to being in the on-screen team), or I can do things the hard way and let her find out later… Despite my best efforts, I find my male ego (and, more notably, my libido) taking over, and I type the next message almost on automatic pilot.
‘Does that include Robot Wars?’ I type with a ‘winking’ emoji, grinning as I get a ‘shocked’ one in reply.
‘You’ve built a robot!?!?!?’ Chloe asks with more ‘shocked’ emojis.
‘One of my friends has, but I’m on the team,’ I reply.
‘Can I see it? Can I have a go with it?’ Chloe asks.
‘I’ll have to clear it with him,’ I reply. ‘But I don’t see why not. Most first dates don’t involve taking turns driving 100kg metal boxes though!’
‘Most first dates are lame,’ Chloe replies with a ‘sticking out tongue’ emoji. ‘This sounds awesome!’
‘It’s a date, then?’ I ask.
‘Hell yeah it is!’ Chloe replies with a ‘grinning’ emoji that actually makes me light-headed with excitement.
Naturally, when I eventually go to bed, I don’t get much sleep. My life has had so many ups and downs that sometimes it feels like I have far more ‘downs’ than ‘ups’. One thing’s for certain, though, Chloe is shaping up to be as much an ‘up’ as her sister was a ‘down’- maybe even more so. Assuming she’s okay going out with a boy who doesn’t have anything that can be ‘up’…
My sleeplessness results in me being extra tired when I get up on Monday morning, something that grandma turns a blind eye to (having almost certainly guessed the reason for my fatigue) but my friends immediately pick up on when I meet up with them at the college entrance.
“All-nighter, then?” Neil asks as I walk up to my friends and barely stifle a yawn. “What’s her name?”
“Chwilen,” I retort, laughing as I earn an angry stare from Lee.
“…She loves me and only me,’ Lee retorts. “Unless of course you mean you were up all night making designs for her?”
“Mate, if hell freezes over and you ever do get a girlfriend, you’d better get one who doesn’t mind playing second fiddle to a robot!” Neil says, making us all laugh as Lee ‘punishes’ him with a playful shove.
Naturally, the playful ribbing continues as we meet up for lunch- perpetrated in part by me offering Lee a ‘team logo’ which consists of a love heart with the letters ‘C’ and ‘L’ in it.
“How many times, exactly, have you been sarcastic to us in the past?” I ask, making the black-haired boy sigh loudly.
“We take the piss because we care,” Rob says.
“And we want revenge,” Neil says, making me and Rob snort with laughter.
“…Okay, okay,” Lee sighs. “As long as you all realise that she loves ME and the best you three arseholes will ever be are ‘friends WITHOUT benefits’.”
“We could never come between a love so strong,” Rob snorts. “How is she doing, anyway?”
“Purring like a kitten,” Lee says with a proud grin. “A kitten with a massive metal blade on the front, anyway!”
“You still want our drinks cans?” I ask. “Or can we finally start actually recycling them?”
“You ARE recycling them,” Lee retorts. “Better they go to Chwilen then making something useless, like a car door or something like that. And I’ll always need spare body panels, that sort of thing. She’s going to take a lot of punishment when she eventually gets into the arena…”
“You can actually see him starting to tear up at that thought,” Neil says, laughing as Lee gives him yet another shove. I laugh and start to tuck into my chicken burger, when I’m suddenly distracted by the last thing I expected to see.
There, all the way across the dining hall, is the familiar petite body and red hair of the girl I spent most of yesterday evening talking to. And it’s obviously her and not her sister, or a lookalike, or another random girl. Her tight top, long pencil skirt and high-heeled shoes is the trademark look of Kayla Ford, her fashion idol. Her make-up is identical to the style she wore yesterday, and the chevron-shaped pendant she’s wearing around her neck is the ultimate giveaway. To my friend’s bemusement, I crane my neck to get a better look, which results in my eyes meeting Chloe’s- and a wide grin quickly spreading across the ginger girl’s face as she scurries toward where me and my friends are sat.
“I- Ian?” Chloe asks.
“What- what are you doing here?” I ask, standing up and being immediately surprised (not to mention embarrassed in front of my friends) when Chloe dumps her meal on our table and gives me a tight hug and a gentle kiss on my cheek.
“I study here, silly!” Chloe giggles. “I told you I was at college, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, but-“ I retort. “There’s, umm, more than one college in, umm, in Cardiff…”
“Get a room,” Lee snorts, the devilish grin quickly returning to his face.
“Oh, umm,” I mumble. “Guys, this is Chloe, we, umm, met yesterday, Chloe, this is Rob, Neil and Lee… Yeah.”
“Nice to meet you all,” Chloe says with a giggle. “So… Which one of you built the robot, then?”
“Me!” Lee says, his devilish grin changing into a smug one.
“Ugh, SO cool,” Chloe sighs. “Ian was telling me about it last night…”
“Yeah, it’s not Ian’s to talk about,” Lee says. “I’m guessing he promised you a test drive as well?”
