Give Anything

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GIVE

ANYTHING
This story is one of six stories in the compilation, A New You by Emma Finn, a book of transformation and body swap stories available on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.

1

The woman who lived opposite our house had nothing that we did but she also had the only thing of value I desired.

My husband and I lived in Mossgill, on the very edge of Nockton, right on the border with Barton, its evil twin. Between our house and hers was the dual-carriageway and then the railway track that marked the actual border of the two towns. Like most of the houses along the Nockton side, our house was very grand. It had a pillared porch, a tall front wall and grandiose gates. It was far too big for the two of us but Ken liked his ostentation. It was bigger than the price tag had warranted but then it had been built long before the dual-carriageway was and that had brought it more into our range.

The house opposite ours across the road and the tracks was a dingy old tumbledown council house with grey mottled walls and filthy windows. Our front was facing the road of course but their back was facing the tracks so we had uninterrupted views of their kitchen and back bedrooms as well as their neglected garden.

I was at home quite a lot – I worked four days a week at Chauncy C of E Primary School – and one of my favourite little time-wasters was gazing out the front window with a steaming mug of hot chocolate, spying on these neighbours I’d never met.

Our life was good – I had no complaints – but not a lot happened. Most of our money went into the mortgage and Ken’s “toys” so we engaged in a lot of TV watching, snuggled up together on the sofa and living by proxy. I was tied up in my soaps of course but I also loved to live vicariously through my friends, co-workers and family. I was forever grilling them on what they got up to – exotic holidays they took, parties they had. I could gabble away for hours on the phone, catching up on everything.

But Ken and I did have a pleasant life. We loved one another dearly and we respected one another more. There was a gentle and warm civility between us that made every day like snuggling under a nice warm blanket.

But I did like to spy on those neighbours. They were so awfully riveting.

Their house was probably about as old as ours, though terribly maintained. It was semi-detached and I could catch a glimpse of the road beyond through the narrow passage at the side.

Theirs was a huge family and there were forever odd comings and goings, often late at night. Police cars would show up, flashing their lights from time to time. I didn’t know how old the mother was but her eldest two were giants: over eighteen; probably no more than twenty two. It was hard to tell from that distance and I never got close enough to see any real detail. If I’d had to guess from her looks I would have pegged her for mid-thirties and that certainly fit the profile. There were seven kids that I’d counted and another one in the oven by the look of her belly. She was either addicted to labour pains and morning sickness or else she just couldn’t help herself. I suspected it was the latter. There were significant enough differences in the kids for me to suspect there were at least two fathers, maybe more.

The current husband/boyfriend (delete as appropriate) was always around, sitting out in the garden with the paper and a can of beer on a faded fold-up chair. I strongly doubted he was working. That was the main reason why Ken hated them. He had a potent work ethic and despised any man who didn’t pull his weight. If he caught me watching them he’d come up beside me and watch too but he always spat out something derogatory.

As a matter of fact, we’d kind of... developed the habit of making fun of them together.

It wasn’t all that understanding and inclusive of us but it did give us something to chuckle about over a glass of merlot if we were waiting for a programme to start.

But still, no matter how much we might mock them and how much I might pity them, there was still a part of me that envied that woman.

Everything we had: the house; the fancy car; the boat we almost never used... she had something that seemed to be forever out of my reach.

A fully-functioning uterus.

That was why she was richer in her way than I could ever be.

Ken and I had been trying for a baby for nine years. We’d been checked by half a dozen doctors. It was me that was the problem. Not Ken. He could have had children if he’d been with another woman. I was to blame for stopping that happen. But all the IVF treatments had led nowhere and we’d given up in every way but verbally. We didn’t even talk about it anymore. It made things too uncomfortable. The last time it had come up I’d wept inconsolably for two long hours.

I knew it was my fault and I hated myself for it, and watching that woman across the way churn out child after child made it a hell of a lot worse.

What had she done to deserve such abundance? What had that family done? All they did was sponge off the state and get in trouble. How was it that God had chosen to give them the one thing that was most important to me?

And that’s why I started to slowly and steadily obsess over that awful lady until I almost managed to kid myself that she was taunting me. Every time she went out to sit in the garden with her beer-guzzling husband I imagined she was doing it to show off her baby bump. She knew I was watching, even behind the blinds and she knew about our... problem. We might have been laughing at them but I imagined them laughing back at us. We had the money and the house but they had that most precious gift of life.

I started to think about her on the way to work, stuck in traffic, or on the way home; lying in bed while Ken pretended he’d already fallen asleep. I found myself getting suddenly angry when I was alone, demanding out loud what she had done to deserve such luck; what I had done to deserve a barren womb.

I would burst into tears sometimes, then cease abruptly, staring into space silently then sobbing again, my head hanging in shame.

And then finally, one night, while Ken lay on the sofa downstairs, dozing with a book, I stood staring from the bedroom window at the row going on between the woman and her husband in their kitchen.

Both sets of windows were open and over the empty road and train tracks I could just make out the shrill cries she made, the bellowing putdowns he levied back.

My eyes were cold and narrow and then they folded into tears, until I had to cover my face and my mouth for fear that Ken would hear and come upstairs. I couldn’t bear that. I couldn’t tell him how I was feeling inside without my heart breaking.

Then I raised my head and I looked across to their house once more, and in a glass-edged whisper I murmured, “I would give anything... give... anything... to be as fertile as her.”

And with that simple collection of words on my tongue... it started.

2

I didn’t know it had started until another two weeks had gone by and that moment at the window had seeped from my mind entirely.

I was late on my period. That was the sign.

This wasn’t entirely unusual. It meant nothing concrete. But to me, a woman desperate for a child, it meant everything. It meant hope in the wilderness.

In the nine years we’d been trying, this had happened half a dozen times and every single time I’d believed – BELIEVED – that this was it. Somehow, against all the doctor’s prognoses, each time I had known that the magic had finally happened. The first three times I’d gone so far as to tell Ken about it, squealing with delight when I realised like it was an actual confirmation. But that optimism and faith followed up with a staggering knockout blow to the heart had a way of killing that kind of naive yearning.

After that I’d kept it quiet; only mentioning in passing to my husband about it; but even then on the inside I’d been clamouring for the home pregnancy kit; had taken it and waited and felt that pinching sense of despair slowly set in. The instructions said five full minutes were needed to be sure of a negative result. Those minutes were death knells on hope.

Staring at the space where the two lines were meant to appear for a confirmation was an awful thing. And there was only ever one. Test: negative.

The fourth and fifth times had been lonely moments of silent despair, locked away in the bathroom after Ken had left for work. By the time I got to the sixth occasion that belief had really been challenged but it had still been there; rewarded with the worst kind of disappointment.

This was the seventh time and I surprised myself because when I noted how late I was I didn’t entertain the impossible anymore. That faith was stone cold dead.

I waited six full days after when I’d expected the crimson visitor before I allowed myself to dream, and by that time I’d woken up nauseous. I’d woken up to a full puking fit. And as the vomit went in the toilet and on the floor and in my hair, I realised what this might actually mean and I went rigid before I puked out another aching stream into the bowl.

But even then I didn’t tell Ken.

I waited in the bathroom until he had gone to work, then I called the school and told them I couldn’t come in. I sat quietly for several minutes, gathering my thoughts and then I walked to Fairgate pharmacy in the little row of shops opposite the garage down the dual-carriageway on the way into town. It was half a mile away but that was nothing. I could have walked ten times that far if I’d had to.

It would be hard for someone who hadn’t been in this situation to really understand my state of mind by the time I got home and walked up those stairs. There aren’t enough words to grapple it and pin it down.

I opened the kit’s wrapping and did the slightly clumsy manoeuvre of peeing on the stick, then I sat there on the loo, panties round my ankles, staring.

Waiting for the lines.

Praying maybe.

Muttering to myself.

Willing both lines to appear this time.

Willing the impossible to happen – for every doctor we’d seen to be proven wrong.

And ever so slowly, in that little oval hole, first one, then two lines blurred into view.

And I stared. I gaped at them in complete disbelief. The hope in me had died at least a year earlier. All that was left in its stead was wonder.

And it was then, as the truth of what I was seeing blossomed across my mind that I suddenly recalled the dark wish I’d made at the window on that night. And just for the briefest instant I felt a shadow of dread.

3

I was pregnant.

It was impossible. But it was bloody well true! I covered my face with my hands and then burst into tears; smiling-tears that turned to laughter while my bleary eyes continued to stream. As my tears started to dry I laughed out loud, and then I started sobbing again.

It took me the better part of half an hour to get a hold of myself and when I did, I looked a mess, but I still had the goofiest grin on my face as I looked into my reflection.

A baby. My very own child to hold and cuddle and kiss; a son or daughter to love and lead through the maze of life. I couldn’t wait. I just couldn’t wait.

But then I frowned.

That was weird.

