“So, tell us about your new app!” Colin- the show’s host- asks the four of us as we sit on the studio’s sofa in our expensive clothes.
“Well,” Becca replies, “it’s basically a ‘hub’ for all things Out of Heaven-related! On it you can find links to all our videos, our personal blogs and Instagram pages.”
“There are also features that are exclusive to the app,” Kayla explains. “Special behind-the-scenes footage from our tours and our recording sessions, exclusive competitions you can enter, games…”
“It really is THE resource for all Out of Heaven fans,” I say, repeating the same speech I’ve said countless times over the last few days. “It’s made by the same team who made the official app for The Angels, so you know it’s by a quality developer!”
“And, most importantly of all, it’s free!” Adeola concludes with a giggle as footage from the app plays on the screen behind us.
“I’ve already had a play around with the app, and it’s really, really good!” Emily- the show’s co-host- says as she produces her mobile phone to show the app being used ‘live’. “And it’s available for download now?”
“Yep!” Becca beams. “Just search for ‘Out of Heaven’ on the app store or the Google Play store and it should be the first result!”
“And I understand congratulations are in order for three of you!” Colin says, making Becca, Adeola and myself blush- though my cheeks grow much redder than those of my friends. “Three of you have become aunts in the last few months, I understand?”
“Yes,” Adeola sighs with a giggle. “My brother- my adopted brother- and his wife had a little girl in March that they’ve named ‘Destiny’. There are photos of her on the Angels app, she is SO cute!”
“My sister gave birth last month, a boy named Lee, after his dad,” Becca explains.
“And of course, your brother and his new wife are blogging about their experiences with the adoption system,” Colin says in his thick Northern Irish accent.
“Yeah,” Becca sighs happily. “Stuart will be SUCH a great dad.” I’m forced to smirk as Becca deliberately avoids mentioning the woman Stuart married eight days ago- the same woman with whom I’ve had more than my fair share of problems.
“And you’ve just become an aunt too, haven’t you, Stephanie?” Emily asks, making me force out a giggle in response.
“Yep!” I say. “My brother’s partner’s just had a little girl a few days ago… Between our three nephews and nieces, and Mary Carter’s new daughter, and with Krystie Fullerton due in a few months, we’re already joking that they’re going to be ‘The Angels: The Next Generation’, hehe!”
“You must be eager to get back home to say hi to your new niece!” Emily says, making me force out another much less sincere-sounding giggle.
“Yeah…” I reply. And in truth, I am eager to meet my new niece… It’s just having to see her father at the same time that’s making me anxious.
Thankfully, there’s no more talk of family during the rest of the interview, which concludes with the four of us singing one of the singles from our second album. One the cameras stop rolling, the four of us breathe a sigh of relief as the hosts come over for an informal chat before their next guests take our place.
“So, how long have you been on the road?” Emily asks.
“Since Monday,” Becca says with a tired chuckle. “We sang at my brother’s wedding, had a day off, then got straight on the promotional tour, heh.”
“I saw the photos from the wedding,” Emily gushes. “Jamie-Lee looked SO beautiful, we’ve been trying to get her on the show for weeks now, but there’s always been some kind of schedule problem.”
“We’ve got one of the other Angels coming up next week though, one of the new ones,” Colin interjects. “You got any more interviews to do?”
“Just one tomorrow morning, then that’s us for the whole week!” Kayla says with an excited giggle. “SO looking forward to the time off.”
“Going to see your parents in Southampton?” Emily asks.
“At some point next week, yeah,” Kayla sighs.
“How about you, Steph?” Colin asks. “Got any plans, going anywhere nice?"
“Hmm?” I ask, having been lost in thought. “Oh, umm, no, not really… It’s my brother’s birthday on Thursday- he’s the one who’s just become a father. We, umm, we don’t really get along all THAT well, though…”
“Ah, sorry to hear that,” Colin says with a grimace. “Is it- is it because of, well, you know…?”
“Because I’m trans?” I ask. “No need to be so awkward about it, that IS what I am, the transgendered singer…”
“No you’re not!” Becca insists sharply. “Not JUST that, anyway!”
“Yeah,” Adeola giggles. “You’re, like, singer first, girl second, I dunno, sister third… ‘Transgendered’ is WAY down the list, as least as far as we go!”
“Aww,” Emily coos as my friends rally around to try to cheer me up. “You really are as close as you come across on screen, aren’t you?”
“We’ve grown a LOT closer over the last year,” Becca says.
“Since the fifth girl left the band?” Emily asks in a soft, cautious voice.
“Ironically? Yeah,” Kayla says. “We’re much stronger as four than we were as five.”
“Hence the name of the album,” Colin chuckles. “Well, it’s been great to see yous all again, hopefully we’ll see you again soon!”
“Definitely,” the four of us all say as we bid farewell to the two hosts with gentle hugs, before heading back to the green room where our excited PA is waiting for us.
“Super awesome as always!” Nikki giggles as she pours glasses of complementary wine for the four of us. “Seriously, I’ve already had a text from Jonathan, he is SO happy with the work you’ve all been doing!”
“He’d better be,” Adeola snorts. “Sending us all over the country like this…”
“We’re getting paid well enough for it,” I shrug.
“Cheers to THAT!” Becca giggles as the four of us clink our glasses together. “Ahh... Seven down, one to go, hehe! Well, until August, anyway!”
“Ah, sometimes I miss the days when we spent all day in the studio, recording…” Adeola playfully sighs.
“You mean you’d prefer that to being whisked all over the country and being treated like princesses?” Nikki teases, making the tall, dark-skinned girl giggle.
“…Okay, maybe this IS better, hehe!” Adeola squeaks excitedly.
“Speaking of which,” Nikki says, “I’ve spoken to your hotel, your rooms are ready for you to check in whenever you’re ready. Unless you’d rather go out on the lash tonight?”
“On a Sunday evening when we’re on TV tomorrow at 6am?” Becca retorts. “…Tempting. But I think we’d probably better get an early night, hehe!”
“Hear hear!” Kayla cheers as we finish our champagne, before climbing into the plush people carrier Nikki’s rented for us to use while in Manchester.
A short while later, the four of us are dropped off outside our posh hotel, and after checking in, we head straight to our large, fancy rooms. Naturally, Becca is sharing a twin room with Adeola, whilst Kayla and I have our own twin room to ourselves. After kicking off my expensive, fashionable flats, I lay down on my bed, letting out a long sigh as Kayla watches on with a smirk on her face.
“Shall I leave you two alone?” The tiny blonde girl asks, giggling as I frown in confusion. “You and the bed, I mean!”
“Oh- whatever,” I retort, making Kayla giggle even louder as I blow a raspberry at her.
“I’m going to get changed,” Kayla announces. “You two have fun, hehe!” I smile as my best friend heads into another part of the suite to change, but as soon as she’s gone, I let out a long, tired sigh before staring down at my slender body.
Of course, the first thing I notice about my body is that it’s covered in a clingy, girly t-shirt and a tight miniskirt with a floral pattern stitched into it. The second thing I notice is the dark red polish on my toenails and fingernails. The third thing? The total lack of hair on my arms or my legs. But the fourth thing I notice, probably the most significant thing about my body, are the two soft mounds on my chest. Most of the mounds are, of course, down to the padding sewn into my bra, but a small part of it is all flesh and blood- and that part is steadily growing.
They’ve been steadily growing, in fact, for the past seven months, ever since I started taking oestrogen. However, they are far from the biggest change to have happened to me in that time. I’m not even talking about physical changes, though there have been plenty more of those, such as my waistline narrowing, my hips and backside widening, my skin growing softer and smoother and the initially alarming change of my genitals getting noticeably smaller. There are some days when I wake up and I feel like my new body is completely alien… But there are other days when I wake up with a confidence I never, ever felt as ‘Steve’, confidence that lets me take on the world- and usually win, such as in the interview the girls and I just did.
However, every time my confidence grows too high, there’s always an unwanted ‘presence’ ready to bring me crashing back down to Earth- the unwelcome voice of ‘Steve’ in my head. I’d hoped that the more the oestrogen changed my body- and more importantly, my brain- the less I’d hear ‘him’ in my mind, but if anything, the opposite has been true. I’ve discussed this all with Doctor Phillips, of course- my occasional discomfort with my new body, my battles with ‘Steve’ and my stress at the fact that every stage of my transition is being done under the scrutiny of the media- and whilst she has helped, her conclusions that I might never be 100% comfortable in either gender were the last thing I wanted to hear. It’s almost as though I’ll always be ‘transgendered’ rather than entirely male or entirely female- and that’s certainly the way I feel right now.
Fortunately, I can always rely on my friends and family for support. Well… Some of them, anyway. Even though she hasn’t said so out loud, I can tell that Jamie-Lee wasn’t too happy with my rejection of her supposed ‘perfect guy for me’, meaning we’ve resumed our previous ‘not hostile but not friends either’ type of relationship. Becca and Adeola have taken the hint, though, and stopped setting me up on any dates. And Kayla… Sometimes I have no idea what the hell Kayla’s thinking, despite our closeness. She hasn’t been on a single date either since my aborted encounter with Liam all those months ago, but at the same time, she hasn’t dropped any ‘hints’ in my direction either. I’m not exactly the most perceptive person in the world, admittedly, but every time Kayla and I relax together on the couch, I keep wondering whether she wants us to snuggle up together, like our PA and her fiancée do every evening, or whether she sees us as being like Jamie-Lee and Charlotte, or our friends Jacinta and Ophelia- two women who clearly love each other a lot, but as pseudo-sisters- Kayla, of course, not having any biological siblings of her own, much like the aforementioned Jamie-Lee and Charlotte.