“…He said he’d talk it over with you,” Chloe says, flashing a devilish grin at me as I feel my cheeks redden.
“I think we can arrange something,” Lee says as Chloe becomes distracted by the corner of the dining hall she came from.
“Ugh, think my friends are waiting for me,” the ginger-haired girl says, before giving me another hug. “This is so cool that we go to the same college! What a coincidence, eh?”
“Yeah,” I laugh, sitting down as Chloe flashes me a grin, grabs her lunch and heads back to her friends. I pick up my burger again, ready to tuck in, when I suddenly realise that all three of my friends have stopped what they’re doing and are staring expectantly at me. “…What?”
“Mate,” Rob says quietly. “Nice going! She is cute!”
“No wonder you’re knackered today,” Lee says. “I won’t tell Chwilen you’re cheating on her, then…”
“Thank you, thank you,” I say with a smug grin.
“Mate,” Neil says, a look of concern spreading across her face. “Guys, didn’t- didn’t you notice?”
“Hard NOT to notice,” Lee says. “Interpret ‘hard’ however you want.”
“Didn’t she look familiar to you?” Neil asks. “Similar to someone we met on the beach a couple of months ago…?”
“Oh- yeah, she’s Hannah’s sister,” I say matter-of-factly, snorting with laughter as Neil nearly chokes on his lunch.
“Her- her sister!?” Neil asks. “Have- have you, umm, told her-“
“Yes, I’ve told her,” I sigh. “She’s cool with it. Chloe’s, like, the white sheep of her family, nothing like Hannah.”
“It’s gonna be fun when you meet her family for the first time,” Neil says, the shocked expression not leaving his face.
“You’re not the first person to have said that,” I say. “It’s a bridge I’ll cross when I get to it.”
“And to be fair to her,” Neil says quietly. “She- she’s not as hot as Ella, you know?”
“…Maybe objectively speaking,” I shrug. “But she’s cute, she’s funny, she likes the things I like… I’ve got a good feeling about this, you know?”
“Well- okay,” Rob says. “I’ve just got the feeling we may end up picking up the pieces again…”
“Yeah, well, I’m the only one doing any ‘picking up’ right now,” I sigh.
“If you insist,” Neil sighs.
“…In slightly drier news,” Lee says. “I can put Chwilen together and give you all a go tonight, if you want.”
“Sounds good,” Rob says with a grin.
“Can-“ I begin, before being immediately interrupted.
“Yes, you can bring your bloody girlfriends along,” Lee says, looking tiredly at me and Neil as wide grins spread across our faces.
A few hours later, as the sun starts to set, I find myself once again stood in Lee’s back garden with the control for Chwilen in my hands and the robot itself almost literally dancing around the garden. By my side is the girl I unexpectedly ran into today, watching the robot intently- a noticeable difference from Neil’s girlfriend, who’s spent the entire evening fiddling with her phone and barely acknowledging anyone’s existence- including her boyfriend.
“You actually are really good at this,” Lee says. “Really coordinated, you know?”
“Who’d have thought that twelve years of ballet would actually have a purpose,” I say with a snort of laughter.
“Hell, if that’s what it is, I’LL sign up for classes,” Lee laughs.
“Five years of ballet here,” Chloe says, leaning in close to me and reaching for the control. “Give me a go!”
“You heard the lady,” Lee says, making me playfully roll my eyes and sigh as Lee takes the control from me and hands it to Chloe. “Have you ever played Katamari?”
“I love Katamari!” Chloe gasps excitedly. “So each stick controls a wheel, forward and backward, right?”
“Ian,” Lee says with a serious expression on his face. “Marry her now. Seriously.”
“Oh piss off,” I say, even as I find myself exchanging a smile with the ginger-haired girl.
“I’m not having Chwilen as one of my bridesmaids,” Chloe snorts. “Even though she’s asked me to be maid of honour when she marries you, Lee.”
“…I changed my mind,” Lee snorts. “Dump her.”
“Piss off,” Chloe says with a giggle, making the robot’s owner smirk as she expertly steers it around the course that’s been laid out in the garden.
“…Welcome to Team Chwilen, I guess!” Lee says with a smirk.
Chloe’s turn only lasts a few minutes before Lee has to recharge the batteries, and while he’s tinkering with the robot, I head into the kitchen, accompanied by the petite ginger-haired girl who’s been hanging off my arm all evening.
“I really like your friends,” Chloe says as we sit down in the quiet room. “Even Lee. Well, when he isn’t talking, anyway.”
“Yeah, I always prefer him that way too,” I say with a grin. “I think they like you too, you know?”
“Yeah, I’m feeling that,” Chloe says. “Glad what my sister did didn’t turn them off TOO much, heh.”
“It hasn’t turned me off,” I say with a smile. “Not that you can tell, heh.”
“Aww,” Chloe sighs. “How you use what you have is more important than what you have, you know? My last boyfriend was hung like a horse but useless in bed…”
“NOT really something a potential boyfriend wants to hear, heh,” I say, making Chloe blush.