I leaned closer to the glass, peering into my own face and actually reached up to touch it. I’d heard somewhere – on a documentary I guessed – that trauma could cause it to happen but to see it...

My eyes had changed colour. Completely.

They had always been a deep dark brown but all of a sudden they were a pale icy blue instead; almost grey.

It was so startling and unexpected that it made me forget what I’d just discovered, but that was only for a second, and the moment I remembered the tiny foetus inside me even something so bizarre as that just didn’t seem important. It was a distraction from the most important thing that had ever happened to me.

I had another look – a closer one. They were definitely a different colour. The only thing I could think was that the emotional stress, relief and excitement had done it. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care. I was going to have a baby!

I went straight through to the phone and dialled all but the last digit of Ken’s office number. He worked in town in the business park overlooking the river, easily close enough to be home within fifteen minutes without the rush hour to contend with, and I knew he would be if I called him. I could imagine his rosy cheeks and smiling face. There was a bottle of champagne in the back of the pantry. He’d insist on cracking that open. Just a sip for me of course. He’d call his mother. He’d chatter gaily about names. I could see it playing out in my mind’s eye.

Instead I put the phone on its hook, closing down that imagined scene.

It was too soon. I needed time to digest this first myself before it left my control. And one test didn’t guarantee anything. It could be wrong. Or I might, heaven forbid, miscarry. Any number of things could go badly and ruin everything.

I decided to keep it to myself. For now.

I’d tell him about my eyes and we’d ponder about it, but I wouldn’t tell him about the baby. Not yet. Not until a little more time had passed. Until I was sure I was ready.

I stroked my stomach, longing for the bump to start growing, to reach the point when I could begin to feel safe; that it was real; that my dream was going to come true.

Time passed but my eager and frightened excitement didn’t. I couldn’t settle. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Eventually I stood at the window; my old spying post; and I looked across at the grey house over the way. The husband wasn’t in sight today but I could make out movement in the kitchen: nothing clear but I knew it was her.

“There,” I murmured. “That shows you. You aren’t the only one who deserves this. It’s mine now too.” I looked down at my stomach and its secret inhabitant. “The magic is mine.”

4

I woke up with a dry mouth and a fuzzy feeling in my head. It was still daytime but the light had changed. It must have been about six. I’d fallen asleep diagonally across the covers of the bed, mouth open. I didn’t even remember lying down.

I sat up, rubbing my head, unsure what had woken me but feeling as though something had. Then the car door slam came from outside and I realised Ken was back. I quickly straightened my hair and clothes then tried to rub my headache away through my forehead. It didn’t work.

I touched my belly again, smiling to myself and getting another spark of excitement. I couldn’t wait to tell Ken.

But then I remembered my decision not to do so and felt a clammy cover of regret and self-doubt. It... just wasn’t time. Not yet. Later when I was sure. Then we’d celebrate.

He called up, “Camilla!”

“Up here!” I frowned and cleared my throat. “I’m up—” I cleared it again. “I’m up in the bedroom!” That was better. I wondered if I was coming down with something.

Ken’s feet sounded on the stairs then he opened the door. “What are you doing sitting in here?” He grinned. “You should be down in that kitchen slaving for my supper.” The smile faltered. “Are you alright?”

“Yes.” I cleared my throat again. “Just a cold coming on I think. Maybe some laryngitis. I’ve been asleep.”

“Didn’t you go to work?”

“No.” I tensed up from the lie of it. “I didn’t feel too well this morning.”

“It’s going round at my work too. You probably caught it from some of those grubby kids you have to deal with.”

I gave out a social chuckle and smiled.

“There’s something different about you,” said Ken.

“Sleepiness.”

“No. Something else.”

I thought he was going to mention my eyes – I remembered them suddenly – but he didn’t.

“Your skin,” he said. “Did you buy some new make-up or something?”

“No.”

“Moisturiser?”

“No. Nothing.”

He shrugged. “It’s probably just the light. Or maybe because you are ill.” He loosened then took off his tie, breaking away like the conversation was done with, shrugging out of his suit jacket.

I went through to the bathroom, pinching the bridge of my nose, clearing my throat but unable to dislodge whatever was in there. The pull chord activated the over-bright ceiling light and I took a look at myself to see what he was talking about. It was strikingly obvious that something was different about me because of my eyes. He was blind if he hadn’t noticed them, though he didn’t seem to have. Maybe that was it – what he noticed.

But...

I held my arms out in front of me, hands pointing down, elbows raised. I did look paler than normal. I touched my face. I saw what he meant now. I was a lot more pallid, my skin shinier. Because of our frequent breaks abroad I tended to have some tan even in the darker months. I must either have been coming down with something or the pregnancy was throwing my body for a loop. My skin was a pale greyish hue and there were dark circles under my eyes.

I stood, looking at myself, hands on both cheeks, for the better part of a minute then I lowered them and shook my head. I just needed rest. My body was going through some important changes ready for that baby. I had to give nature a chance to take its course.

“When’s dinner going to be ready?” called Ken from the bedroom.

“Not long,” I replied, swallowing and then clearing my throat. I had to be coming down with something. My voice didn’t sound right at all.

I decided to put tea on then make myself a steaming mug of hot chocolate. I’d eat with Ken then pour myself a nice hot bath; have a really long soak with some bath salts. Then I’d go to bed early.

Sleep was what I needed. Lots of sleep.

5

I followed my plan to the letter and was in bed by eight thirty, fast asleep no later than quarter to. Ken coming to bed didn’t wake me and I slept through deeply. He left me fast asleep when he went out in the morning. Fridays were my day off anyway. I was like a log.

When I eventually came to my senses I felt like I’d had the sleep of the century. I didn’t remember them but just outside the field of my mind’s eye’s view I could sense closed off memories of especially vivid dreams. I felt as though I’d run a marathon and had slept the sleep of the just after it. I didn’t remember ever waking up so relaxed or as lethargic.

I rubbed my eyes, yawning, then the surprise from yesterday came back to me and I grinned in delight. I was so excited! I wished I’d shared it with Ken now but that couldn’t be helped. Perhaps I’d spill it over a meal out at the weekend. We could do something really lavish and special to celebrate: maybe stay overnight somewhere.

I rolled onto my side then frowned, perplexed. I put my hand to my belly. Then I gasped and threw the covers clear, rolling onto my back.

My stomach was swollen! It was round, bulging out, the weave of my nightie describing the contours of this impossible shape. I pushed myself up to a sitting position with some difficulty, gaping down at what I was seeing. It was impossible but somehow, in the night...

“Oh my gosh,” I whispered.

I touched the baby bump. I stroked it, exploring the shape of it. It couldn’t have grown this fast. It couldn’t have. But I was looking at it. I was feeling it. I would have had to sleep for about six months for it to get this big. I had to be dreaming.

But I wasn’t dreaming.

“Oh my gosh,”

I struggled to the edge of the bed and set my feet down on the carpet. I had to see what I looked like. I pushed up, having to strain a little. It felt totally different. My balance was wrong. I got upright, swaying, then staggered to the bedroom door, went down the corridor, gripping the banister desperately. I leant against the bathroom doorframe to catch my breath. My whole body was weak, like every muscle had been overstrained. I rested my hand on my chest, took a deep breath, then went into the bathroom and stared at my stomach in the mirror.

It was huge! It looked like the belly of a fully pregnant woman! My nightie was really straining to fit round it.

It couldn’t be happening. How could it be?

I had the sense something else was wrong with my image but I didn’t know what it was. I was too absorbed by my stomach to care. Then I did glance up at my face in the mirror and back down to the impossible bump. My mouth fell open. I raised my head again and looked myself in the eye and my lips dropped even wider.

That wasn’t me. In the mirror. That wasn’t my face! Or my hair!

I stepped toward myself, touching the top of my head with one hand, the side of my face with the other.

I was looking at someone else gaping back at me in astonishment.

My hair was much shorter, totally absent lower than my ears but quite bushy on top; spiky. And it was white-blond. I’d been a brunette with shoulder length curls! It looked awful! It felt strange to run my fingers through. It was drier than my hair normally was. It wasn’t my hair!

And my face! It was completely different from my usual features; far narrower. My nose was bigger and longer. My chin was smaller, set further back so that it looked weaker, blending into my neck. The pale greyish skin I’d seen the night before had gone a step further. I looked pallid; almost ill. The skin around my eyes was dark. The way my cheekbones fell now gave a slight sunkenness to my cheeks before they merged into my neck.

Even my lips had changed. They had always been full and red before, almost rose-shaped. Now there was very little colour visible. They were straight and small and narrow. My mouth looked mean suddenly rather than warm.

I shook my head, closed my eyes, opened them again. I felt my cheeks and forehead, my nose, my mouth; my weak chin. The touch-sensation was real, confirming everything my eyes were telling me.