That is, however, something that can’t be said of me. Whether I like it or not, I have two older brothers, and their reactions to be continued transformation have been… Complicated, to say the least. Danny, for his part, has taken everything in his stride, showing me unconditional love and acceptance. The fact that he now lives full-time with his girlfriend Rachel has probably helped keep a smile on his face, but the same can’t be said of my other brother. When I’d started taking oestrogen, I’d hoped that it would’ve proved to him that this change was permanent, that it was a genuine thing and wasn’t going to be reversed, and that his only choice was to accept it. However, in the past few months, he’s grown more distant than ever. Whether this is due to my transition or his becoming a father, I couldn’t say, but it remains a source of frustration for me that he’s the only person in my life who has yet to accept that ‘Stephanie’ is here to stay.
The only person apart from ‘Steve’, anyway…
At least I still have my work to distract me from the hassle of my personal life- even though my personal life wouldn’t have any of this hassle if it wasn’t for my current job, heh. Rather than release a third album in as many years, the company have decided instead to focus on increasing our public profile with a series of publicity tours- such as the one we’re on now, to promote our app- by producing Out of Heaven branded merchandise, such as our app, or other stuff like phone cases, tote bags, wristbands- all the stuff that a teenaged fan of Britain’s best girl band would want to spend their money on.
The final ‘attack’ that Joshua, Jonathan and co have planned is a couple of mini-tours later in the year, one at the start of August, the other around the end of October. All the band are excited about the tour, not least Kayla, as the August tour will include a gig at the football ground used by Southampton F.C.- Kayla’s home town team. And I will admit, a part of me is excited at the prospect of the tour, not least because the Southampton concert will see us wearing costumes consisting of short-sleeved leotards covered in red and white stripes (the colours of Southampton F.C.) and skin-tight hot pants. Then the following day, in London, we’ll be wearing skimpy corsets, boob tubes and miniskirts on stage. And then I’ll go home and change into a loose summer dress, or a tight miniskirt, or a light, airy maxi skirt, and I’ll remind myself- as I’m doing now- that for the past two years, I’ve not just had the ability to indulge my fantasy of being a girl, but I’ve received widespread praise for it and been paid EXTREMELY well too. There are literally thousands of girl throughout the country, and no doubt thousands of boys as well, who would give their right arms to live the life that I’ve lived for the last two years. Sometimes I even wonder whether or not the same is true for ‘Steve’.
But the fact of the matter is simple: I DO live this enviable life. Tomorrow I’ll be interviewed on live TV, before heading to a studio for publicity photographs for our app. Sometimes I feel guilty about feeling stressed out about all the difficult things in my life, but my job IS a lot of hard work, with a lot of travelling… Sometimes I just want to kick back and relax with a videogame marathon, regardless of whether I’m wearing a short skirt and a tight op or a slouchy pair of slacks, a hoodie and a totally make-up free face- which is exactly what my best friend is wearing when she comes back into the room after a few minutes.
“Swit-swoo!” I tease as Kayla does a playful twirl for me.
“Oh- shut up!” Kayla laughs, before playing collapsing back onto her bed and switching on the television. “You not bothering to get changed, then?”
“Nah, too hot for sweats,” I say as I sit up cross-legged on my bed. “Besides, not like I can wear this again tomorrow, right?”
“Diva,” Kayla teases, making me giggle as she sticks her tongue out at me. “Not that that’s a bad thing, of course!”
“Yeah,” I laugh. “I am REALLY looking forward to getting back home, though.”
“Ugh, tell me about it,” Kayla spits. “I mean, there’s only so many times you can be on TV, you know? Before it gets old?”
“Diva,” I tease, giggling again as Kayla retorts by blowing a raspberry at me.
“So,” Kayla says with a giggle as she rolls over on her bed to face me. “When were you going to tell me that you’d become an auntie? Kept THAT quiet…”
“You knew my brother’s partner was pregnant,” I retort.
“Yes, I just didn’t know she was due in May!” Kayla says.
“No, but you know what normally happens at the end of a pregnancy,” I say, snorting with laughter as Kayla blows another raspberry at me.
“Sarky cow,” Kayla chuckles. “So then, a niece, right? Reckon she’ll be friends with Becca’s and Adeola’s nieces? Or Mary Carter’s daughter? Oh my god- imagine if they become the next Out of Heaven! Or the next Angels!” yeah, like I haven’t heard THAT a million times already, I think to myself.
“Doubt Tom would approve of that,” I snort. “Doubt he’d approve of ANYTHING, heh. He certainly doesn’t approve of me…”
“Aww- don’t be like that,” Kayla sighs. “…What’s the baby called? Do you know her name yet?”
“Think they were naming her Claire,” I say. “After Amanda’s mother. Amanda’s Tom’s partner-“
“Yeah, I’ve met her before, remember?” Kayla reminds me. “Wish I had a brother or a sister… I’ll never be an auntie.”
“Aww, don’t say that!” I sigh. “Besides, if you marry a guy who has a brother or a sister, you’ll be an aunt to their children, right? The coolest aunt any kid could hope to have!”
“Hehe!” Kayla giggles. “Yeah… Kinda need to find myself a guy first, though…”
“I hear that,” I sigh. “Even though we are rich, famous, sexy young women who could have any guy we wanted…”
“A rich, famous sexy young woman who looks like she’s thirteen,” Kayla snorts.
“Yeah,” I retort, “because THAT’s the most off-putting thing about either of us, right?”
“Oh- let’s not do the whole ‘self-pity’ thing, okay?” Kayla asks. “We’ve got a long day tomorrow, THEN we can rest and be as self-pitying as we want. Okay?”
“Sure,” I say, resting back onto my elbows as we while away the rest of the evening watching television.
Eventually, the time comes for the two of us to climb into our beds, though as I lay in the darkness, listening to Kayla’s soft snoring, I find myself unable to escape my thoughts… Or rather, the thoughts of ‘Steve’. I try my hardest to distract myself, focussing on the sound of Kayla’s breath, on the sound of traffic passing by outside, even the sound of my own heartbeat, but no matter what I do, the tiny, unwanted voice at the back of my head will not be silenced.
‘You know Tom won’t want you to be an aunt to his niece,’ ‘Steve’ says.
‘Shut up…’ I think to myself, clenching my hands into fists and mentally singing one of our songs in an attempt to silence my ‘alter ego’.
‘No matter what,’ ‘Steve’ says, ‘there’ll always be someone who won’t accept you, and you’ll never be fully comfortable with who you are. And that girl will grow up not knowing whether she has an aunt or an uncle.’
“These thoughts are my own,” I whisper to myself, as quietly as possible so as not to wake Kayla. "I'm talking to myself about my niece. 'Stephanie' is telling 'Stephanie' this." Eventually, ‘Steve’ is silenced once again, and I try to keep my mind as clear as possible so as to drift off to sleep faster- though ‘his’ question resonates in my mind, especially as it’s not just Tom that ‘he’s talking about. For every follower I have on Instagram or Twitter, or every supportive comment on one of our YouTube videos, or even every TV interview we do, there’ll always be someone- like Tom- lined up to tell me that I’ll never be a real woman, that I’m an affront to their values, that all I’m doing is humiliating myself every time I put on make-up, or pull on a skirt… And there’ll always be a tiny part of me that believes it.
I let out a loud groan when my alarm clock wakes me at a ridiculously early hour, though my groan quickly turns into a giggle when I hear an equally annoyed groan come from the bed next to me.
“Sod off,” Kayla moans through her sheets, having clearly heard my alarm and my giggle.
“Ugh, would love to,” I sigh as I swing my tired, hairless legs out of bed. But we’ve got work to do. “Mind if I take the shower first?”
“Mind? I insist you do,” Kayla grumbles, rolling back over as I pad toward the suite’s small shower room, where I cleanse my body under the cascading hot water, before blow drying my long brown hair, dousing myself with my favourite perfume and applying my make-up. As I apply my mascara, eyeliner, eye shadow and lipstick, though, I take a long look at my reflection. Even without make-up, it’s not a boy’s face looking back at me, not ‘Steve’s face- and it hasn’t been for a while. I look at my face in the mirror, and I only see Stephanie Abbott the superstar. That’s all that virtually everyone else sees as well. Why, then, does ‘he’ keep cropping up in my brain, if he’s nowhere to be found on my face…?
After pulling on my usual ‘supporting’ underwear, I dress for the day in a cute black skater skirt and an expensive designer t-shirt in a dark mauve colours, before completing my look with a pair of footless black tights. Naturally, my look gets a grin of approval from the still-in-bed Kayla when I return to our bedroom, doing a playful twirl before slipping my manicured toes into a pair of designer flats.
“Seriously,” Kayla chuckles as she fiddles with her phone, “any man who doesn’t think you are H-O-T is either G-A-Y or B-L-I-N-D!”
“Or T-R-A- umm, well, transphobic,” I say with a sigh.
“Transphobes don’t get to call themselves ‘men’,” Kayla snorts, before letting out a quiet giggle.
“…Are you playing with our app?” I sigh. “We’ve got to be in the lobby in half an hour to be picked up…”
“Yes, yes, MUM,” Kayla scoffs. “Can’t be expected to sell the thing if I don’t know my way around it, can I? Besides, I LOVE these little animated versions they’ve made of us.”
“They are cute,” I giggle. “There’s certainly no mistaking ‘cartoon Steph’ for a man…”
“There’s no mistaking ‘real life Steph’ for one either!” Kayla says with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “Ugh, I- are- are you feeling okay, Steph? You’ve been talking about, you know, ‘manliness’ more than usual recently…”
“Ugh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I sigh. “It- it’s just, you know… Being away from home for so long, it- it’s just kinda a bit stressful, that’s all…”
“Hope you get over it before the tour,” Kayla mumbles as she gets out of bed and heads toward the shower. “Though I should be happy that ‘being away’ is what’s stressing you out. Don’t need THAT happening again…”
“Nope,” I laugh over the roar of Kayla’s shower. “No more running away from my problems…”
“Glad to hear it!” Kayla laughs, leading to an eerie silence.
“…Well, THIS isn’t awkward,” I mumble, making my friend snort with laughter. “My fault, I suppose…”
“Just making it more awkward,” Kayla informs me. “Honestly, though, Steph, you’re not the same person you were back then. You’ve matured a lot, changed a lot, I can see that you’re way more comfortable than you were back then.”