“Sorry,” the ginger girl mumbles. “But, you know? Jamie-Lee Burke’s husband was pre-op transsexual guy, he was obviously more than good enough for her, right? I mean, you guys ‘know your way around’, that sort of thing?”
“My last girlfriend didn’t have any complaints,” I say, making Chloe bite her lip and me feel bad for ‘retaliating’ to her comment about her previous boyfriend. “Umm… She wasn’t, you know, as much ‘one of the guys’ as you, heh.”
“Yeah…” Chloe whispers. “I’m nowhere near as much, you know, ‘one of the guys’ as you are, though!”
“Yeah, but, you know,” I reply. “There’s a bit more of a reason for that, heh.”
“Mm,” Chloe muses. “But, you know? I- I get, you know, girls like Jamie-Lee Burke or Stephanie Abbott, girls who’ve felt that they don’t belong in their bodies, who’ve always wanted to be ‘one of the girls’ but they couldn’t, because of, you know, society, that sort of thing…”
“But it’s easier for a girl to like things like Robot Wars and Star Trek than it is for a guy to like fashion and make-up?” I ask.
“Kinda, yeah,” Chloe mumbles. “You- you don’t have to be an Angel, or want to be one, just because you’re a girl. You can be just as tomboyish as you are and most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid, you know?”
“So why am I having testosterone pumped through my veins?” I ask, smiling as Chloe nods. “Because I’m not a tomboy. I’m a boy, simple as that. Yeah, I can dress like I am, not wear skirts, not even wear make-up. I can ignore fashion magazines and only read comic books, I can get rid of my Sex and the City DVDs and only watch Star Trek, I can do all those things and call myself a girl without any issue. But that’s not who I am inside. It’s not about what I do with my free time, or even how I’m seen by others, it’s how I feel inside. Being a girl, it- it just felt WRONG. Like, on an atomic level, it’s just not who I am or who I was supposed to be. You’re not the first person to, you know, ‘question’ me, my counsellor in London thought at first that it was a knee-jerk reaction to my mum pushing me so hard, but it isn’t. How can I put this… Imagine a room with twenty people in it. Nineteen of them are women, dressed identically to me, wearing no make-up, even with the same hairstyle as me. The twentieth person is me. I would be the odd one out. I would be the one who didn’t fit in, and I never have.”
“I- I think I understand,” Chloe whispers.
“All I’ve ever wanted to be is a boy,” I say with a gentle smile that the ginger girl mirrors.
“You know,” Chloe says, “by your logic, there’s no reason why you, as a boy, couldn’t like, say, ballet, or fashion, or-“
“Or the Angels?” I ask, making Chloe blush. “Or Out of Heaven? I guess not, I suppose. And they are pretty cool girls.”
“And you’re a pretty cool boy,” Chloe says as our eyes lock with each other.
What feels like an eternity passes as we lean in toward each other, and then a surge of energy passes through my whole body as our lips meet. I don’t know how long the kiss lasts- our mouths don’t even open- but by the end of it, I feel like I’m about to melt off of my chair, and it’s obvious that Chloe feels the same way.
“Wow- okay then,” the ginger girl breathlessly gasps.
“Yeah,” I whisper, before leaning in to give Chloe another, long kiss. I shiver with excitement as Chloe reaches underneath my top, giving my firm abdominal muscles a squeeze, while at the same time, I tentatively lower my hand to her leg, giving her nylon-covered thigh a squeeze as I gingerly explore underneath her skirt...
Unsurprisingly, both Chloe and I have wide grins on our faces when we emerge from the kitchen a few minutes later, our fingers interlinked. The smile only widens as the evening goes on, especially when I arrive home to find a notification on my iPad- ‘confirm that you are in a relationship with Chloe Barnard’. Obviously, I press ‘confirm’, and the rush that action gives me is almost as great as the feeling I got from kissing my girlfriend- a sentence I hope to use a lot from now on, ‘my girlfriend’.
However, I’m almost immediately reminded that while I may be on a high now, it won’t be all smooth sailing from here on. The first reaction to our news is from Chloe’s sister- and unsurprisingly, the reaction is ‘angry’. The next one, however, is from an unexpected source- from my ‘mentor’ Stuart Milton, who not only gives the post a ‘like’ but takes the time to type out a comment. It may only read ‘nice’ followed by a smiling emoji, but that’s more than I could have expected from him. I can only imagine Chloe’s reaction when the news gets ‘love’ reactions from Jamie-Lee Burke and Stephanie Abbott, as well as Abbey-Gayle and the rest of her gang- apart from one person. Despite the fact that I can see that she’s online, and that she must have seen the news, Ella doesn’t react to the news at all, not so much as a ‘like’. I know it shouldn’t affect me- I have, after all, moved on- but it’s something I just can’t shake from my mind.
For now, though, I have a reason to look forward to the future, and that’s just what I’m going to do. Grandma’s right- being cautious is okay, but I’ll never be happy if I don’t seize the opportunities that present themselves. And over the next few weeks, I plan on doing a lot of ‘seizing’- especially of my new girlfriend!
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