I had gone to sleep myself, newly pregnant, and I’d woken up at the end of my second trimester with another woman’s body!

6

I don’t know how long it took until I fully understood that this was really happening, but when that moment came I just stared at myself. Then I touched my hair and face again. I touched my baby-stomach.

I lifted the hem of my nightie and looked amazed at the pale white skinny legs going down to entirely different feet. My feet had always been particularly dainty and well formed. These new feet weren’t as pretty. They were bigger. The second and third toes were longer than the big toe. I raised one foot off the floor. It was a subtle difference in a way. They were still ordinary women’s feet, but to me it was a massive alteration.

I checked the front and back of my hands. They were different too. The hands and fingers were longer and narrower. And my nails weren’t as long. Most were stubby ovals but a couple were shorter as though they’d recently broken or been cut.

“This can’t be possible,” I said, but my eyes flicked up to my reflection the moment I heard myself. That wasn’t my voice. It was half an octave higher and even then was different. It vibrated differently somewhere at the back of my throat.

“Blah,” I said, testing it. “Blah blah blah blah.”

I gave my head just the tiniest shake of negation and disbelief.

But then I was drawn back to the baby bump. I touched it, smoothing my hands over it, and abruptly I felt something, simultaneously on the inside and the outside. A kick!

Despite all of this aberration I grinned, tears forming in both eyes. I stroked round to the front of my belly, hoping to feel it again but I didn’t.

There was really a baby in there. I really was pregnant!

I looked up at myself again then down at my stomach.

It was a miracle. It was my most precious lifelong dream come true.

What did it matter if it came with this other weird side effect? That didn’t matter. I was going to have a baby. I was going to have a little child! I didn’t care about anything else. That was all that mattered.

7

It was the cold that made me leave the bathroom in the end.

I walked through to the bedroom and stood there, just inside the doorway. It was oddly surprising how mundane it all was. I’d woken up six months pregnant looking like someone else but I was still just standing in my bedroom feeling cold. I still had to do something about that. Then I was hungry. I still had to eat. I’d always imagined something magical happening when I was a little girl as something profoundly life-changing. Obviously this was going to have a huge impact on my life – I would have a child in my arms in only about three months if nothing else – but I didn’t feel that different. Nothing... dramatic was happening next.

The problem was going to be what to wear. My waist was substantially bigger now and I obviously hadn’t had time to buy any maternity wear. Maybe some tracksuit bottoms of Ken’s...

I opened my wardrobe first to see if there was anything that would fit me. I might have had a baggy top I could use somewhere. There wasn’t anything immediately visible. I half-heartedly browsed through the different outfits then pursed my lips as I spotted something I didn’t recognise.

I pushed the other garments away from the hanger and lifted it out.

It was a scoop-necked sleeveless dress made of polyester that I was sure I had never bought. I definitely wouldn’t have. It had a leopard skin pattern; really not my style.

But it was a maternity dress.

I checked the label. Yes. Definitely. Maternity.

Which meant that I hadn’t put it there. And Ken wouldn’t have. So it must have just appeared. Like my bump appeared.

I thought about the frog in my throat the day before; the pallid skin; the ice-blue eyes; the pregnancy test.

I didn’t get pregnant. I turned into a pregnant woman. Totally different thing. I’d become this pregnant woman and the same higher power that had done it had provided me with an outfit to get me started.

I shrugged and laid it on the bed, taking off my nightie.

As it fell to the floor I got my first look at my naked body and like my face, hands and feet, the differences were remarkable.

Up until today I’d had a relatively well-proportioned body, not quite athletic but rounded in all the right places. My new body was not quite as well honed. My thighs were quite skinny but I had love handles and a bulge around my hips. My round breasts were shaped oddly now, more pointed. They were still normal breasts but I missed my old ones.

I felt my belly again though, reassuring myself that nothing mattered as long as I had that.

“God, what’s Ken going to think when I show him?”

The mind boggled. I really looked entirely different and I was nowhere near as attractive, but he was as desperate for a child as I was. He would understand. He’d have to. If it was my old body and no baby or this one and a baby, the choice was a no-brainer.

I thought of my friends and my mother. What would they say when I reintroduced myself to them?

I put on a bra that was close enough to be a fit and some clean panties, then I climbed into the dress, enjoying pulling it over my new bump. I looked at myself in the mirror.

It really was another woman looking back at me now.

I tried on a smile for size and instantly frowned when I saw what it looked like. I tried it again.

Smiling made my weak chin recede even further. Crinkles appeared round my eyes. My skin was shinier than it had been. My taut cheeks caught the light. I jutted my head forward to get a closer look at my teeth. They weren’t as straight as they should have been and were a bit larger. I explored them with my tongue and then my fingers. I looked into my cold blue eyes.

“This is the weirdest thing ever,” I said to myself and it had never felt more true than when I checked in the wardrobe again and found a pair of flats that not only went with the dress but fit these larger feet of mine.

8

It was strange walking down the stairs with this new swollen stomach and the other slight differences in my frame. I was a little bit taller now. That threw off my centre of balance. The baby just made it worse. But I didn’t mind. I clung onto the banister and worked my way down carefully.

In the kitchen I made up a coffee and some cream cheese on toast then sat at the breakfast table. I was starting to feel a bit more normal but only a bit. The coffee was far too bitter. Wondering if my taste buds were different now, I tried a teaspoonful of sugar. It still wasn’t enough. Three spoons in and I could just stomach it but really it tasted kind of gross now. I pushed it away, frowning and bit into my toast.

“Urgh!”

I spat it onto the plate then fished out the remains with my fingers. It was disgusting!

“Shit it.”

I pushed the plate away angrily. I was starving! This was stupid!

I touched my face, feeling the unusually big nose, the little mouth, the non-existent chin, reminding myself that I had changed into a different person. I couldn’t expect to like all the same things.

I looked in the fridge. Nothing caught my eye. The first two cupboards were the same. In the third I found a bumper bag of beef flavour crisps someone had brought to a dinner party. Neither Ken nor I ate crisps as a rule and I hated beef. But they did look appealing. I cracked them open and took a couple into my mouth. Then smiled. They were delicious.

Tucked behind where they were was a bottle of whisky. I took it down and poured myself half a tumbler-full then went back to the table and sat down. I had a bigger handful of crisps and washed them down with a slug of whisky.

“That hits the spot.”

I grinned, crunching some more crisps, then lifted the tumbler to my lips for another slug.

“Hang on a second.”

I held it away from my face, looking into the murky liquid then I looked across at the open bottle on the side.

I almost never drank. And never in the morning. And I would never have had any if I was pregnant! But I’d poured myself a glass like it was the most natural thing in the world!

I banged the glass down on the table and shoved it away as though it were poison. Which it was. There was no way I was drinking any more of that. I didn’t care what this new body of mine liked.

I wasn’t enjoying this. I had no idea how or why it had happened. Why did I have to change shape? Why couldn’t I have just become pregnant?

“I need to get a hold of myself.” I half-folded my arms and pinched the bridge of my nose. “This is good. This is what I wanted. Even if it isn’t how I would have expected. I’m going to be a mother. That’s the only thing that matters.”

What I needed was some normalcy for a while. I just needed to get my mind off things and relax.

I went into the lounge and put the TV on, slumping onto the sofa. I enjoyed daytime TV on Fridays. That would do. I put it on my regular channel and crossed my legs. The presenters were interviewing a man who had climbed the Himalayas to raise money for Ethiopian children. I got myself comfortable but five minutes in I started to get bored. It was awful.

I changed the channel.

Next was Murder She Wrote. Jessica Fletcher was discussing the hardest crime to get away with.

I changed the channel.

A reality show came on. Celebrities were being made up to look like foreign people to trick other celebrities. I giggled and settled back to enjoy it. This was more like it.

The first celebrity was an old Page 3 girl who was being made up to look like a black woman. They spent a long time getting the look right then she had to practice with the voice. She was pretty crap at first but got better as it went on.

Next time I checked the clock it was lunchtime. I’d watched several more reality shows and then a cooking programme.

I wandered into the kitchen and searched for something to eat. There wasn’t anything that caught my fancy.

The strangest thing about the day was that it didn’t feel odd that I looked like someone else. It actually slipped my mind and when I remembered I recalled the baby first.

Maybe this wasn’t so bad as a price I had to pay. It was largely cosmetic. Once I’d explained everything to Ken and my family, life could just go on. Work might be a bit funny about it I supposed, but we had enough money to manage on Ken’s wages for a while. I could get another job when the baby was old enough and they wouldn’t know what I looked like. Camilla Blaine could be blond for all they would know.

What I needed to do now was tread carefully. Ken was fairly laid back but if anything was going to make him flip out it was me waiting for him when he got home, wearing these trashy clothes, looking and sounding like someone else and six months pregnant. He was as straight as they came and magical transformations were going to be a hard sell.