“I guess,” I say with a shrug as I open up the Out of Heaven app on my phone and play with it in an attempt to distract myself from the conversation.
“Frankly, if anyone’s to blame, it’s Lauren,” Kayla says, making me snort with laughter at the mention of our former bandmate.
“Lauren?” I ask. “Why, exactly?”
“If she’d just been a bit more sensitive, a bit more empathetic,” Kayla replies. “She’d have realised that you needed help, not to be pushed away. Then again, she was never in it to make friends…”
“Were any of us?” I retort, before biting my lip as the room once again falls silent. “Awk-ward…”
“…Maybe not,” Kayla concedes, “but I’m glad I did.”
“Me too,” I whisper, before wincing as Kayla walks back into our room, stark naked. “God’s sake, Kayla! Ever heard of shame?”
“Oh shut up,” Kayla snorts as she pulls on her trademark look of a tight top, a long pencil skirt and high-heeled shoes. “Are we not both girls?”
“Well- yes,” I reply. “But I dunno that I’d be as comfortable getting naked in front of you…”
“In your case, it’s forgivable,” Kayla whispers, before giggling. “Besides, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before, at ballet or in a tour dressing room. And that bathroom is NOT big!”
“…Nor are you,” I remind my roommate, before laughing hysterically as she picks every pillow off her bed and hurls them at me one by one. “Okay, okay, sorry, no more short jokes for today, I promise!”
“GOOD,” Kayla says, before letting out a playful growl that just makes me laugh even more. If I was stressed before, I’m definitely not anymore, and before Kayla and I head down to the hotel lobby, I take one last opportunity to check that my look is perfect, touching up my make-up and teasing my hair. The more time I spend with Kayla, whether it’s having fun or just chatting, the more ‘Stephanie’ I feel. ‘Steve’ never had a friendship this good, and even ‘he’ can’t drag my mood down when I’m having fun like this. The only other person who ever made me feel this good, this happy to be a girl, was my ex-boyfriend Kurt…
“FINALLY!” Becca sighs overdramatically as Kayla and I enter the lobby of the posh hotel, our travel bags in tow. “Do you know how long we’ve been waiting?”
“Five minutes?” Kayla retorts with a smug look in her eyes.
“…More like two,” Becca says, making all of us- our PA included- giggle excitedly.
“The cars are waiting outside,” Nikki explains, barely stifling a yawn herself. “Then we’ll head straight to the photography studio so that we can be on an early train home. I am SO looking forward to seeing Sarah again…”
“You’re about to be joined at the hip,” Adeola snorts as she fiddles with her phone. “Though you’re, like, already that way!”
“Give her a break,” Becca orders as she gives Nikki a playful pat on her shoulder. “I know I’M looking forward to getting back home to the most important man in my life…”
“…Your fiancé or your horse?” Adeola asks her BFF, who doubles over in a fit of laughter.
“Both!” Becca giggles. “Come on, girls, our adoring public awaits…” I smile as I climb onto the back seat of the taxi next to Kayla, whilst Nikki and the drivers load our bags into the boot. All I need to do is get through today, then I’ll finally be back in London, back in my comfort zone, back where I can relax…
‘Back where you can’t run away from your problems,’ I’m reminded by the unwelcome voice of ‘Steve’- a voice I try as hard as I can to block out before we arrive at the TV studio.
Fortunately, ‘Steve’ remains quiet throughout the interview, which goes off without a hitch, as does the subsequent photoshoot, which sees the four of us dressed in casual clothes (but still expensive and sexy clothes- in my case, a crop top, a short denim skirt and brown thigh-high boots), pretending to play with the app on our phones (naturally- for whatever reason- the phones are all props, either switched off or not even real phones to begin with).
By the time the photoshoot ends, and we’re all allowed to change back into our casual clothes, the four of us are all exhausted, even though it isn’t even 1 o’clock yet!
“Ugh, I could sleep for a month,” Adeola moans as she pulls her designer maxi dress back on, before dramatically flopping onto the dressing room’s sofa.
“We- by which, I mean the agency- can only give you five days, I’m afraid,” Nikki says with a smug grin as she packs away the clothes we wore today.
“…I’ll take it,” Adeola says with a giggle.
“You’ve earned it,” Nikki says warmly. “Train back is at 1:35. First class seats are reserved, Mikey will be meeting us in London with his van and the Angelmobile.”
“Perfect,” Becca says with a giggle. “We’re not the only ones who’ve earned a break, hehe!”
“Heh,” Nikki laughs as her cheeks begin to redden. “Was tempted to stick around in Manchester to do a bit of shopping, hit some of the shops they have up here that they don’t have in London… Not really any fun without Sarah, though.”
“Aww,” Adeola giggles. “Got everything you need for the wedding, then?”
“Almost,” Nikki giggles. “It’s feeling a LOT more real now, hehe!”
“Hehe!” Becca- the only other engaged person in the room- giggles. “And by any chance, have you booked a band to sing at the reception?”
“Like I’d do that,” Nikki replies as she finishes packing away our costumes and our accessories, before leading us outside to where our taxis are waiting.
“Fancy singing yourself, then?” I tease the twenty year old woman, who grimaces as she knows what I’m going to say next. “Or do you only sing- and put videos of yourself on Twitter- when you’re really, really drunk?”
“Okay, London awaits!” Nikki says in an anxious voice, her cheeks turning a deep shade of red as the four of us have a good-natured giggle at her expense- though my giggle comes to an abrupt end as I hear a very unwelcome voice in my head.
‘As does Tom,’ ‘Steve’s voice reminds me, making me flinch. ‘There’s no avoiding it… Or is there?’
“Hey,” I say quietly, hesitating at the taxi’s open door. “I, umm, I kinda want to stay a bit, you know?” I grimace as my announcement is met by looks of concern on my friends’ faces- especially Kayla’s. “Do some, umm, do some shopping…”
“…Great idea!” Kayla says, surprising me. “Going to get something for your brother, and your new niece?”
‘Told you,’ ‘Steve’ says despite my best efforts to block out ‘his’ voice.
“Umm, I guess,” I say, before reaching into my purse for my train ticket. “Here you go, Nikki- no sense in letting a first class seat go to waste!”
“If you’re sure…” Nikki says in an unsure voice.
“…What?” I ask. “I’m 21, I’m not a child, it’s not like you can’t leave me alone…”
“…And she won’t be alone!” Kayla suddenly announces, jumping out of her taxi and standing next to me. “Nikki, can you make sure my stuff gets back to our flat?”
“Umm, sure, I guess,” Nikki says, obviously feeling more relieved now that she knows that I won’t be alone. “You sure you two will be okay?”
“She’s only asking that ‘cause us two intimidate her!” Adeola teases, making herself and Becca laugh as Nikki rolls her eyes.
“We’ll be fine,” Kayla says, and though she tries her best to hide it, I can’t help but notice the knowing look Kayla exchanges with the brown-haired girl.
“Meh, see you in London, I guess!” Becca shrugs. “On Thursday at ballet, if not before.”
“Anyone got a birthday dance this week?” Adeola asks, making me grimace yet again.
“Don’t think so, for once!” Nikki laughs. “Charlotte’s was last Thursday, next one is I think Alice at the end of June…” I sigh as the taxi pulls away, before turning to face my blonde best friend.
“I know what you’re doing,” I say.
“…Yes, I’m coming shopping,” Kayla shrugs. “It WAS your idea…”
“You’re babysitting me,” I snort.
“And you’re trying to avoid going back home,” Kayla says, her abrupt tone startling me. “After what we talked about this morning? Hmm?”
“I just- I just need to make sure I’m ready for it,” I protest, my voice withering under the tiny girl’s stern gaze.
“WE’LL make sure you’re ready for it,” Kayla says.
“I told you,” I sigh. “I’m not going to run off again.”
“Damn right you’re not,” Kayla says, before letting out a long sigh. “God, Steph… We’re- we’re just worried about you, you know? And before you say anything, this has nothing to do with ‘keeping the band together’. It has everything to do with ‘keeping Stephanie Abbott together’.”
“…Thanks,” I mumble. “Some company would be nice, I guess.” Company that isn’t inside my head, anyway, I think to myself.
“Excellent,” Kayla says with a happy grin. “Why’d you pull a face when Addie talked about birthday ballet dancing, anyway? Your birthday isn’t until January, isn’t it?”
“MY birthday, yeah,” I reply. “Guess when Tom’s is…”
“Eesh,” Kayla grimaces. “This week?”
“Actually on Thursday itself,” I say, eliciting an exasperated chuckle from my friend.
“…Got him anything?” Kayla asks.
“Umm… No,” I mumble, sighing as an inevitable smile spreads across my friend’s face.
“Perfect,” Kayla says. “Then we can buy TWO birthday presents while we’re here!” I don’t even bother to disguise my frustration, letting out a loud groan as Kayla literally drags me to the nearest tram stop.
Before too long, we’re inside Manchester’s vast Arndale Centre, before heading West to the even bigger Trafford Centre, hitting what feels like every shop in both places as we pick up gifts for my brother and my niece- a bottle of expensive whiskey and an armful of fashionable clothes for the former, and a large bundle of toys for the latter. And, of course, Kayla and I are recognised in virtually every shop we visit, with many of the cashiers we talk to actually saying that they went to our last concert in Manchester.
Of course, Kayla and I treat ourselves to plenty of new clothes as well, including new clubbing dresses each, and it doesn’t take much persuasion from Kayla for me to squeeze myself into it later in the evening and hit some of the local clubs, where we while away the evening dancing and- in Kayla’s case, at least- flirting with several of the fit, attractive guys in the club.
We eventually arrive back at our hotel (who didn’t have a problem letting two celebrities stay an extra night) just after 12:30am, where I let out a long, tired sigh as I kick off my suicidally high heels and collapse back onto my soft, plush bed.
“Feel better for that?” Kayla asks as she removes her ostentatious jewellery and her even higher heels.
