Five Candles

Sometimes we'll do anything not to rock the boat.
But what happens if despite everything it does rock?

Then everyone ends up in the water.

Five Candles
by Bronwen Welsh
Copyright © 2013 by Bronwen Welsh
All Rights Reserved.

Image Credit: Title Picture purchased and licensed for publishing from ~Sephrena.


I'm going to mangle Miss Jane Austen's famous opening line and say “It is a truth universally acknowledged that two people employed at the same place of work should not start a personal relationship.” That they do so is of course inevitable, and sometimes it ends well and sometimes it ends in tears. I'm sure you're already guessing how it ended up for me.

But first things first. As an added complication I'm one of those people often referred to as a 'transgendered woman'. It's a term I hate because I regard myself as a woman, pure and simple. I just started off life born into the wrong body by a cruel trick of nature. Thankfully in this modern age, steps can be taken to correct the mistakes that nature made. You'll be glad to know that I'm not going into great detail on my early life, since I'm sure you heard it all before, or something like it.

I was born to loving and understanding parents and I will never forget how fortunate that made me. Coming after the birth of four girls, I was the longed-for son, and I can only guess how my parents, my father especially, felt when that son quickly began to show traits that indicated he was far from happy about the body he inhabited. My mother, who had been a primary school teacher before retiring to bring up her family, even home-schooled me so that I did not suffer the torments that other school children would surely have inflicted upon me, so there was another blessing.

As I grew older, there followed interviews with pyschologists and psychiatrists, and people who specialised in 'gender dysphoria' (another hated term). Later still I was put on hormones, and finally when it became as clear to everyone else as it had been to me for many years that I wasn't going to change my mind about things, there was the trip to Thailand where a kindly surgeon used his skills to make my body match my mind as close as it is humanly possible to do at this stage of medical expertise. My body was almost that of a woman, almost but not quite.

Because I wanted to live my life as a woman, I deliberately chose a 'woman's occupation', going to secretarial college and came out with various brightly coloured pieces of paper proclaiming my typing and general computer skills. I found a position in an accountants office which employed about a dozen other women and it looked like I was set for life, or at least for however long I wanted to do the job.

I had no boyfriend. Don't get me wrong, I was as attracted to men as any woman would be, but something held me back from getting too involved. Was it a fear that if we became intimate they would sense that something was 'not quite right' in that department? Yes, that was probably it. And then along came Michael. He was an accountant and joined the company a few months after I did, and caused quite a stir among the female staff, both single and married! He was single, 'tall dark and handsome' as the saying goes, with a devastating smile that would make any woman go weak at the knees. It hardly needs saying that I was one of them.

Maybe I had a slight advantage over the other women. Have you noticed how they dress for comfort rather than style or glamour nowadays? Take a walk down the street and count the women — I guarantee that on a day of average temperature (so not to skew the results), ninety-five percent of them are wearing pants. I on the other hand had had enough of wearing pants to last me a lifetime, and almost always wore skirts and dresses. Men respond to that, they really do, and it puzzles me how women, who everyone acknowledges are brighter than men, don't seem to realise this. Are comfortable clothes that important to them?

So there I was at my desk wearing a knee-length skirt and showing off my legs in tan hose and high heels, when every other woman's legs were covered up in pants, so was it really a surprise that Michael noticed me? At first it was just dropping by my desk to say 'Hi',and then later it was 'Do you want to grab a sandwich for lunch?' It wasn't too long before it was 'Are you free for dinner?' (of course I was), and finally I overcame my inhibitions and we went to bed together. To my surprise and delight (for I was sure he was not a virgin himself) he made no negative comment, but rather any number of positive ones, and couldn't wait to follow up the first experience with a repeat, the first of many.

Life was good, better than I could possibly hope for, but of course I hadn't told him about my past, and the first tiny cloud appeared on the horizon when one day we were watching television together and a programme came on about Thailand's 'ladyboys'. Michael watched it in silence for a minute or two and then said rather abruptly “Do you mind if we change channels?”

“Of course not,” I replied but deep inside me the warning bells started to ring. If I told him my past would he see me as being exactly the same as one of these 'ladyboys'? No, it was better to keep quiet.

In the fullness of time I got to meet his parents and you will think me the archetypal 'dumb blonde' if I couldn't see what was coming, but somehow I didn't, probably because I realised how impossible that would be. Children were very important in Michael's family. They were Catholics and among his siblings and cousins the number of children varied from five to eight each. When I wrote a while back that the surgeon had made my body 'almost' that of a woman, I was of course referring to the fact that even the best surgeon can't give a woman like me a womb or uterus. How I wish they could.