I decided to pop into town in the car and buy some new clothes that fit. At least I could look half presentable when he first saw me like this. The leopard skin dress was comfortable over my baby bump but it made me look like a resident of Barton. I had to—

“Wait...”

I went to the hall mirror and looked at my homely features. Then I went back through to the front window in the lounge and looked across the road; across the railway tracks at the grey house opposite.

“Frickin eck,” I murmured. “Why didn’t I realise it before?”

I hadn’t turned into any old pregnant woman. I’d turned into a very specific one.

I’d never seen her up close. That was why I hadn’t recognised her in the mirror. But I was sure of it now in my gut.

I’d turned into the woman from the grey house.

I really had become a resident of Barton!

9

I had another look at myself in the mirror but this time I knew what I was looking at.

The short white-blond spiky hair; the dark eyes and bigger nose; the thin lips and little chin; the skinny but fleshy arms and legs; the bulging pregnant stomach: I’d become an exact copy of her. I had to have.

“I would give anything...”

That was what I’d said. I’d wanted to be as fertile as the woman across the tracks in Sudwell who had already popped out at least half a dozen. Whatever power had answered that prayer had done it quite literally. I was exactly as fertile as she was now. I was her twin!

Back at the window I peered across, squinting. My eyesight wasn’t as good anymore. Inside the house was fine but across that distance things got a little vague. There was no one visible.

“No, wait...”

Her partner was in the garden again, hands gripped on his stomach, head down. As near as I could tell he was asleep. The woman was nowhere to be seen.

What would she say if she knew the lady across the road had become a carbon copy of her? She’d probably flip her lid. Best not let her see me, at least until I’d explained things to Ken.

But I still wanted to go into town.

I drummed my fingers on the window, chewing my lip, then I went into the hall and opened the cloakroom. I rooted through the coats and pulled out an old raincoat that might even have belonged to Ken and put it on. That was better. It covered up the distinctive dress. There was a pair of sunglasses in the pocket. They completed the disguise.

It didn’t have to be perfect. She wouldn’t be getting close to me and I had it on good authority that her distance vision was terrible. I got my handbag and went to the door but hesitated.

This was my first time outside since I'd become pregnant. I was worried something bad might happen. And people were going to see me looking like this ugly woman. It was embarrassing. I normally only went out looking my best. In this scrappy old raincoat and scuffed shoes; with my hair like this and my new ordinary face I certainly didn’t look that.

“Well...”

That was what I was going to sort out. I would buy some nice clothes and some make-up and get myself looking special for Ken’s return. That was the plan. It was going to be a big enough shock for him already without me looking ghastly.

I opened the door, peeped to see if the coast was clear, and slipped out. Nobody was visible in or outside the grey house now. I didn’t wait though. I went as quick as I could to the car and let myself in.

The front of the house was easily expansive enough to turn the car around to be pointing outwards. I checked right for traffic and then turned into the flow of the dual-carriageway, eying the grey house to check if I was going to be seen. The front windows were reflecting the sky and the hillside. No one was in sight. I approached Fairgate roundabout and considered signalling right to go into Barton. I wanted to buy a range of outfits to fit my increasingly pregnant body. The high street prices in Barton were cheaper. I could get two or even three items there for each one at the name brand stores in the Tower Gates centre. Maybe I should...

“Nah.”

I deactivated the indicator and drove straight on instead. I’d rather have one quality outfit than three cheap ones.

But then...

I came to the Barton Mills roundabout and signalled right again. Because Ken worked in town he sometimes went into the centre on his lunch break. I didn’t want to risk running into him until I was ready.

It couldn’t hurt to go into Barton. And things were certainly cheaper there.

10

Barton Mills was the most heavily industrialised area of Nockton Vale and it had been since the town had its biggest growth spurt near the start of the twentieth century. Most of the old Victorian factories had long since been knocked down and rebuilt but some of them still stood, most famously, Cooper’s Textiles that was old enough to have its own museum taking up part of the building. I weaved through the convoluted streets looking for the way through to the centre of Barton.

The assumption most visitors to Nockton Vale made was that Barton was just a suburb of that larger town. No resident of Nockton or Barton would let that by without correcting it. Barton was a separate town with its own mayor and town hall; its own town centre. It was split up into a dozen dingy suburbs of its own. I did go there occasionally – a friend of mine loved the bargains that could be found – but it wasn’t common. The twin towns liked to keep themselves to themselves largely. There was an unspoken hostility that could sometimes be detected, even in the shopkeepers.

I regretted choosing to go there really, but what did it matter? I was almost at the centre.

Barton car parks were open air. I found a space and parked but I sat in the silent car for several minutes trying to find the courage. I told myself I was being silly. I might not be pretty anymore but I wasn’t monstrous. I just looked like an ordinary woman. No one would think ill of me. They wouldn’t even know me.

I got out of the car, pulled my collar up and walked through the alley leading to the shops. It was a dark and dirty day and the environs of Barton made it fouler. The high street was a curving road littered with charity shops and discount stores but there was a little maze of narrow pedestrianised streets off of that on both sides. The alley from the car park spat me out into one of them.

It took me a while to get my bearings. I didn’t come here often enough and it was my friend who always knew the way. Despite it being the middle of a working day, the claustrophobic passages and shops were packed with people. The distinction between the shoppers here and in Nockton was stark. There were a few who were fairly well-dressed and some ordinary people who might have been from anywhere. The majority though were very clearly Bartonites born and bred: shiny shell-suits, Lycra print tops, stilettos, short skirts; obese woman grabbing angrily at toddlers spewing profanity. I didn’t like it. I didn’t know why I’d come. Anything I bought here would be as bad as what I already had on.

I stopped in my tracks and considered changing my mind – going into Nockton instead. But there wasn’t time. Ken finished work early on Fridays; sometimes very early. I wanted to be sure I was back and ready for him. If I didn’t play it delicately it might take half the night to persuade him I was still his wife underneath this platinum blond mop of hair.

It crossed my mind to have my hair done actually. I could dye it to the same shade as my old hair to help to smooth the transition. But that would take far too long as well. I could do that anytime.

I went into a couple of shops and tried on some dresses. The wares weren’t as bad as I thought they would be actually. There was a plethora of brightly coloured1 skimpy outfits for clubbing and daywear and loads of really funky costume jewellery. Normally I tended to shy away from that kind of accessory but they really caught my eye today. I gazed for a while at what was on offer, thinking that something nice like that could help compensate for my new looks when Ken first saw me and resolved to come back once I’d got the clothes.

I found something nice quite quickly in one of the discount clothes stores, a place unique to Barton called Mirror Images. It was a shorter dress than the one I was wearing; sleeveless again. It was made from a shiny red synthetic material I liked the look of and on the front were the words “SPUD IN THE OVEN!” and an arrow pointing down to the belly where there was a picture of a potato. I giggled, imagining Ken chuckling when he saw me in it.

I held it up to my body, looking in the tall mirror on one of the pillars supporting the ceiling, and got a shiver of dismay. The woman looked back at me was a stranger to me but with her cheap hairstyle and trashy looks she seemed perfectly at home against this gaudy backdrop. She gaped back at me vacantly; mouth half open, eyes dull. Other shoppers moved behind me in the reflection and I didn’t look out of place among them. I was just another Bartonite out on a shopping spree.

The dress suited this body and the environment perfectly, accentuating the pallor of my skin. It wouldn’t leave much to the imagination, showing off more leg and chest than my leopard-skin patterned dress did. Disliking the vacant expression I closed my mouth and swallowed, not particularly noticing when my lower lip dropped open again.

It wasn’t anything like what I normally wore... but... I would look sexier in it. Maybe if I got some new shoes to match...

Shrugging, I took it up to the till then crossed the street and went into Shoe Mart. Inside I marvelled at the low prices. I really had to shop here in Barton more often. There were plenty of sexy shoes like wot I was after. I found a pair of red stilettos and paid for them, wishing I could wear them right away. I didn’t dare though. With my baby bump it would be agony trudging round in them.

I popped back to the jewellery shop and bought some big dangly earrings, hesitated at the till, then got a few chunky bangles as well. The more I could dress this body up, the better.

There was an off-licence two doors down. I went inside and approached the counter. “Hiya,” I said. “Gimme a bottle of vodka and twenty Benson & Hedges.”

“Alright luv.” He put them on the counter.

“And a lighter.”

He rang it up and I handed over the money. When he gave me my change I said, “Thanks. Tara luv,” and headed back outside.

It was starting to spot with rain. I frowned up at the sky, undoing the lid on the vodka bottle and knocked back a quick shot. I peered to see if anyone was looking then had a second.

That was better.

I went to put it in the carrier bag with the dress in and thought better of it, slipping it into my handbag. I didn’t wasn’t to have to delve around searching for it later.