“A bit,” I say. “Not that I was feeling ‘bad’ before, you know…”
“Could’ve fooled me,” Kayla shrugs. “The way you were this afternoon… Steph, I- I- ugh. I genuinely thought you were going to do a runner again.”
“…I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it,” I mumbled.
“Because of Tom?” Kayla asks, sighing as I nod. “Have you spoken to your counsellor about this?”
“Not yet,” I sigh.
“When’s your next appointment?” Kayla asks, making me grimace.
“…Would’ve been tomorrow morning,” I mumble, making Kayla throw up her arms and groan in frustration.
“Should’ve known!” Kayla groans. “For god’s sake, Steph! Do you even know what you want?”
“Well obviously, no I don’t!” I retort, before letting out a frustrated sigh. “I- I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean to snap, but- ugh. All this- THIS- was never meant to happen! Okay, I love wearing women’s clothing. REALLY love it. The idea that I could be a famous, beautiful woman, it- it’s something I’ve fantasised about my whole life. But that’s just what it is. A fantasy.”
“You mean like the fantasy of a short, plain-looking seventeen year old girl going from college student to national superstar in the blink of an eye?” Kayla snorts. “’Cause nothing like THAT is ever likely to happen…”
“Okay, okay, touché,” I sigh. “You have to admit, I’ve had more of an uphill climb than you have, though.”
“Only because you keep throwing yourself back down the hill,” Kayla spits. “You know, sometimes I think that Jamie-Lee has a point about you.”
“Oh- oh just fuck off, okay?” I growl, before letting out another groan. “Ugh, sorry, sorry…”
“Think we should both get some sleep before one of us says something SHE’LL regret,” Kayla spits, heading into the bathroom to change into a loose nightdress before returning and wordlessly climbing into her bed, wrapping her sheets around her and rolling over so that her tiny back is facing me.
‘Your best friend,’ ‘Steve’ says smugly. ‘I wonder how she’d react if she knew that you still talk to me?’
“These thoughts are my own,” I whisper to myself. "I'm talking to myself. 'Stephanie' is asking 'Stephanie' this question." Much to my relief, this silences the unwelcome voice in my head, and the combination of the long day, the hard work, the shopping trip and the clubbing session mean that I’m asleep within seconds of closing my eyes.
Thankfully, neither Kayla nor I set an alarm, meaning that when I wake up the following morning, it’s already bright daylight outside- and, much to my surprise, my roommate is already awake and fully dressed.
“…Morning,” I mumble as I try to clear my head of the mercifully mild hangover brought on by last night’s clubbing session.
“Morning,” Kayla- who, as a non-drinker, obviously didn’t have a hangover- replies.
“Did we- did we have a fight last night?” I ask in a feeble voice.
“Think we did, yeah,” Kayla mumbles. "Kinda like an old married couple, heh."
“Sorry,” I mumble into my thin hotel bedsheet.
“Me too,” Kayla whispers.
“I’ll, um, I’ll call Beverly in a bit,” I say. “Think I’ve already missed my appointment time…”
“It’s okay,” Kayla shrugs. “You can call on the train, there’s no rush…”
“Yeah,” I whisper, before rolling over and sighing at the sight that greets me. On my nightstand, large as life, is a glass of water and my bottle of oestrogen pills. I certainly didn’t put them there last night, meaning there’s only one other person who could have…
“Just in case you ‘forget’ again,” Kayla says stoically.
“I’ve only forgotten three times since I started taking them,” I say, popping one of the pills on my tongue and swallowing it, opening my mouth afterwards to prove to my friend that I did indeed swallow it. “Happy?”
“I’ll be happier when I know that you’re happier,” Kayla sighs. “Steph, I- I don’t want you to think that I’m just nagging you, or worse yet, that I’m only concerned about the band. I really, really am worried about- well, YOU, you know?”
“I know,” I sigh. “And maybe I need a kick up the arse from time to time, I dunno…”
“Maybe we can call a rugby club, get a regular appointment for that too,” Kayla quips.
“Ah, going into stand-up comedy as a side job for your singing?” I ask, giggling as Kayla sticks her tongue out in response.
“Get up,” Kayla admonishes as she whips the sheets off my bed, despite my shrieking protests.
“Hey!” I complain, tugging the hem of my nightdress down in an attempt to cover my thighs. “Just because you’re not big on privacy, doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t like it either!”
“Oh whatever, you’re still decent,” Kayla shrugs, tossing me a hotel towel. “Get showered and dressed, the sooner we get back to London, the better!”
‘And the sooner you have to face everyone,’ ‘Steve’ reminds me, making me flinch as I peel off my nightdress and step underneath the soothing hot water, concentrating on the sound of the torrent in an attempt to block ‘Steve’ out of my brain.
Once I’m fully cleansed- both physically and mentally- I wrap a towel around my budding chest and another around my long brown hair, sitting down in front of the room’s mirror to apply my make-up as Kayla looks on approvingly. With every new colour that I apply to my face, every stroke of my mascara brush or every layer of lipstick, I’m reminded of just how much I love this life. As I pull on my underwear (with Kayla covering her eyes, of course), I muse on how Kayla was correct last night- some fantasies DO come true, and when I complete my look with a tight, butt-hugging miniskirt, a loose, feminine t-shirt and, of course, a pair of brand new knee-high boots that I picked up in yesterday’s shopping spree.
“Hubba hubba!” Kayla giggled as I did a twirl and pulled several feminine poses for her. “SUPER gorgeous and SUPER girly, hehe! Feel better now that you’ve got a skirt and a pair of Steffieboots on?”
“Don’t call them that!” I chastise, gently stroking the soft faux leather of my boots. “They might hear you…”
“Hehehe!” Kayla squeaks excitedly, clearly happy to have ‘proper’ Stephanie back. And I’m not ashamed to admit, I’m feeling a lot better too, now that I’m pretending to be- no, now that I’m free to be as girly as I want to be, with nothing or no one internal or external holding me back. If anything, it’s like the whole world is pushing me further down the ‘girl path’, which is only emphasised when Kayla insists on taking a photo of me for her Instagram account!
A short while later, the two of us let out sighs of relief as we collapse onto the plush seats of the first-class section of our London-bound train. Naturally, our short walk from the waiting room to the train involved posing for several selfies and dishing out even more autographs- not that either of us minded, of course!
“Okay,” Kayla says, barely suppressing a yawn and failing to suppress a giggle. “No clubbing tonight, hehe!”
“Whatever you say, old woman!” I retort, giggling as Kayla sticks her tongue out at me yet again.
“Tell me I’m wrong?” Kayla retorts.
“You are absolutely RIGHT,” I chuckle. “I’m really looking forward to my sofa, and my Xbox…”
“And your niece?” Kayla asks, causing me to tense up again. In truth, I probably am looking forward to seeing my niece. Her father, on the other hand…
“Yeah, I guess,” I say, frowning as I hear a familiar uninvited whisper in the back of my mind.
“I hope Tom doesn’t think we’re spoiling her,” Kayla muses as she gazes at the bulging bag of toys we’ve bought for the baby girl.
“Yeah, that’s not likely to be Tom’s biggest worry,” I snort.
‘That’s putting it mildly,’ ‘Steve’ snorts, making me flinch- something that doesn’t go unnoticed.
“…Steph?” Kayla asks. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” I mumble. “It- it’s just, you know, talking about him…”
‘Me or Tom?’ ‘Steve’ asks, causing me to fidget yet again, which makes Kayla’s frown deepen.
“Steph…” Kayla whispers. “Have you- have you called Dr Phillips yet? To rearrange your meeting?”
“I-“ I retort angrily, startling my friend. “…Sorry, Kayla… I’ll- I’ll call her once we get back to London.”
“Steph, seriously, you seem really, really stressed out,” Kayla says, the concern evident in her voice. “If- if you want to stop talking about Tom, then that’s fine, but-“
“Yes, I know,” I moan. “I’ve got to face him sooner or later…”
‘…Or do you?’ ‘Steve’ asks, causing me to start sweating. ‘You’ve got enough money to just stay away from London indefinitely, if you wanted… Never have to worry about Tom ever again…’
“…You hot?” Kayla asks, momentarily silencing ‘Steve’.
“Umm, thanks, you’re pretty hot too!” I reply, making the tiny blonde girl roll her eyes.
“Are you WARM?” Kayla asks. “I know it’s nearly June, but it’s not THAT hot today…”
“Oh, umm, just…” I say, wincing under Kayla’s firm stare. “I, umm, need the toilet…”
“Don’t let me stop you,” Kayla shrugs as I grab my handbag and head toward the small cubicle at the end of the carriage.
Once inside, I shut the door and take several deep breaths to try to calm myself down. Thank god no one was in here before me, I think to myself as I look at my immaculately made-up face in the mirror. It actually takes me a few seconds to remember that this near-perfect make-up job was actually applied by my own hand, I’ve become so adept at applying make-up over the last two years. Not to mention the several years beforehand that I’d spent perfecting the art of make-up application, back when wearing make-up was a rare treat, rather than an everyday thing…
‘And back when you never dared showed your face in public wearing make-up,’ ‘Steve’ reminds me. ‘The first time you went out wearing make-up, you felt ridiculous. Just like you should now.’
“Why?” I reply. “Why should I feel ridiculous for wearing make-up? Or a skirt? Or high-heeled boots?”
‘You know why,’ ‘Steve’ retorts.
“Just because I was born a boy?” I ask. “So what? Jamie-Lee doesn’t feel ridiculous for wearing make-up. Nikki doesn’t feel ridiculous.”
‘But you’re not like them,’ ‘Steve’ reminds me. ‘They never wanted anything other than to live their lives as women. You do.’
“No,” I say firmly. “YOU do.”
‘I AM you,’ ‘Steve’ retorts. ‘And you are me. I’m not saying there isn’t a part of me that wants to be a woman. But you can’t say there isn’t a part of you that yearns to be a man again.’