It was the thirteenth of February and we were in bed together. Our love-making had been quite intense. Even though we had now been going to bed together for almost four months, the novelty certainly hadn't worn off, and if anything our encounters were even more satisfying. For some reason that evening Michael seemed slightly distracted. He probably didn't even realise it himself but I certainly did. Don't get me wrong, our orgasms were right up there in the 'earth-moving' sphere, but after the second one, Michael seemed a bit restless, and finally he slipped out of bed and returned a couple of minutes later, holding something small in his hand. Then he started what sounded like a rehearsed speech, and suddenly to my horror I realised where this was going.

“Sue,” he began. “We've been going out about four of five months now. I realise that I love you very much and that there will never be another person who I would want to be my wife as much as you. So would you do me that honour?”

I'm sure I was now white as a sheet. So many thoughts were racing through my brain. Why oh why hadn't I told him all about me before, when there was a chance that neither of us would get really hurt? Now it was too late. He had opened his hand and revealed a small box. He hadn't opened it but I was under no illusions about the contents. I knew he expected an instant 'Yes'. I couldn't give it to him of course, but neither could I say it while we were both lying naked in bed.

“Do you mind if we get up?” I asked.

Michael looked puzzled but he nodded his agreement, so we got out of bed, both found our robes and went into the lounge-room and sat on the sofa. My heart was pounding now. I had to tell him — there was no other option, but it was so hard to do when I knew that at the end of it he would be walking out of my life forever. Michael sense my distress and clasped my hands in his as I started to speak.

“Michael, I will never forget the lovely compliment you have paid me but I can't accept.”

I saw the puzzled look on his face and went on “You belong to a lovely Catholic family and I know how important children are to them and to you. The fact is (my voice was shaking now) I can't have children.”

“I don't understand,” Michael replied. “How can you know? Have you had tests done? Have you been ill? Is there something that can be done?”

This was getting so difficult. “No, nothing can be done,” I replied. I hesitated, and then it came out in a rush “The fact is I don't have a womb.”

Michael was looking so confused, trying to get his head around what I was saying.

“So you had it removed. Did you have cancer?”

“No Michael. Oh god, this is so difficult. The fact is I never did have a womb, I wasn't born with one. I was born in the wrong body.” There. It was out and finally the implications of what I was saying was dawning on Michael.

“You mean you're, you're?”

“Yes Michael, I'm a transgendered woman, and I'm so, so sorry I didn't tell you before but I didn't want to lose you. I was looking for the right time and somehow it never came.”

His hands slowly slipped away from mine as I knew that they would.

“I'm sorry,” he said “I can't get my head around this. You look so, so...”

“Female?” I said.

“Yes, exactly,” he replied.

“That's because I am, in everything except the one thing that matters most.”

Poor Michael. He looked so hurt, and it was all my fault.

“I'd better get dressed,” he said, and slowly walked back to the bedroom. When he returned a few minutes later, I was still sitting on the sofa. Somehow I had held it together. I was determined he wouldn't see me cry, because he might think that was a last desperate ploy to make him stay, and I couldn't do that to him. Michael stood there for a moment looking irresolute.

“I guess this is 'goodbye'” I said. There was so much pain on his face I could hardly bear to look at him. He nodded slowly and then turned and walked to the front door of my apartment, closing it quietly behind him.

If I was writing a melodrama, this is the point at which I should throw myself on the couch weeping. Well, I was already on the couch, and far from a dam bursting, it started off very slowly. Tears started trickling down my face, and they grew and grew, followed by great wracking sobs that shook my body. To think that only a couple of hours ago I was so happy, and now this. I had been so stupid. Couldn't I see what was coming? Couldn't I have headed it off before it got to this stage? No, I wanted this wonderful romance to go on for ever, and that doesn't happen in real life, not when one person really doesn't know the other at all.

Eventually the sobs eased in frequency and intensity, and then stopped altogether, just leaving a dull ache in my throat. I couldn't face going back to bed, not the bed that still bore the imprint of Michael's body, so I stayed on the couch and finally slept fitfully. I heard the alarm go off in the bedroom and it was time to get up and face another day, so I got to my feet and walked into the bathroom.

I was shocked when I looked in the mirror. The face that looked back at me seemed to have aged overnight. I considered ringing work and saying I was sick, but how long could I keep that up? I showered and dressed in black which suited my mood. Then I had a black coffee and set about trying to disguise the damage with makeup. It was a testament to my lack of success that the first thing Betty said to me at work was “Sue, you look terrible.”