Shredding the plastic covering of my fag packet, I dropped it on the floor, shoving a ciggy in my mouth and lighting it. I took a long drag, sucking in my cheeks, let it settle into my lungs pleasantly then took a second. I sighed.

Now that really was better.

I just stood for a while in the doorway, enjoying it, feeling glad this had happened to me, despite the side-effects. Having a baby was the most important thing in the world to me.

“Hey Trace!” I turned to see who was calling and saw a heavyset woman with badly dyed red hair approaching, grinning at me. “Trace, I thought that was you!”

I took a step back, realising instantly that she thought I really was the woman from the grey house. Trace? I didn’t know how to respond but she got closer and kissed my cheek before I could react to it.

“I wouldn’t have recognised you without that coat and sunglasses of yours,” she said.

“What?” The coat belonged to that woman too?

“You out shopping, eh?”

I nodded dumbly, realising I could only go along with this and hope to get away quickly.

“What you bought?”

I opened my bag. “A new dress.”

“Mmmm. Nice. And the shoes. Wicked.”

“I...” I didn’t know what to say to her so I said the first thing that came into mind. “I wanted to look sexy for me ‘usband. He still likes givin it to me when I’m preggars. More so if anything, the kinky buggar.”

The woman laughed but I was struck with fear at what was coming so easily to my lips. I’d known my voice sounded different in this body of course, but even so, I didn’t talk like that. Or I hadn’t.

“You had lunch yet?”

I started to stammer a reply but she cut in.

“Good. Me neither. Let’s do KFC. You can tell me all about how the baby’s doing.” She took my arm and started to pull me.

“Actually I was just on my way home.”

“Nonsense. We never get to chat at work and you’ll be off on maternity before you know it.”

Without another word she pulled me into the crowds and I didn’t get chance to make any more excuses.

11

The fat woman, whose name I still didn’t know, ushered me to the doors of Kentucky Fried Chicken and opened one.

“Hang on,” I said. “I ave to finish my fag before I go inside.”

She sighed, folding her arms. “Hurry up.”

I took another long needy drag then tapped the ash.

“Just chuck it,” she said. “I’ve gotta get back to work.”

“Wait a sec,” I snapped. There were at least a couple more inhales left of it. I put it to my lips again, then realised what I was doing. It had come so naturally to me I hadn’t even noticed. I looked at the cigarette in my hand in wonder and repulsion. I’d never taken one in my life but I’d bought a pack without thinking and smoked one too.

And the vodka. I’d had two glugs already, again as though it were the most normal thing in the world. I never drank like that. It was an awful thing to do to an unborn baby! Why was I doing these things?

“Come on Trace,” said the woman. “I’m starvin. Smoke the stupid thing and let’s get inside. It looks like it’s going to tip it down.”

I looked again at the cigarette and tossed it away as though it might burn me.

The woman took my arm again but I resisted this time. “No,” I said. “I haveta go. I haveta get back ‘ome.”

Oh God, what was happening to me? This was appalling!

“Really? Well make up yer mind. I’m not gonna have enough time now.”

“Sorry Debs,” I said. “I really can’t fit it in.”

She scowled semi-good-naturedly. “Well I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”

“Uh yeah,” I replied.

And then she was gone.

But I went on staring after her for several moments, trying to comprehend what was occurring.

“Debs?”

How had I known that? How had I known her name?

I didn’t like this at all anymore. For a brief time it had felt natural walking these narrow streets, shopping for clothes for this new me but I could only blot out the danger signs for so long and they were coming thick and fast now.

I might have gained a baby but a lot of things had come with it and I needed to face up to them.

The way I looked wasn’t the only thing that had changed. It was more than that. I was starting to worry it was way more than that.

The clothes I’d bought; the whisky, the vodka; the cigarettes; my choice of words; knowing that woman’s name...

I had to get home. Quickly. I didn’t like this. It was frightening. I needed to talk to Ken; get him to help me make sense of it.

I didn’t just look like the woman from the grey house. If I wasn’t careful I was going to become an exact copy of her inside and out.

12

The heavens opened on the way back to the car.

The sky was a filthy dark grey and the rain came down like water pouring from a trough. It battered down on me as I squealed, running, trying to cover my head. All the shoppers were fleeing. It was actually painful, it was so hard.

I stopped at the edge of the car park. The alleyway was giving me a modicum of shelter. Out there I wouldn’t have any. I set my brow and ran as fast as I could. The rain sheeted down all around me forming deep puddles already.

I bashed up against the door of my car and fumbled for the keys, shoving them too quickly into the lock. I turned the key angrily.

Nothing happened.

I stared off in a daze, trying to work out why.

I tried again. Still it wouldn’t turn.

I checked the key, then cursed when I saw I’d used the wrong one. That was for my husband’s car. I put the correct one in and opened the door, scrambling inside, pushing water out of my mouth with my tongue; swiping at my hair and face. The sound on the rooftop and bonnet was tremendous but I was safe now. I started her up and pulled out carefully.

The roads were hellish. The number of cars had doubled out of nowhere. It was slow going with jams at every junction.

I thought about what had happened so far as I waited for the traffic to shift, my stress levels spiking. I knew exactly what was happening to me now and it was constricting like nothing I’d ever felt.

I just needed to get home; that was all. Home.

I was going out of Barton the other way this time but it was a route I wasn’t as familiar with and the warren of roads was haphazard; almost unnavigable. I tried to get off the main road to avoid the jams but that was even harder to plot. I considered stopping and asking for directions but the Barton residents were notoriously surly and occasionally criminal. It was better to fend for myself.

The water was coming down so hard on the windscreen that the wipers were barely clearing it. I had to keep it slow and peer, hunched, over the steering wheel.

I didn’t recognise anything and the increasing sense of being lost was scratching at my mood.

What was I going to do? How was I going to get out of this? Why had I made that wish? Why had this happened to me?

But I stroked my enlarged belly, telling myself like a mantra, I wanted this. I’m pregnant. I’m going to have a baby. That’s all that matters.

I made another turn and spotted a house I recognised.

“Thank Christ.”

Yes. I recognised the road. I knew where I was.

I accelerated, feeling more confident, vowing to stay in for the rest of the day; to just wait for Ken.

I saw my house and grinned with relief.

I pulled to the curb in front, not bothering to park in the drive and opened the door, getting ready to brave it.

Then I looked at the house and the bottom dropped out of my world.

Because it wasn’t my house. Not at all.

It was the grey house from the other side of the tracks.

It was the grey house the she lived in. But I had driven here thinking it was home. In my mind it had felt like it was my home.

13

Part of me wanted to get out of the car and run up to the front door of the grey house.

I was soaked. It would be great to get inside, put the bath on and get changed into some dry clothes. It was right there. All I had to do was get out of the car.

But the other part of me was shaken to the core.

This wasn’t my home. This was where she lived. This never would be my home. I had a far nicer house than this and a husband who loved me dearly. I had to get back to him now.

I wavered though and that was just long enough for me to catch sight of a silhouette in the front window. Standing there; watching me. Seeing me. Recognising me surely.

I slammed the door and restarted the engine. I had to get back. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the way. I would find it if I drove on long enough.

I put the car in gear and punched the accelerator, lurching off, but not before I saw the front door to the grey house open up and saw the same rain-blurred silhouette emerge.

Then it was gone in the rear-view mirror, lost behind the smeared glass of the back window.

I drove on, refusing to slow even a little for fear that I'd want to circle back. I had to keep going; that was all. Keep going.

It didn’t matter that the woman in Barton had recognised me as this other woman. I wasn’t her. I was just a copy. She still had her life and I had mine. It was her who would lurch into work with that woman the following morning; not me; whatever menial gaudy occupation they had. I would be with my husband, being cared for. I would be planning a room for the baby; my sweetest dream finally a reality.

Think about that baby. Just think about the baby.

I got back onto the main road, such as it was, that I’d been following before. The traffic wasn’t so bad now but it was still slow going. I shook another fag out of the packet and plucked at it with my lips, lighting the end and taking a welcome puff of pure relaxation. I opened the window a crack, blowing smoke from the side of my mouth in the general direction.

I wondered if I might be able to get away with having another swig of that vodka; then I remembered myself and swore at my lack of concentration.

“I’m not ‘er. I’m not a bloody soak. I can control this. I’ve finally got a baby comin. That’s all that matters.”

I went over the level crossing and turned left at Fairgate roundabout. It wasn’t far now. At least I was out of Barton, and getting free of that place had removed the pall that was hanging over me. As long as I wasn’t in there I could be myself; keep my thoughts in order.

I took another drag of the fag and then flicked it out of the window.

There wasn’t a way across to my house. I had to wait until I reached the big Asda roundabout just before Dairystoke and the edge of town. I made a U-turn and headed back up the Banbury Way until I got there, jerking up on the curb too soon and parking badly on the forecourt.