“That’s not true,” I whisper. “That’s not true, that’s not true, that’s not true…”
‘Then prove it,’ ‘Steve’ challenges me. ‘Go back to London. Tell your parents you’ll never be their son again. Tell Tom you’ll never be an uncle to his daughter. And tell Beverly that you want SRS.’ I bite my lip as tears of pure frustration form in the corners of my eyes. Why? I think to myself. Why couldn’t I have just always wanted to be a girl full-time? Why couldn’t life as ‘Steve’ just sucked so much that I’d have given anything to give it all up and be ‘Stephanie’ forever? Why can’t I just be happy with the life I do now have?
I try my best to reorder my thoughts, to remind myself that my life IS good, that there’s no real reason I can’t be happy with what I have, when I’m interrupted by an announcement coming from the train’s PA system.
“The next station will be Stoke on Trent,” the robotic voice announces, causing my breath to catch in my mouth.
‘This is your chance,’ ‘Steve’ urges. ‘You’ve got your wallet on you, all your credit cards, you can start fresh, no need to worry about Tom, or Kayla, or your fans… You can finally be yourself, out of the public eye, forever.’ I take a deep breath and wipe a tear from my eye as I wait for the train to come to a halt, before grabbing my bag, slipping on my sunglasses in an attempt to at least slightly disguise myself, and leaving the cubicle, merging in with the rest of the crowd leaving the train. I’ll text Kayla before the train gets into London, explain that I need some time away to clear my mind. Obviously, I’ll have to leave the band for good… Joshua and the rest of the girls won’t be happy with me, but it’s better this way, rather than constantly messing them around. And my family… They’ll have their hands full with the new arrival, they’ll barely even know I’m gone.
I take another deep breath as I walk along the platform, before my stomach begins to churn at the thought of what I’ve done. I swore I’d never walk away from my life again, that I’d never betray Kayla or the others in this way- and that is exactly what I’m doing, betraying them. Less than 24 hours ago, I told Kayla that I’d never run away again, but here I am, leaving my old life behind just as I did nearly two years ago. And this time, I barely even have a reason to. Last time I ran away, it was to avoid what I was sure was going to be the bollocking of a lifetime. What am I running away from this time? A brother I’ve known my whole life and his baby daughter? For once, I actually wish that ‘Steve’ would make his presence known, to assure me that I’m doing the right thing, but for the first time in ages, he’s silent, having apparently got everything he wanted.
With my stomach rumbling even more, I detour into the ladies’ room on the platform, making use of the facilities before taking a long look at myself in the mirror. What was I thinking, running away AGAIN? What was this ever going to accomplish, other than proving that I pay WAY too much attention to the voices in my head? Once again, I’ve let ‘Steve’ ruin my life… No. ‘Steve’ is just a part of me, and always have been. The only person who’s been ruining my life over the past few years is me, myself and I. ‘Steve’ would no doubt say that I don’t deserve my fame and success, and ‘he’s right. I certainly don’t deserve the adulation of my fans, that’s for sure. Or the loyalty that Kayla and the rest of my friends and colleagues have shown me… Maybe Jamie-Lee IS right about me.
After washing my hands, I quickly formulate a plan- I’ll get on the next train to London (which should only be in another thirty minutes tops), explain the situation to Kayla- without any lies- before talking to Joshua and quitting the band. If I’d never been in the public eye, maybe my transition wouldn’t have been so difficult. Then again, if I hadn’t joined the band, I’d probably never have transitioned in the first place… Sometimes, I do wonder whether or not ‘Steve’ would have eventually gained the courage to come out to ‘his’ family… Then again, nowadays I have difficulty remembering ever being ‘Steve’, let alone thinking like him…
With a heavy heart, I dry my hands, grab my handbag and prepare to head back to the platform to wait for the next train, when I’m greeted by the last sight I expected- or wanted- to see.
“Really needed the toilet, then?” Kayla asks, her arms folded and our bags in a neat pile next to her.
“Kayla, I- I-“ I stammer.
“Save it!” Kayla snaps, her fury clear in her eyes. “I- I don’t think I have ever been as angry with anyone as I am with you right now!”
“Kayla, please-“ I plead.
“I said I don’t want to hear it!” Kayla hisses. “You promised me, Steph! You promised me, and once again, you showed that your promises don’t mean shit!” The two of us grimace as our argument begins to attract a crowd- and it won’t be long before someone recognises us. With a sigh, Kayla grabs her bags, before motioning for me to grab mine and to follow her.
“Honestly, I was going to get back on the train,” I say. “Well- the next one- I- I was coming back to London, I promise!”
“What did I just say about how much your promises are worth?” Kayla snorts as, much to my surprise, she leads us out of the station and to a nearby taxi rank.
“Where- where are we going?” I ask as Kayla loads our bags into the rear of the taxi.
“London,” Kayla says firmly.
“But- but that’ll cost hundreds of pounds!” I protest.
“I am NOT letting you out of my sight,” Kayla growls, all but shoving me onto the back seat of the taxi before handing the driver a large wad of £20 notes. I sigh as I fasten my seatbelt ready for the long trip home. This time, my ‘exile’ only lasted a few minutes, but it seems to have done just as much damage as it did last time- possibly even more damage.
The ride home takes just over two hours, but is conducted in total silence, with Kayla brooding and me trying not to sulk the whole way home. I breathe a sigh of relief as the two of us walk through the front door of our posh flat, but even this small gesture seems to trigger my tiny friend’s rage.
“What the fuck, Steph?” Kayla hisses, literally knocking my bags out of my hand and dragging me to the living room. “What the actual fuck, Steph? Do you really hate your life that much that you’ll sabotage everything you- everything WE’VE worked for? Did you even think about what it’d do to the rest of us if you ran off AGAIN?”
“…I was going to get on the next train, I promise,” I feebly reply.
“I DON’T believe you,” Kayla spits.
“And I was going to quit the band,” I say, waiting for a reply from Kayla that doesn’t arrive. “So yes, I did think about what it’d do to the rest of you.”
“…Why?” Kayla asks, the anger in her voice replied by genuine curiosity- and a trace of fear.
“Because my life is nothing but stress and confusion,” I say.
“But- but you were doing so well,” Kayla whispers as she sits down next to me, her earlier fury all but gone. “Steph… I’m sorry I was angry, okay? I really am… I meant what I said before, I’m concerned about YOU way more than what you leaving would do to the band.”
“Could’ve fooled me,” I retort, making Kayla scowl.
“Well believe it, okay?” The tiny girl growls. “We’re friends. In fact, I’d consider you to be my BEST friend.”
“…I think that way too,” I whisper. “But I- I just can’t deal with this stress-“ Unable to control my emotions any more, I break down in a flood of tears, which prompts Kayla to lean in and give me a tight hug- an action that causes yet more tears to flow from my eyes.
“What is it that’s got you so stressed?” Kayla asks. “Is it the band? Is it Tom?”
“It’s everything,” I sigh. “I’m supposed to be this great role model for trans girls all across the country, when all I am is a guy who likes to wear women’s clothes and has just decided to roll with it!”
“How many transsexuals- genuine transsexuals- started out as ‘just guys who like to wear women’s clothes’?” Kayla asks.
“I- I don’t know,” I sigh.
“And do you want to be a man again?” Kayla asks, making me pause.
“…No,” I say. “At least, I’m pretty sure I don’t.”
“Sounds to me that you’re more than ‘just a guy who likes to wear women’s clothes,” Kayla muses. “Doesn’t matter what you WERE.”
“I guess,” I say with a shrug.
“I know,” Kayla says softly. “…Unfortunately, what you also are is a person who makes stupid decisions. And quitting the band would be one of those!”
“I need to do this by myself,” I say. “If I’m going to transition, I- I can’t do it with literally the whole country watching. And now we’ve got an app that literally lets you spy on my life with a single tap!”
“Steph, for god’s sake, you’re not alone,” Kayla sighs. “I knew I’d be giving up some of my privacy when I signed up for the band, but I never realised it’d be THIS much. Okay, I don’t have people analysing my body to see how much it’s changing due to hormone therapy- something you left behind in your bags, by the way-“
“Eesh, sorry, I didn’t think about that,” I interrupt.
“Yeah, I’d noticed,” Kayla snorts, before letting out a long sigh. “It- it’s kinda also the reason I’ve been single for so long. Hard to tie down a guy when every date gets reported in the papers like it’s a fucking football match.”
“Yeah, I’d kinda noticed that myself,” I say, remembering some of the dates I’d had with Kurt which had ended with the two of us being photographed by paparazzi. “Reckon that’s why so many singers marry footballers, that way both people are used to being in the public eye…”
“Yeah, well I’ll pass on dating a footballer, thank you,” Kayla giggles. “I’ll take someone more sensitive, like, say a model. Or maybe another singer? I dunno.”
“Or just no one at all?” I shrug.
“Really?” Kayla asks, a sly grin creeping across her face. “After the way you were flirting with some of the guys in the club last night?”
“That’s just a bit of fun,” I reply. “Wouldn’t want to introduce a guy to me the way my head is now anyway. That’s where my problems started again, when I snogged Liam at Stuart's party…”
“Why would snogging a guy cause you to stress out?” Kayla asks. “You snogged Kurt plenty, didn’t you?”
“Well- yeah,” I sigh. “But- no, no buts, he’s as much a man- actually, he’s more of a man than I am a woman, heh.”
“Only because he’s been transitioning longer,” Kayla says. “Huh, I guess even transsexuals can have a hard time breaking prejudices…”
“Probably because I’ll always feel like a man pretending to be a woman,” I mumble, prompting another hug from Kayla and yet more tears from my eyes.
“God,” Kayla moans. “You just said yourself, though, that you don’t want to be a man, didn’t you? Everyone I know accepts that you’re a woman. If that’s what you want to be, you shouldn’t let anything hold you back.”
“Or anyone?” I ask.
“Tom’s hardly ‘hold you back’, is he?” Kayla asks.
“Not Tom,” I sigh. “’Steve’.”
“Oh god, Steph,” Kayla sighs as she tightens her hug. “You really are messed up, aren’t you?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” I retort, making my friend giggle.