“I had gastro last night,” I replied. “I didn't get much sleep but I'm feeling better now.”

“Well I'm sorry to say you don't look it,” Betty replied. “If you need to go home early, just let me know.”

I thanked her and sat down at my desk and started to work, but my personal thoughts kept intruding. What if Michael came into the room? What would I say to him? Perhaps he'd already told Human Resources about me, and any moment I'd get a call to come into their office.

The morning dragged slowly. At one point I went into the 'Ladies' and two minutes later, two of the women burst in chatting excitedly “They've had a row, probably a break-up. Did you see how she looked, and he's no better. “

Then the other voice “I bet he's...” and it cut off abruptly as they saw the closed door of the cubicle and realised who might be listening. That was it then, it was all over the office, and we thought we had been so discrete. I wasn't going to wait for HR to call me, I was going to them.

Tom, the Human Resources Manager is one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet. His face was full of concern as he ushered me to a seat in front of his desk. I had no doubt that the news had reached him too, so at least what I was going to say would come as no surprise. I'd always known that if it came to the crunch, I would be the one to leave. That's how it is in these unequal power situations.

“I'm sure you've heard about Michael and I,” I began, “And that's why I've come to tender my resignation.”

“You're the second person to do that today,” he replied. “Michael's already been to see me.”

I was shocked. “But why would he do that?”

“Well, he feels it's easier for him to get another good job than it would be for you, so he wants you to be able to stay.”

My eyes filled with tears, I couldn't help it. Once more Michael had shown what a lovely wonderful person he was, and that after all I had done to him. I couldn't help it. The tears were trickling down my cheeks again.

Tom fetched a cup of water and put it on the desk in front of me.

“Do you want to tell me what it was all about?” he said. “Anything you do say here will be totally confidential. It will not go on a file anywhere. It's your business of course, but everyone saw how happy you were together and sometimes these break-ups are just the result of an overspill of emotions, and can be worked out in the end.”

“Thank you,” I said “But that won't happen in this case. It's far too serious for that.”

Tom said nothing. He just looked at me. I felt I owed him an explanation and I thought 'What the hell? I'm leaving anyway, so I might as well tell him the whole story.' So that's what I did. He listened in silence, showing no emotion, even when I revealed my transgender status. Finally when I came to the end there was a moments silence before he spoke.

“You probably expected me to be shocked, but you're actually not the first transgendered woman we've had here. She left a few months before you arrived, but she told us right from the start and everyone treated her as they would any other female member of staff. Perhaps it might have been better if you'd done that too?”

I nodded slowly. I had done everything wrong, I knew that now, but at least there was something that I could do to retrieve just a little self-respect out of this whole wretched situation.

“If you can, please talk Michael out of leaving. Since I'm leaving anyway, there's no reason for him to do so, and if my secret remains just that, then no-one will make snide remarks or laugh at him behind his back.”

“Of course I'll do that,” said Tom, “But can I say something? Sometimes in the heat of the moment things seem worse than they are and given time the impossible situation can become possible to resolve. Why don't you just hold off for a couple of days and let things settle down?”

“And if it doesn't?” I countered

“Well if it doesn't, and after I've talked to Michael we'll see what we can do. If you feel you have to leave, then I can give you a very good reference. I would just suggest that when you get your next job you tell them right away. There's laws against discrimination nowadays. They can't refuse to employ you on the basis of your sexual orientation, or anything like that.

“Thank you, I'll bear that in mind,” I said. “And any other suggestions you might have.”

“Well,” said Tom, smiling slightly, “I've heard there's always the power of prayer. Today is St Valentine's Day and although no-one seems to really know anything about him except he was a third century Roman martyr, he's supposed to be the patron saint of lovers isn't he?”

Even I managed s slight smile at that. “Well, if all else fails, I'll certainly consider it.” I said.

Surprisingly, I felt a little more light-hearted when I left Tom's office. Even just talking about it to a warm and understand person had helped me. It was five o'clock already, so I went back to my desk for my handbag and coat and left the building.

As I walked down the street, I realised that the big ornate building I was passing and which I had previously always ignored was Saint Anthony's Catholic church. I hesitated, and then calling myself a silly so-and-so, I stepped through the wrought-iron gates and walked down the path and in through the door. What is is about churches? I mean they're a big long open spaces, not so very different to a a big museum hall or convention centre, and yet there is an atmosphere about them that is different. I'd never been in a Catholic church before and there seemed to be a faint smell of incense in the air, and of course there were all the pictures and statues dotted around the place.