I was sweating profusely as I clambered out, grabbing my shopping bags as an afterthought. I waddled as fast as my belly would let me to the front door then pushed inside in a panic, slamming the door after me.

Not realising I was being observed from across the way.

14

It felt better to be back inside my own home... intellectually.

But something felt off. I didn’t feel as comfortable or relaxed as I should have. It was as if... It was as if I was in someone else’s house. Yes. Walking in there, there was a sense of the unfamiliar, that I might be caught out as an intruder at any second.

Normally I would have come in and hung my coat up in the cloakroom then gone straight through to put the kettle on. This time I took my coat off tentatively but kept hold of it, folded over my arm. It didn’t feel... right to hang it up in there like I owned the place. It was pure impulse because obviously conscious thought told me that I did own the place. Still, I loitered, peering round the lounge doorway and creeping in as though at any moment someone might challenge my presence.

I laid my raincoat over the back of a chair and stood feeling awkward. I knew I should change into the clothes I'd bought; get out of the wet things I had on, but it felt odd to think of undressing here in this house.

Nevertheless, I forced myself. I went upstairs, creeping again, continuing to feel uncomfortable amid surroundings I knew well that still somehow felt unfamiliar.

I went into the bathroom and listened intently to check no one else was in, even though I knew they couldn’t be; then I got out of the damp leopard-print dress and shoes. I regarded myself in the mirror: the vacant expression on the homely weak-chinned features. I stripped out of my underwear and just stood staring at myself; taking it all in: my swollen belly and love handles, my skinny legs, my pointed boobs, my odd feet, my spiky bush of short blond hair.

It was remarkable and otherworldly but I had to admit that this was me in the mirror. It didn’t jar anymore as much as I thought it still would have. It seemed that my self-image had already altered sufficiently that this was just who I was.

“Weird.”

I put the new maternity dress on that I’d bought. It slipped tightly over my curves leaving my arms bare and showing off more of my boobs than the other one. The words “SPUD IN THE OVEN!” on the front brought a smirk to my thin lips. I didn’t bother with bra and panties. My chilled nipples showed through the cheap fabric but that didn’t matter. It looked sexy. I felt bold to know that I wasn’t wearing anything down below either; naughty. It was fun.

I’d brought through the matching red stilettos and I put them on, gaining a couple of inches of height, then I posed, turning this way and that, admiring what they did for my legs and stroking the baby bump with a perfect sense of contentment.

I was pregnant. That was all that mattered. And looking like this wasn’t so bad. I still looked sexy enough.

I tapped out another fag from the pack in my handbag and lit up, taking a desperate draught of smoke that made me just a little bit dizzy.

I left the wet clothes and shoes on the floor and went back downstairs. I went into the kitchen, boiled the kettle then made myself a nice mug of Irish coffee using the whisky in the cupboard. I slumped into one of the lounge armchairs and sipped it, smiling broadly and lighting another fag. I didn’t feel quite so much like an intruder now, which was good. I settled in, crossing my legs and began to work my way down the coffee.

The TV remote was right there so I put it on, sifting through the channels until I found an old rerun of Blind Date. That was good. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but found that when I laughed now I gave out a raucous really dirty sounding laugh, totally different to the pert little giggles I used to make. I’d belt out the laugh then make it even louder if something else funny happened. But what did it matter? I was having a whale of a time.

It was just finishing when I heard Ken’s car in the drive and I suddenly got pelted with adrenaline.

This was it. This was when he saw what had happened. I was scared to death. I knew I'd be able to convince him who I was but I didn’t want to see the look of disappointment that my looks had gone. At least I’d got this dress and high heels. It really made me look slutty which was exactly what was needed. I wanted him to see what I could still give him now in addition to the baby we had always wanted.

I straightened my clothes and took several steps toward the hall, then stopped, nervous.

I’d never felt so excited and so happy. He was going to be over the moon when he realised what we had to look forward to.

15

Ken took his time getting out of the car. The downside to leaving early on a Friday was that he frequently brought work home with him to do over the weekend.

I waited in the hall, wringing my hands, peering through the distorting patterned glass of the front door at his figure as he opened the back door of his car and put his head and arms in, taking on a strange bulbous silhouette.

I caught a glimpse of myself in the wall mirror, startled for a second at a figure I thought was a stranger. There was nothing of my old face in this new one. Even my expression seemed altered by the new shape of my mouth and eyes, the sallow cheeks and receding chin. Seeing that face scratched at my confidence. I started to worry. But surely everything would be okay. It had to be.

Ken’s silhouette climbed the front steps and filled the pane of glass in the door. He fumbled the lock, almost enough for me to step forward and let him in, but it clicked, stalling my initial movement.

A crack formed in the door but for a moment there was no further motion, then it pushed back sharply and Ken rushed in, kicking it closed behind him.

He could only have seen me peripherally. He went straight to the little post table and dumped his briefcase and a couple of extra rain-spotted files then stood with his back to me, shaking off his coat.

“Hell of a day out there I can tell you,” he said.

“Mmm,” I said, then cleared my throat twice throatily, all too aware of how different my voice was now. “Mmm.”

He turned to face me. “How’s your day—” The movement and speech died simultaneously as he looked at me full on for the first time. There was an instant of shock; maybe a smidgeon of repulsion that I tried to discount; then simple surprise and a finally a perplexed curiosity. “Er, hi. I’m Ken.”

I tried to smile but I knew how it looked and my face coloured hotly. The discomfort I’d felt entering the house earlier was magnified now that I stood exposed looking like this in front of what my gut was telling me was the rightful owner.

“You must be a friend of Camilla’s,” he said, extending his hand to shake. “What’s your name?”

“It’s me,” I said shyly; “Trace.”

“Pleased to meet you.” He took my hand and it was only then that I realised what I'd said. I’d used her name! He’d asked me what my name was and I’d meant to say Camilla. I’d answered without thinking.

Ken gave me a warm but still entirely false smile – the smile he reserved for strangers – and released my hand. I started to stammer but I was so thrown by the situation and shock of identifying myself as her that I couldn’t gather my thoughts.

Ken glanced down at my baby bump and then at my chest. He lingered on the nubs of my nipples and I was startled to feel moisture develop in my crotch. Then he seemed to catch himself and coloured with embarrassment.

He went to step past me. “Where is she?” He called out. “Camilla!”

I’m right here. That was what I wanted to say but I couldn’t quite form the words. I’m right here.

He looked back at me and gave me another down and up scan, lingering this time on my legs and ankles. His demeanour didn’t seem quite so friendly now when he said, “Is she in?”

“I...” Now it was happening I didn’t know how to phrase it. How could I explain something so mind-blowing in a way that he would understand? “I was just...”

He went fully into the lounge out of sight toward the dining room doorway and then a sound in my left ear told me he was already moving rapidly round the circle of the house into the kitchen. “Camilla? Are you here?”

“I... Ken?”

He appeared from the kitchen doorway. “She’s not here. Where is she?”

I opened my mouth to reply but he cut me off with another call upstairs. “Camilla!”

There was no answer of course. I didn’t know why I didn’t just tell him but it was like there was a social barrier between us. He was my husband of eleven years, but he didn’t feel like that anymore. He felt like just another man. And his demeanour toward me reinforced that. The only openness he’d shown to me so far was that initial polite civility. Now that he was suspicious about this unknown woman in his house and his wife’s absence the wall had come down. There was a coolness toward me; maybe even some passive hostility. As much as anything, that was throwing me for a loop. I had never felt so alone outside that normally welcoming bubble of affection.

But then I was fixed to the spot suddenly because he turned to face me, fully sure that his wife wasn’t present. His expression retained some curt politeness but there was distrust in his eyes and a breeze of anger.

“Where’s my wife?” he said, folding his arms. “Did she let you in here? Where do you know her from?”

I tried another strangled smile, feeling tense, uncomfortable and slightly ashamed, then I said, “It’s me Ken. My name ain’t Trace. I dunno why I said it was. Me name’s Camilla.”

16

“Camilla?”

“Yeah.” I grinned awkwardly.

Ken glanced to each side and behind him at the patterned glass in the front door. “Not Trace?”

I shook my head.

“Why... Why did you lie before?”

I shrugged. “I dunno why. It just came out before I could stop it. But it don’t matter. It just threw me; you comin in ere and finding me.”

His expression was completely closed. I didn’t understand why unless he didn’t realise it was me. But he should have; I’d told him.

“What’s your real name?” He gave another look at my boobs.

“Eh?”

“I doubt your name’s really Camilla. Who are you? How did you get in here? Did my wife let you in or did you break in? Are you alone?”

“What? ‘Ang on a minute luv. You’re getting it all wrong. I’m not sayin it right.”

“I’m going to call the police.” He broke away from me and strode into the lounge.

“Eh? Wait! Don’t!” I tottered after him in my heels. He was half way to the phone already. “Stop! Ken, please! Let me explain meself. Gimme a chance.”