“Yeah…” Kayla says with a grimace. “Think you’ve gone a bit beyond my skills as a shrink, heh.”
“Think I’m beyond anyone’s skills,” I snort.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Kayla says, handing me my mobile phone. “You know who you need to call. And however stressed you are, you NEED to make this call.”
“Okay, okay,” I sigh, opening the contacts list on my phone and selecting the number for Dr Beverly Phillips. After just two rings, the phone is answered, and my heart rate once again increases.
“Good afternoon, Dr Phillips’s office, how can I help you?” the familiar voice of Joanne, Dr Phillips’s receptionist, asks.
“Oh hi,” I say with a nervous giggle. “It’s, umm, it’s Steph, Stephanie Abbott…”
“Oh, hi Steph!” Joanne replies. “Do you want to rearrange this morning’s appointment?”
“Umm, yeah…” I say hesitantly. “Umm, actually, I- I kinda need the appointment as soon as possible, please.” I briefly look over at Kayla, who smiles and nods supportively, letting me know that if I need any additional support from her, all I need to do is ask.
“She’s booked up for the whole of today,” Joanne says. But I have a gap at 9:30 tomorrow morning, if you’d like?”
“That’d be perfect,” I reply in an almost breathless voice. “Actually… Would- would it be possible for, umm, for Dr Phillips to come to my home? To, you know, make a house call?”
“Umm…” Joanne says, clearly flummoxed by my question. “Can I- can I ask why you’re not able to come into the office? Is it an urgent situation?”
“It is pretty urgent, yeah,” I immediately reply as Kayla gives my free hand a supportive squeeze.
“I can see if she’s available today, if you like?” Joanne asks. “See if she can drop in after her appointments?”
“Oh- no, I wouldn’t want to be a burden,” I say. “Tomorrow at 9:30 will be fine, I- I’ve got someone with me.”
“I’ll book that in for you,” Joanne says. “I’ll make sure Dr Phillips knows it’ll be a home visit. As it’s her first appointment tomorrow she may even be there earlier, will that be okay?”
“Yes, yes thank you!” I say, breathing a sigh of relief before bidding farewell to the young receptionist and ending the call.
“Feel better for that?” Kayla asks with a smile.
“A little,” I sigh.
“Good,” Kayla whispers. “…So, ‘Steve’, then?”
“Yep,” I sigh. “Literally as I in mid-snog with Liam. I dunno, maybe I’m just not ga- maybe I’m just not, you know, into boys. Or at least, ‘Steve’ isn’t…”
“Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with ‘alternative preferences’,” Kayla says. “And nothing wrong with, you know, ‘experimenting’…”
“Have- have you ever, you know, ‘experimented’?” I ask.
“…Not really,” Kayla mumbles. “Anyway, we’re not talking about me, are we? We’re trying to be getting you better.”
“And I thought YOU said you weren’t qualified to psychoanalyse me?” I retort, making the tiny blonde girl giggle.
“And I’m not,” Kayla says. “Not even close. But I AM your best friend. That’s makes me qualified- actually, it makes me, you know, obliged to make you feel better. You’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you?”
“Well- of course,” I whisper. “Assuming I’m actually here…”
“That- that kinda sounds like ‘Steve’ speaking,” Kayla says, making me chuckle as I realise fairly quickly that it was likely ‘Steve’ who put the thought in my head.
“…Probably,” I sigh. “Sometimes I- I kinda struggle, you know? To keep ‘me’ and ‘him’ separate…”
“Umm, like I said, I’m not a counsellor, but surely keeping ‘you’ and ‘him’ separate ISN’T a good idea?” Kayla asks, sighing as I shrug. “Either way, my VERY untrained advice is just to ignore ‘him’. Especially if ‘he’s telling you to quit the band!”
“Wish it was that easy,” I sigh. “Just hope Beverly can prescribe something tomorrow, some sort of ‘anti-Steve’ pills or something…”
“Thought your oestrogen was meant to do that?” Kayla asks.
“Physically, yes, mentally, no,” I sigh. “Gah… I- I think I just need to get my head together tonight. I’m home, so that should at least be SOME help.”
“Anything you need, just ask,” Kayla whispers, making me grin.
“Well…” I say with a sly grin. “There is ONE thing that usually helps…” Kayla giggles excitedly, before reaching underneath our coffee table for our well-used Xbox controllers.
The gaming session is a welcome distraction from my stresses, and being home and in my usual spot on my sofa really helps to set my mind at ease, though when the time comes for me to head to bed, my stresses have once again returned- and so has ‘Steve’.
‘It doesn’t matter what you or anyone else does or says,’ ‘Steve’ says to me as I lay awake in bed. ‘I’ll always be the REAL you. You’ll see that when you see Tom on his birthday.’
“These thoughts are my own,” I whisper in a desperate attempt to block the voices out of my mind.
‘Or maybe YOUR thoughts are MY own,’ ‘Steve’ retorts, making me bash my head against my pillow in frustration as I clench my eyes tightly shut and try my best to get to sleep, though whenever I do sleep, it’s only for a few minutes at most, and ‘Steve’ is always waiting to taunt me when I wake up.
With Dr Phillips arriving early, I get up extra early on the warm Wednesday morning to ensure that I’ll be in the shower first- which I realise is especially important when I look in my mirror at the tangled mess that my hair has become. With the exception of losing an inch or two here or there when having it restyled, I’ve been pretty much growing my hair non-stop for the last two and a half years, and it was long- well, long for a boy- to begin with, back when it was ‘Steve’s hair.
Naturally, it takes longer to wash than it did back then, even longer to dry and longer yet to brush out all the knots and tangles that my sleepless night caused. Once I’ve finished brushing, I take a look at my face in my mirror, and let out a long, tired sigh. Yet again, when I look at myself in the mirror, I see only ‘Stephanie’, not ‘Steve’, though I know ‘he’s in there somewhere. However, as I apply my make-up, I feel more and more at ease, almost as though ‘disguising’ myself as ‘Stephanie’ causes ‘Steve’ to vanish more and more into the background. If only it was a permanent solution…
Even though I’m not going anywhere today (as Beverly is visiting me at my home), I feel a need to be as feminine as I possibly can today, almost like I need to prove to myself- and to the world- that I am ‘Stephanie’ and not ‘Steve’. After pulling on my usual ‘control’ underwear, I stretch a pair of shiny black tights over my soft, smooth legs, before stepping into a clingy black short-sleeved bodysuit that's low-cut just enough to give the illusion of a little cleavage. After looking through my wardrobes for a skirt, I eventually settle on a khaki miniskirt that clings tightly to my backside. My look is maybe a bit 'sexy' for a meeting with my counsellor, but with every item of feminine attire that I ease onto my slender, hairless body, I feel more and more confident, more excited to be alive- but at the same time, I feel more and more apprehensive that at any moment, ‘Steve’ could rear ‘his’ ugly head, asking what I thought I was doing dressing in such a feminine manner.
As I look at my reflection in the mirror again, all I see now is someone who is unquestionably female, someone who belongs in this gender just as much as someone fortunate enough to have been born female.
‘Keep telling yourself that,’ ‘Steve’ interjects, making me flinch.
“I don’t need to tell myself that,” I say confidently. “Others will tell it to me as well. Watch.” I take a deep breath as I knock on Kayla’s bedroom door, grimacing as I hear the tiny girl stirring. Under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn’t dream of waking Kayla up in this manner, as she can be truly fierce when she’s tired, but these are far from ordinary circumstances.
“Come in,” Kayla says in a voice that almost qualifies as a growl. I bite my scarlet lip as I walk through the door, before giggling as the tiny girl- who has a pretty serious case of bed head herself- grins at my appearance and gives me a playful wolf whistle.
“You like?” I ask as I do a slow, model-like turn for my friend.
“I like it so much that I’ll even forgiven you for waking me up,” Kayla says. “Provided they make that bodysuit and that skirt in extra small, that is!”
“I’ll give you the website I got them from in exchange for your hair straighteners,” I say, grabbing the heavy hairstyling tool from Kayla’s dressing table.
“Deal,” Kayla says, sitting up. “They’ll need a few minutes to hear up. Why d’you want them, anyway? You hair’s not THAT curly…”
“It’s wavy,” I reply. “And thinner than I like. It looks- it looks more feminine when it’s arrow straight.”
“Ah,” Kayla whispers in reply. “And today, you want to go as feminine as possible, right?” I nod in reply, making my friend smile. “GOOD. Hopefully by the time Beverly leaves here, ‘Steve’ will be a thing of the past, hehe!”
“Yeah,” I laugh as I begin straightening my dark brown hair.
“You… You don’t sound so sure,” Kayla says cautiously.
“It’s just…” I say with a grimace. “What if it turns out that ‘Steve’ is the ‘real me’, and ‘Stephanie’ is, you know, a fake?”
“Ugh, Steph…” Kayla sighs. “I don’t know how many times we’re going to go down this road. I look at you, and I only see a girl. ONLY a girl. It’s not the clothes, it’s not the make-up or the hair or even those things that I know are growing on your chest. It- it’s hard to describe, Steph, but it- it’s YOU. You don’t- you may have been pretending to be a girl at the start, but you- you don’t need to pretend anymore, you know?”
“I think I know what you mean,” I whisper as I muse on how naturally feminine I act, both in my body language and my mannerisms. Even if I wanted to convincingly pass as a male, I’d have to make a conscious effort not to slip back into acting femininely.
‘But body language can be learned,’ ‘Steve’ reminds me, making me shudder.
“Oi!” Kayla yells, startling me. “Steve! Get out of my friend’s head!”
“…Doesn’t really work that way,” I say, making Kayla giggle as she gets out of bed and heads to the shower. “If only it did…”
After a quick cup of coffee- which obviously does nothing to soothe my nerves- I retreat to the sofa to wait for my counsellor to arrive, and within minutes, the familiar sound of our doorbell resonates throughout our flat.
“Hi!” I say nervously as I open the door and am greeted by the middle-aged face of my counsellor.