I slowly walked up the centre aisle towards the front where the altar was situated. There was a small lamp suspended from the roof with a faint red light in it. What that was supposed to represent I had no idea. Just to the right-hand side were two statues. The first I recognised was the Virgin Mary, and that was another concept which didn't really make sense if she'd had a baby. At least she wasn't holding a baby Jesus, that would have been too awful for me to contemplate. The other statue to the right was a man with a beard, probably her husband Joseph I imagined.

Standing before each statue was a metal stand designed to hold lighted candles, and a few were still burning although they only had an inch or two left. I stood irresolutely before the statue of the man, thinking for a moment that perhaps this could be St Valentine if I wanted him to be. Then on an impulse, I reached into my purse and found some coins to put in the box beside some new candles. I took up three, lighted them and placed them side by side in the middle of the stand. Then I went to sit at the far end of the pew which was slightly in the shadows.

I thought about all that had happened, and I wondered what I would do next, now that my life had been turned upside-down, and I was so engrossed that I didn't notice until I looked up that a man was standing in front of the statue I'd now decided was Saint Valentine. I knew him instantly of course. It was Michael. This was so embarrassing. Could I sneak away without him noticing me? Hardly, my heels would make too much noise on the stone floor, so I just froze. He was gazing at the statue, and then he too placed some money in the tin and took up two candles. I held my breath as he lighted them and then placed one on either side of the three candles I had lit, like he was surrounding them and guarding them.

Then he slowly turned around as if to go and our eyes met. For a few long seconds he stood there and then he slowly walked over and sat down. There was silence for a few seconds and I felt compelled to break it.

“Well, I guess Tom told you pretty much what he told me,” I said.

“About Saint Valentine and the power of prayer? I suppose he did. The funny thing is that I'm not religious at all,” he responded.

“Neither am I, and we are.”

I turned to face him as he went on “I didn't sleep much last night, I suppose you've guessed that?”

“Well neither did I, and it's all round the office of course as you well know. I wanted you to know that I was so impressed when Tom told me you wanted to leave so that I could keep my job. I can't think of any other man who would do something like that, but then that's exactly the sort of thing you would do.”

He managed a bleak smile. “It was the least I could do. I kept wondering why you never told me about your past and then I remembered that program about the Thailand 'ladyboys' and how I'd made it pretty clear what I thought of them. After that, you couldn't find a way to tell me could you, even though you are as different from them as, as...” His voice trailed away.

“Chalk and cheese?” I ventured.

“Well, that will do,” he replied. “Anyway, most of last night I spent lying awake thinking about what really matters to me. I know you think our family is a bit obsessed about children, and that can happen in Catholic families sometimes. However, what you may not know is that I have a cousin Charlie, and he and his wife couldn't have children. I don't know where the problem lies, but anyway, in the end they adopted a boy and a girl and now they are a family and they couldn't be happier. So then I was thinking that we could do the same, that is if you wanted to, because I think you would make a wonderful mother.”

My eyes were glistening with tears again, but they weren't the bitter tears of the night before.

“I had time to work out what I really want in life, what's really important to me,” he went on “and I know that you are the woman I love and will always love, and if that means not having children of our own, well that is a price I am willing to pay.”

I reached out and took his hand in mine. “I love you too Michael, like I will never love another man in my whole life and if I am not with you, then there will be no-one else for me.”

Michael looked at me intently. “Sue,” he began “Last night didn't work out too well, well it didn't work out at all, but maybe it was also the wrong place as well as the wrong time.”

He reached into his pocket and brought out the little box again and this time he opened it. The ring had five diamonds in a row, just like our five candles, and they flashed and sparked in the flickering light.

"Sue, will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?” he asked.

“Oh yes Michael, I will, I will,” I gasped as we leaned towards each other and kissed. Michael took the ring from the box and slipped it on my finger and it fitted perfectly. It didn't matter that thanks to the archaic views of our politicians we might have to go overseas one day to be legally married, in our own eyes we would now be as good as husband and wife.

As we stood up to walk out of the church, I paused before the statue of the man.

“What is it?” said Michael.

“I just wanted to thank Saint Valentine,” I replied.

Michael smiled “I don't think that's really Saint Valentine, “ he said.

“Well, just for today, he is,” I smiled.

Then hand in hand we walked down the aisle, into the outside world and our new life together. There might be a rocky road ahead, who knew, but we were together and that's what counted.


Author's Note: I hope this doesn't sound like boasting, but it probably is. This story won a Discretionary Pick award from Erin and Sephrena in the 2013 Valentine's Day Story contest, and I couldn't have been more thrilled.

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