He stopped mid-stride and looked back warily. He hovered, unsure what to do, then he turned back to face me fully. “Go on then,” he commanded.

My eyes moistened. I’d never been spoken to like this before. To hear it from Ken was heartbreaking.

I cleared my throat, started to speak and then cleared it again, hating my new screechy voice; hating the way I couldn’t talk proper no more. I just couldn’t help it. It was getting worse and worse. I didn’t sound anything like I used to!

Ken’s face was a blank mask of mistrust.

“It’s like this see,” I said, painfully unsure of myself and embarrassed at the situation. “I made a sorta wish like; a week or two ago. I kept lookin across the railway tracks and thinkin, I’d give anythin to ‘ave what she’s got.”

“Across the railway tracks?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re talking about that filthy house on the edge of Barton?”

“Yeah! Exactly!” I grinned, excited that I was getting through to him.

“I thought I recognised you from somewhere.”

“Yeah! That’s it! The grey house across the way. I kept thinkin that I’d give anythin to have what she ‘ad; and then this morning I woke up an it was true!”

He just went on glaring. My confidence wilted in the heat of it but I went on anyway. I made myself.

“I couldn’t believe it at first. It’s incredible, ain’t it? But it was true. All I could think was that I ‘ad to show you how sexy I was and then it’d all work out. If you thought I was sexy, you’d see past me looks and see this baby and wot I could still give ye and you’d come to accept it. You get to like me like this even.”

He went on glaring.

“Ye see wot I mean?”

Ken unfolded his arms and lowered them to his sides but his hand curled into fists. Seeing them drove the blood from my face.

“So what you’re telling me is that you sat over there in that house, watching my wife and me and you had some sick fantasy about taking her place? Is that it? So you broke in here and waited for me?”

I started shaking my head back and forth. How could he have misunderstood so completely? How could he be thinking that of me? Couldn’t he tell who I was?

“Where is my wife?” he demanded. “What have you— Have you done something to her? By God, if you have I will strangle you with my own hands!”

He came toward me and I staggered back. “No! Ken! Please listen to me! You’ve got it wrong. That ain’t how it is; I swear! I haven’t done anything to your wife! I am ‘er!”

He sneered at me.

“I’m ‘er!” I cried. “It’s true! Really! I’m Camilla. I changed shape! I’m really your wife!”

17

Ken had started to turn back to the phone. He froze in mid-turn and slowly twisted his head back to look at me. “What did you say to me?”

My confidence was scorched completely away now. My voice was tremulous and weak. “I said... It’s me Ken. I ain’t that ovver woman. I’m me. Camilla.” He didn’t respond right away and I found myself gabbling out more words, desperate for him to believe me, when before I had known that he would. “I didn’t think nothin would come of it; I really didn’t. I always thought magic was bollocks, you know? But I woke up like this – turned into a copy of that ovver woman. I didn’t know what to do at first but then I ‘ad me a brainwave ye see. I went inta Barton and I got me some sexy clothes ta put on. I was so worried you’d fink I was ugly. Blimey Ken. I’ve been so scared all day, wishin you was ‘ome. Terrified somethin chronic, I tell ya. But it’s all good. It don’t matter about me face or this voice. I’m pregnant, see? We can ‘ave a baby together and be ‘appy.”

I reached for my fags and put one nervously to my lips. Ken’s regarded me sternly as I lit up and took a series of rapid and desperate drags.

“You believe me?” I said. “Right?”

He looked at my face, my baby bump, my chest, the cigarette; back to my face.

I tried again to smile but it was like a flickering candle and nothing more.

“I have never heard so much drivel in all my life,” said Ken.

“What?”

“You break into my house. You lie about who you are. You keep changing your story. How stupid do you think I am?”

“But it’s true,” I whimpered. “Really.”

“True?” He sneered: the most awful expression I'd ever seen on his face; and then he said, “Don’t be ridiculous. People don’t change into other people. You must think I’m an idiot.”

“No. I wasn’t saying that. Please. You gotta listen!”

“To what? More of your lies?”

“No! It’s true! Ask me anything. Ask me something only I – only your wife would know.”

“Get out of here.”

“No, please! Ken! Just ask me something secret. Ask me something that will prove who I am!”

He thrust his pointing hand toward the hall. “Go on! Get out of here!”

“Please! Just ask me!”

“I’m not going to play your sick little games.”

“But—”

“Get out of here before I call the police!” He jostled me, forcing me toward the hall.

“Please Ken. It’s really me!”

“You think I don’t know my own wife? She doesn’t look like you. She doesn’t talk like you. And she sure as hell doesn’t smoke!”

“But it’s really me!” I cried, panicking now. “I can’t ‘elp talkin like this! It’s part of the magic! I can’t ‘elp smokin!”

He forced me into the hallway and I pulled ahead, turning to face him.

“Please,” I whispered. “Please Ken. I’m not lyin. I really am Camilla.”

He glared back at me. “You really expect me to believe that?”

I gaped back at him forlornly and nodded.

“Then tell me who that is,” he said, pointing toward the door.

And I looked. And I saw.

And I recognised the silhouette that was climbing the steps; taking out a bunch of keys; putting them in the lock.

My whole world was disintegrating around me.

He wouldn’t believe me. I wouldn’t have believed myself.

And now here at the door was the one person who could prove beyond doubt that I was nothing but a liar.

Here at the door was myself. Camilla. Ken’s real wife.

18

For an achingly long minute I just stood, gaping in horror at the smeared figure, knowing exactly who it was. But the greatest horror was that I questioned myself. For that length of time I actually questioned whether she really was the real Camilla; whether I was and always had been the chavvy slag from Barton who had lived a dissolute life with her legs spread, pumping in seed and pumping out babies.

I wondered if somehow I’d got confused, just as Ken seemed to think; that I’d come here with some crazy scheme to insinuate myself into his life, even though I’d always been her: the other woman. Trace.

But no. Surely. I knew that wasn’t true. I had my mind and my memories. I was Camilla, no matter what I looked or sounded like. No matter that I smoked like a chimney and guzzled liquor at every opportunity.

I had honestly thought it was only I that was affected – that I’d been transformed into a copy of her. I’d really thought we might be able to live like this: two identical women in two houses with different husbands.

But that wasn’t how it had been – clearly.

Just as I had changed into her; she had changed into me. All that day she must have been over there in that other house, wondering what was happening; wondering what to do. She might even have seen me pull up outside her house. She might have realised what had happened and decided to come here to claim her new life.

The key clicked in the lock, just as it had for Ken, and the door swung open. I knew what I was going to see but actually seeing it grabbed my brain and shook it rigid.

The door opened fully and the imposter stepped into the threshold, wearing my clothes and my shoes; carrying my handbag. She looked, startled, at me then at Ken; then back to me. She said nothing at first, then finally uttered a single word.

“Darling?”

“Camilla...”

She kept her eyes on me and I saw in them the guile of the intruder. I saw her measuring the scene and coming to a decision. “Who’s this?”

My mouth flapped open, flabbergasted.

“She’s just leaving,” said Ken, taking my bare upper arm in his strong grip. “I caught her in here. She broke in. She’s been trying to lie her way out of it ever since; said she knew you.”

“Tell him,” I said urgently. “Tell him who I am. Tell him who you are?”

“Excuse me?” she asked. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

“You’re ‘er!” I said. “You’re the woman from the grey ‘ouse! Tell im who I am!”

She looked back at Ken, a perfect simulacrum of concerned query. “Ken? What’s this about? I’ve never seen this woman before in my life.”

“That ain’t true! You’re lyin! You’re from over the tracks. You’re tryin to steal my life!”

“I wouldn’t want your life, I assure you,” she replied curtly. “I’m quite happy here with my husband.”

“No! Ken; don’t listen to ‘er! She ain’t me!”

But I could see in his face he didn’t believe me. And why would he? I showed no trace of my old persona and she had the looks and voice down perfectly.

Ken squeezed my arm, guiding me forcefully toward the door. “I’m not having any more of this. Get out or I’ll call the police.” He shoved me hard outside onto the top step.

It was still raining and the air was instantly cold on my bare arms, legs and chest.

I twirled back to look in, feeling closed outside as if by an invisible force field, even though the door was still open – as though I really were the intruder.

Ken was nowhere to be seen but I caught the imposter’s eye and saw there a glint of amusement before he returned, thrusting my cheap raincoat and bag into my arms.

“Ken, please,” I whined. “I’m really your wife. I swear. Don’t believe ‘er. She ain’t me. She’s ‘er what lives over there.” I pointed.

“Get off our property right now or I will call the police,” he said firmly. “I mean it. Don’t test me. I know where you live. If I call them and tell them what happened here today you will be in big trouble. I have a friend who works in the police. He’ll see to it that you get punished severely.”

“But Ken—”

“Just go.”

I looked past him at the smirking face of the woman who looked like me and then back at him.