“Hello Stephanie,” Dr Phillips says, wiping her smart court shoes on our doormat before sitting down next to me on my sofa.
“I’ll make myself scarce, then,” Kayla says, motioning to stand up.
“No,” I whisper. “I- I’d like Kayla to stay, please.”
“It’s your session,” Beverly says.
“…And after yesterday, I- I kinda figured that Steph, well, you know…” Kayla mutters, exchanging a knowing smile with me.
“So…” Beverly says. “I take it that something happened yesterday? I know you’ve been away for a week doing publicity, you were in Manchester, if I recall?”
“Yes,” I say, taking a deep breath as I prepare to embarrass myself in front of my counsellor and my friend. “Yesterday, on the train home, I- I got- I kinda, umm…”
“Take your time,” Beverly says softly, as I glance over at Kayla with a pleading looking in my eyes.
“Steph got off the train a few stops early,” Kayla says softly. “She- she was going to run away again.”
“I see,” Beverly says, clearly unhappy with the news.
“I changed my mind pretty much immediately as I got off the train,” I plead to both women. “I honestly did, I knew that it wouldn’t solve anything-“
“But you did get the urge, the impulse to run away again,” Beverly says. “And however brief it was, you DID act on the impulse.”
“And Steph’s been hearing ‘Steve’s voice again,” Kayla says, prompting a glare from me that almost immediately vanishes as I realise that Kayla, like Beverly, is only acting in my own good.
“…I am,” I sigh. “I have been for a few months, ever since- ever since I had, umm, ever since I kissed a guy at a party…”
“Okay,” Beverly says softly. “Obviously, my first advice would be: no more guys for the foreseeable future.”
“No more guys!” I mock-cheer to the tune of our single ‘No More Lies’ while rolling my eyes.
“I know, I know, I’ve been twenty-one,” Beverly says with a grin. “But the last thing you need right now is emotional disturbance. I’m also considering whether or not you should continue with your hormone treatment.”
“…Oh,” I said, fidgeting uncomfortably as I can almost hear ‘Steve’ sniggering in the back of my mind.
“Eesh, looks like we’ve joined by an uninvited guest,” Kayla sighs, instantly recognising the tell-tale signs of ‘Steve’s presence.
“’Steve’?” Beverly asks, remaining calm as I nod and wipe a tear from my eye. “Then we should address ‘him’ now. In our previous meetings, you always described ‘him’ as being like a- a ‘presence’, rather than having a distinct personality of his own. Is this still the case?”
“It’s like- it’s like he doesn’t want me to be happy, or settled,” I sigh. “Like a constant doubt in my mind, only that doubt is speaking with my voice. My OLD voice.”
“What is it that you’re doubting?” Beverly asks.
“Whether or not I am really meant to be a girl,” I confess, breathing a sigh of relief as it feels like a weight has been lifted from my chest.
“And what do you feel?” Beverly asks. “I don’t mean ‘what does Stephanie feel’, or even ‘what does Steve feel’, but what do you, stripped of all names, feel?”
“…That all my life, I’ve dreamed of being a girl,” I say. “That my life is a fantasy. And… And I don’t know whether or not I deserve all the good things that have happened to me.”
“That’s… Not an uncommon feeling for people in your position,” Beverly says. “Especially with your fame and fortune.”
“I bet Jamie-bloody-Lee Burke didn’t ever have any episodes like this,” I snort.
“I dunno, you might be surprised,” Beverly says with a sly grin. “Stephanie… I’m not going to tell you what you should do. Only you can do that. I will listen to what you say, and tell you what I observe.”
“And what have you ‘observed’?” I ask as I try to fight back yet more tears.
“That you’ve been given- no, that you’ve EARNED a life many people would envy,” Beverly says. “And you yourself have stated that you feel like you don’t deserve it.”
“And you wouldn’t be the only one,” Kayla whispers. “By which I mean there are times I feel like I don’t deserve my fame and fortune.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I snort. “You’re, like, the most talented singer in the band. Probably the most talented singer in the country.”
“I’m a five foot nothing plain-faced nineteen year old girl,” Kayla snorts.
“You’re not ‘plain’,” I retort.
“AND you’re just as good a singer as I am,” Kayla says, making me snort with laughter. "You are! You wouldn't have made it into the band if you weren't, and you know that. You also wouldn't have made it into the band if you weren't a convincing girl. And you know THAT too."
"Well, I guess..." I mumble.
"And I don't just mean convincing-looking," Kayla continues. "Remember what I said this morning? I can see, deep down, that you're a girl inside."
"...Thanks," I whisper.
"I'm really, really glad the two of you live together," Beverly says, breaking the momentary silence. "You really do bring out the best in each other, you complement each other and boost each other's confidence marvellously. And I think that's what you need right now more than anything, Stephanie- a confidence boost."
"Yeah, easier said than done," I sigh.
"Obviously this isn't going to happen overnight," Beverly says. "And we'll need to talk more- a LOT more- before we get to the root cause of your anxieties and why their manifesting as 'Steve'. But I'm reasonably sure that 'Steve' is a manifestation of your self-doubt, of all your paranoia at the thought that you don't deserve this life. Originally, it- I won't do 'him' the dignity of using a gendered pronoun- IT was a manifestation of your paranoia at being 'found out', am I right?"
"Well- yes, I guess," I say. "And he- sorry, IT was the reason I ran away in the first place."
"I thought as much," Beverly says with a confident smile. "Stephanie, I am still convinced that medically speaking, you are a woman trapped in the body of a man. For now, I'm happy to keep you on oestrogen as well, as I feel taking you off of it will do more harm than good, but I do want to keep a closer eye on you, so I'll be booking you in for two appointments per week from now on."
"I understand," I whisper.
"Our immediate concern has to be identifying the source of your doubt and paranoia," Beverly says. "You don't need to be worried about being 'found out' anymore, as there is nothing to find out about you. So I need to ask: what were you running away from yesterday?"
"I- ugh, I dunno..." I sigh. "Tom, I guess? Though it's hardly like I see him every day- or ever, if I don't want to... Same goes for Jamie-Lee, and my love life..." I grimace as I briefly glance toward Kayla- a look I silently hope both women didn't pick up on. "...You're probably right that I put that to the back of the queue for now, heh. Maybe I'm just using all of this as an excuse to run away... Maybe I really AM afraid of- or maybe I just don't really want to be a woman after all."
"Crap," Kayla snorts, earning stern stares from myself and Beverly. "It is, though. You've had loads of opportunities to go back to being 'Steve'. You've been taking hormones for over six months. If you weren't committed, you wouldn't be sat here right now looking like THAT."
"Perhaps not the most delicate way of putting it," Beverly says with a quiet chuckle. "But it raises a question. You've said in the past that a large factor in you not turning down the position in Out of Heaven was the money side of things. Picture this scenario: you're offered a job that will offer you just as much fame and as much fortune as you have now in Out of Heaven. The only catch is you will have to live your life full-time as a male again. You'd still be able to crossdress in your spare time, and interact privately with your friends as a woman, but as far as the outside world is concerned, you would be, once again, 'Steve'. Would you take that job?"
"No," I say without a moment's hesitation, almost surprising myself with the speed of my answer.
"There you are," Beverly shrugs. "I don't need to ask if that was 'Steve' or 'Stephanie' speaking, as I know immediately that the answer is 'both' and 'neither'. If was you speaking, not some name or label you want to apply to yourself."
"Other than the only label that counts- 'woman'," Kayla says with a smug grin that fades as Beverly once again glares at her. "I, umm, I can go if- if you'd prefer..."
"No- stay, please," I say softly. "You're right. It's like 'Steve' is as far back in my mind as he's-"
"No," Beverly interrupts, making me smile.
"Sorry," I giggle. "As far back as IT has ever been. I should probably stop calling him 'Steve', too."
"I would recommend that," Beverly says with a smile. "Stephanie... I hope you realise that you aren't alone. You'll never be alone, not with this amazing circle of friends you have around you and a supporting family. And there's no need to ever run away!"
"I know, I know," I sigh. "Shall I get used to wearing an ankle bracelet?"
"I'd recommend you get used to confronting problems first, rather than avoiding them," Beverly says. "You said your top anxieties were your brother and Jamie-Lee, is that correct?"
"Yeah," I sigh. "Heh, I'm not even that fussed about Jamie-Lee anymore, I don't bother her and she doesn't bother me, but Tom... Gonna be a lot harder to avoid him. Especially with his new daughter. And to cap it all off, it's his birthday tomorrow..."
"That's certainly a set of circumstances that'll push him to the front of your mind," Beverly says softly. "He's never fully embraced you as his sister, has he?"
"No," I whisper. "He's pretty much the only person who hasn't... When we were growing up, I was actually closer to him than I was to Danny- my middle brother, you know? Danny was always the one who'd pick on me and tease me, and Tom would stick up for me... It really hurt when he rejected me when I came out."
"If he'd supported you the way Danny has, would it have made you want to run away yesterday?" Beverly asks.
"No way," I say, shaking my head.
"Then you need to tell HIM that," Beverly says firmly. "It's appropriate that it's his birthday tomorrow, as he needs to be made to see that having you as his sister is one of the best gifts he could possibly get. Well, next to a baby daughter, of course!"
"Yeah," I laugh. "I'll have to check with mum to see when we're all meeting up, 'cause of my parents' work schedules... They might have had the party already, heh."
"Text her after the session finishes," Beverly urges. "For now, I want you to focus on positive memories of Tom. Tell me a story of when he was at his kindest, like when he was defending you against your other brother's teasing."
"Well, okay," I say as I try to remember back to when my brother and I were still on speaking terms...
Just over an hour later, Kayla and I bid my counsellor farewell, before I slump back down on the sofa, my phone in hand.
"This week has been MAD," I sigh. "Pun definitely not intended."
"What pun?" Kayla asks.
"Me- because- because, you know, I'm-" I say, before the blonde girl cuts me off.
"Ah-ah-ah," Kayla admonishes. "You're stressed. Your emotions are strained. That doesn't make you mad."
"...I was once in a psychiatric hospital," I remind my friend.
"You committed yourself," Kayla retorts. "...You should probably text your mum."
"Yeah," I sigh, opening up the text messages on my phone, only to snort with laughter. "Huh, looks like I can save myself the cost of a text, mum's already texted me."
"Cool," Kayla says. "When are you meeting up?"
"Tonight," I moan. "7pm at my parents' house. Danny & Rachel will be there too."
"And your cute little niece?" Kayla asks.
"Given that she's a week old and both of her parents will be there, I'd say so," I sigh. "Kayla- I- can... Umm, would you- would you, you know... Come with me tonight?"
"Me!?" Kayla asks. "I barely even know Tom..."
"You know my parents, and they like you," I shrug. "I'd ask- ugh. No, I just- I just don't want to, you know, show up alone..."
"Of course," Kayla whispers with a nod, which turns into a giggle as I thank her with a gentle hug.
Encouraged by the session with Beverly and by Kayla's support, I spend the rest of the morning and afternoon catching up on my social media (and watching as the new app causes my usual 'like' count go through the roof), before the time comes to change for tonight's party. Rather than go in my casual clothing, I change into a smart, but still playful knee-length dress with an A-line skirt, a fitted bodice and an intricately stitched pattern throughout. It was one of the new dresses I bought while in Manchester- I never imagined that Tom would be the 'recipient' of its first outing.
Nor would I have imagined 24 hours ago that I'd be able to go through a whole day- more or less- without 'Steve' making his presence known. Beverly’s advice really paid off- by not giving 'it' a voice, by dehumanising it by using 'it' instead of 'him'... It hasn't eliminated my doubts or my anxieties, but it has cut off their 'voice', reducing them to niggling little feelings at the back of my mind- but not eliminating them altogether...
I feel more self-conscious than ever as I walk up to my parents' front door in my expensive dress and high heels, even though my best friend is stood next to me in a dress even more expensive than mine and (owing to her short stature) heels even higher than mine. It's almost a relief when Rachel- Danny's girlfriend- opens the door to reveal that she's also wearing a smart dress and heeled shoes.
"Hi Steph!" Rachel says excitedly as she greets me and Kayla with air kisses before leading us through to the living room, where the rest of the family awaits- all of whom are focussing their attention on the seven day old girl in her mother's arms.
"Finally" Danny teases, greeting me with a hug before leading me and Kayla to our seats.
"Hello Steph!" Dad says, giving me a hug like I've always been his daughter. "Hi Kayla! Thanks for accompanying Steph tonight."
"Oh, it's my pleasure," Kayla giggles. "As long as no one gets the impression that we're a couple, anyway..." I roll my eyes as Danny, Rachel and Kayla herself all giggle at the tiny blonde girl's joke. My relaxed frame of mind suddenly shatters, though, when I come face to face with the person- well, one of the people, anyway- whose birth we're gathered to celebrate.
"H- hi, Tom," I mumble.
"Hi," Tom says, barely able to look at me or even say my name. I bite my lip to try to prevent 'it' from speaking in the back of my mind, but before any negative thoughts bubble to the surface, dad stands up and quietens the room.
"My family," dad says with pride. "We're here tonight because thirty-one years ago- well, thirty years, three hundred and sixty-four days ago- Samantha and I were blessed with the greatest gift the world has to offer. The gift of a beautiful baby boy. Samantha and I were blessed twice more afterwards-" Way to avoid stating the genders of your other two children, I think to myself- "but Tom will always be our firstborn, the first child to laugh in this house, to cry in this house-"
"-To soil his nappy in this house," Danny interrupts, earning a smack on the back of his head from my father and a middle finger from our older brother.
"The point is," dad says, "for the last thirty-one years, Tom, I've watched you grow from a boy into a man. And a damned good man at that. Happy birthday, son."
"Happy birthday!" Everyone cheers- though my cheer was much more restrained than everyone else's.
"And now," dad continues, "every year at this time of year, we will get to celebrate twice as much as we had before, as this year, Tom- and, of course, Amanda, who I freely admit did all the work. Trust me, I've seen more than my fair shares of births in the back of my ambulance! Tom and Amanda have given us the greatest gift any parent can receive- a beautiful granddaughter."
"Thanks, dad," Tom says, doing his best to hide his emotions.
"No, thank you, DAD!" Dad says, making my brother laugh nervously as he makes severe furtive glances in my direction.
"So NOW can we find out what you named her?" Danny asks.
"Yes," Tom says, taking several deep, nervous breaths as he stands up. "Everyone, as you know, we had originally planned to name our daughter Claire, after Amanda's mother. But after careful consideration, we have changed those plans. Claire will be her middle name, but we have instead decided to name our daughter after her aunt, who I hope my little girl will grow to be just as good a person as. Everyone, I'd like you to meet... Stephanie Abbott." My jaw drops as Tom makes his announcement, while everyone's gaze immediately turns toward me.
"Ste- Steph-" I babble, before my emotions overcome me and I burst into a flood of tears. Immediately, I'm consoled by Kayla and my mum, only to tear up even more as Tom approaches me with his daughter in his arms.
"Stephanie, meet Stephanie," Tom says, both to me and to the baby girl.
"He- hello, Stephanie," I sniffle as Tom gently hands me the tiny baby, who I cradle in my arms. Despite my tear-streaked face, I smile as I look up at the numerous cameraphones that are pointed at me. And for once, there's no anxiety, no doubt in the back of my mind. Just an overwhelming sensation of love and acceptance. For what feels like the first time in forever, I know exactly who I'm supposed to be. Daughter, sister, and now aunt.
Half an hour later, after I've had the chance to dry my tears (and repair my ruined make-up), I find myself sat across the kitchen table from Tom, who for the first time ever is looking at his sister with a smile on his face.
"...Wow," I say after I've had the chance to catch my breath. "Really, just- wow. I- I don't know what to say, I really, really don't."
"Thank you would be a good start," Tom says, making me chuckle.
"Thank you," I say. "What- what made you change your mind?"
"Change my mind about what?" Tom asks.
"About ME!" I reply. "Twelve months ago you could barely look at me. Now you're naming your daughter after me?"
"Well," Tom shrugs. "I figured that when she goes to school and people ask her her name and she says 'Stephanie Abbott', the other kids will ask 'oh, like the singer?', then my Stephi will say 'yeah, actually she's my aunt', and then she'll be the most popular girl in the school."
"Or the least popular, for being named after a transsexual," I say in a dark voice.
"I'm hoping that by 2022, nobody will care about that anymore," Tom says.
"Big hope," I say.
"I've stopped caring about it," Tom shrugs, making me smile.
"...So what made you stop caring?" I ask.
"Becoming a father," Tom says candidly. "The first time I looked at my Stephi's face, I- I burst into tears. I was way more of a mess than you were just now, trust me. I knew then that I would literally do absolutely ANYTHING for my little girl. And I got thinking about how dad defended you against me. And I felt shame. Utterly ashamed for the way I treated you. Because I know that if I had a son who wanted to be a girl, or even if my Stephi wants to be a boy when she gets older, I'll give her my 100% support. Because that's what a father should do. And... It's what a big brother should do. Or in my case, should have done. Hopefully this'll go some way toward making it up to you."
"Oh- trust me, I owe YOU for this, heh!" I say, making Tom chuckle.
"Can you get little Stephi into that dance class you go to?" Tom asks. "When she's old enough, of course."
"Consider it done," I say. "Actually... How long are you off work for?"
"Another week on paternity leave," Tom says. "Why?"
"Are you, Amanda and Stephi doing anything tomorrow?" I ask, a sly grin creeping across my face.
The following morning, the grin on my face has changed from a sly one to a nervous one, as I stand next to the heavily pregnant Krystie Fullerton- who predictably signed Stephi up for toddler classes two years from now the second she laid eyes on the baby girl.
"Girls," Krystie announces, "as you know, it's tradition in this class for a student to perform a solo dance on the class closest to their birthday. Today, we are celebrating the birth of Stephanie Abbott... The second. But as little Stephi is only eight days old, the dance will be performed by her gorgeous, girly auntie instead!"
I smile as the music begins and I begin to perform my hastily-practised steps. On my body is a gorgeous, extra-wide pink tutu, my legs are covered in skin-tight pink tights, and on my feet are my own pair of shiny satin pointe shoes. When I wore this costume in January for my own birthday, I felt self-conscious to be wearing it in a room full of 'real women'. But today... I belong in this costume just as much as any of the other women in the room belong in their pink tights and black leotards. Even Jamie-Lee Burke (or Jamie-Lee Milton as she's now known), who is the first to congratulate me with a tight hug at the end of my routine.
The approval I really care about, though, comes from the proud father who is sat at the side of the room cradling his eight day old daughter in his arms. His tale of breaking down at the sight of little Stephi just proves to me that no one ever has it 100% together all the time. It's okay that I sometimes get stressed. That doesn't make me any less a person, or more importantly, any less a woman. I'll be fine, just as long as I don't turn my back on the people who love me- because I now know for sure that they'll never turn their backs on me. And the 'thing' in the back of my mind? No longer has a voice, or any place in my life. Sure, I might not have a lover right now, as I'm reminded when Becca and Adeola greet their boyfriends with long kisses at the end of the lesson, but I have something much more important- family.
"You were AWESOME," Kayla says as I change from my tutu back into my street clothes. "What you got planned for the rest of the day?"
"Just hanging out with the family," I say. "Fussing over little Stephi all day, probably."
"Aww, SO cute," Kayla sighs. "I'll see you back at the flat, then?"
"Why?" I ask. "Any reason you shouldn't be part of this family?" Kayla laughs and gives me a tight hug at my invitation.
"So cool!" Kayla squeaks excitedly. "Just let me get my skirt on and I'll see you outside then... Sis!"
"Yep!" I squeak as I head out into the waiting area, where my family are sat fussing over the baby girl. 'Sis'? Yeah, that works for me. For now, anyway...
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