He wasn’t going to believe me. He was never going to believe me. I was trapped in a situation of my own making.

I lowered my head and then raised only my tear-smeared eyes to his. “Please,” I whimpered.

But he stepped back, his face barren of affection and he closed the door in my face.

19

The rain was thick and fine, almost invisible but cloying and all-encompassing. It slithered over my shoulders and arms, my circle of bare chest and cleavage, into my hair and onto my face. And though I had the coat in my hands I didn’t want to put it on.

It wasn’t my coat; it was hers; and I’d already dressed myself in clothes that suited her: one step after another into a state where my own husband didn’t know me. And putting it on meant I was resigned to staying outside. I didn’t want that. All I wanted was in there. I wanted nothing but to be in the warm and enfolded in my husband’s comforting arms.

Through the blur of the patterned glass, their silhouettes loitered in the hallway.

I didn’t know what I should do.

I wanted to hammer on the glass and demand entry. I raised my hand to do it. But I hesitated, inches from the surface. I looked down at myself.

He was never going to believe me.

The figures shifted. The silhouette of Ken came closer to the door. Through the glass came a muffled bellow. “Get out of here! I’ll call the police!”

I staggered backwards and down the steps fearfully. I could only imagine the horror of them coming here and arresting me for breaking and entering: being put in the back of a police car, trying to explain the reality of this unbelievable situation; then being thrust into a cell at Nockton police station.

I moved away from the steps to the centre of the front drive patio. Still I didn’t put the coat on but I was getting drenched.

Ken appeared at the lounge window, the phone in his hand, finger poised threateningly over the keypad, face a cloud of distrust and anger. To his side but just behind him holding his arm, was the imposter – the woman who looked like me. She was still smirking, out of his field of view; mocking me with her bright eyes and curled lips.

I wanted to shake my fist at her; scream obscenities; but I didn’t. My arms closed in around me. My face crumpled into tears. I moved further back toward the open gate. Cars streaked past behind me on the Banbury Way, spurting up spray that wet my legs and my dress.

I stepped off the front drive onto the pavement, gazing forlornly at the impassive face of my husband and as I did so he lowered his hands and the phone. But he stayed watching me.

The fine mist of rain was making me blink to clear my eyes of the water. I was freezing. With no other option open to me, I struggled into the cheap-looking raincoat. I opened my fag packet and put another one to my lips, only then realising what I was doing and hating myself for it. I went to remove it and throw it down but I caught another sight of the imposter in the window and instead I brought up my lighter and lit it, taking a refreshing puff. I needed this now. If I couldn’t go back in there then this was the only comfort I had.

Ken lost interest as soon as I was clear of the property. He said something to the woman and then turned away, receding into the gloom of the unlit room.

But she stayed watching. She gazed at me and I glared forlornly back at her.

She’d stolen my life and what could I ever say to persuade Ken differently? I’d been so sure at first that he would believe me but I realised now that he never would. We lived in a world where magic simply didn’t exist. He would rationalise a million other justifications before he would accept that I’d changed into an entirely different person, no matter what stories I dredged up to persuade him.

And worse, I was afraid that in time I would remember no such stories. I’d already called myself Trace; already driven to her house when I'd made the decision to go home; already taken on her exact patterns of speech.

And he wouldn’t brook conversation if he saw me again. He would be completely closed to it. He would call the police. I knew him.

There was no going back.

The acknowledgement of that chilled me to my heart more than the rain ever could have; but I knew it to be so.

There was only one place I could go now. One place I would be welcome.

I turned and looked out over the dual carriageway; over the twin railway tracks. The thick rain made it hard to see – my newly dim eyesight made it harder – but I could still make it out.

The grey house.

It stood there against the black clouds that hung over Barton beyond it.

Waiting for me.

20

I had one final look at my house.

The imposter was watching me from the window still and her smile broadened as I started to move off.

Ken appeared behind her, scowling at me. He wrapped his arms round her, his head at her shoulder, and my face fell further. I turned my back on them and trudged along the pavement, tears mingling with the rain on my face as I gave out noisy sobs that merged with the grind of the traffic. It was rush hour now and the cars were moving slowly as they always did, queuing at one roundabout after another to get through or out of town.

I put one foot in front of the other. It was all I could do. The baby bump made it harder. My back ached. My ankles ached. I just wanted to be inside.

I looked back at the house. It was hard to see it in focus now between the rain and my short-sightedness. The sky over Barton was reflecting off the windows. I couldn’t tell if they were watching me anymore. Probably they weren’t. Probably they were settling down for a warm and quiet evening as that imposter insinuated herself into my wonderful life.

I trudged on, taking a swig from the vodka bottle in my handbag.

What life did I have to look forward to now? What sordid dirty existence awaited me across those tracks?

Barton. I had always loathed the place; vowed never to live there. But I had no choice now. I was one of them: a Bartonite. It was where I belonged.

There was an underpass ahead. I followed the steps down and loitered at the mouth of the dark passage. Of the five overhead strip lights down its length, only two were lit. Long stretches of grim odorous shadow ran between. I didn’t want to go through. It felt irreversible. If I passed under the road and tracks and came out in Barton I would never ever leave.

But again, I had no choice.

I walked through, disliking the pitch dark alcoves in the side walls where anyone could have lurked. The graffiti was an unbroken field of indecent obscenities but I kept on going. It was a long way through.

I emerged into the muggy lowering daylight at the other side, the rain striking me harder now in the face like a hand slap.

This was Sudwell now, the area of Barton that stood opposite my— my old house. It was mostly shabby council houses; built to house the factory workforce of Barton Mills over a hundred years earlier. It was loathsome. Dirty rain-beaten gardens filled with clutter; rust-streaked cars, none newer than a decade old. Black windows looking down on me as I shambled on through the storm, my arms wrapped round my chest, wishing I had never seen the grey house across the way; longing to be home with my husband.

But I had a new husband now, didn’t I? The man from the garden I had seen dozens of times, reading his paper. I was his wife now. There was nowhere else to go. I tried to imagine what it would be like, climbing into bed with this uncouth stranger, his dirty great arms closing round me from behind; the stinking breath on the back of my neck.

This was my life now. I was the woman from the grey house. I was Trace. I would live there in squalor and decay, surrounded by squealing unruly kids, constantly in trouble with the police. I would go to work the next morning in Barton centre. I would spend the rest of my days wishing for a different life, now forever lost to me.

I got my first sight of the grey house ahead and slowed, dreading the approach, knowing that once I was inside I would have given up all hope.

It looked even worse now; a frightful abode of filth and degradation. It was everything I had hated all my life and I knew that it would suck me in entirely.

I would never escape. Never.

No lights were on inside. The windows were blank. The front garden had an old Corvette on blocks, the tyre-less wheel hubs rusted brown, the windscreen black with years-old grease and tree-fall. A straggly beech stood hanging over it.

This was my house now. This was where I lived.

I sighed heavily, reluctant to make this final approach, but I made myself. I was freezing. I had to get inside and nowhere else would have me.

No one opened the door to greet me. I was alone.

The porch overhang provided a smidgeon of protection from the rain. I stopped there before the door, understanding fully what this meant for my future. Then I reached, dejected, for the handle.

But before I could touch it I felt something odd and unexpected, in my belly. Just a tiny sensation. A nudge against the interior.

A kick.

It was something I had only felt once before but I knew it for what it was again instantly and tears came to my eyes again, this time not of fear or sorrow but of excitement and joy.

I’d been so focused on the horror of my situation, the trap I'd crafted for myself; I’d forgotten the most crucial thing.

The baby. The real baby in my stomach; slowly developing; growing; getting ready for the world.

My words came back to me from that night as I gazed jealously across at the grey house from my old window.

I would give anything... give... anything... to be as fertile as her.

I would give anything.

The culmination of that declaration stunned me with its completeness, for surely I had given everything I had: my body; my mind; my husband; my wealth; my life.

But in return I had this new life growing inside me. I had the fruition of my dearest and most heartfelt dream.

I was going to be a mother. I was going to hold that little baby in my arms and see its smile; hear its laugh. I was going to experience the greatest miracle that any life could yield.

I looked down at my cheap clothes; this strange homely body. I looked at the rusting wreck on the garden; the broken toys littered beneath and around it. I looked at this grey house that was about to engulf me.

And just the smallest part of me felt a fearful gladness. That my dream was going to come true; even enveloped as it was within a nightmare.

I was going to become a mother. That was all I had ever wanted.

Perhaps I didn’t need anything else.

I told hold of the front door handle and turned it, finding it unlocked.

There was a shudder of panic deep in my soul but I pushed it away, stroking my bump.

Then I opened the door and stepped into the blackness within.

If you liked this then read the complete compilation of stories in A New You on Amazon.

You can also follow my serialised transformation stories every other day on http://transformation-stories.blogspot.co.uk/



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