Through the fire
by Maeryn Lamonte
Copyright © 2017
Hopefully this isn’t too soon after the Grenfell Tower disaster to seem disrespectful. I actually started writing it a year ago, and only picked it up to try and finish it a few months back. Then a lot of people died in London and I put it back on the shelf with all the many unfinished stories I seem to have generated recently. I feel I need to get something published again though, and I hate having all these loose ends floating about in my life. I have one story that’s just topped 200,000 words with a couple of chapters to go, which I’m hoping to finish this summer. Haven’t decided what I’m going to do with that yet, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think of this one.
So, I have to wonder what you'd have done under the circumstances.
I grew up thinking this thing inside of me was wrong. I don't think it was anything anyone said specifically, although I do remember the comments my parents made whenever something about trans-people showed on the news, or even when comedians did something that involved dragging up.
Anyway, whether it was my parents or whoever, I ended up being stuck with a sense that it was wrong. Most times I'd resist until I got so stressed I couldn't stand it anymore, then I'd give into it, and almost immediately afterwards, I'd feel guilty.
It took years to reach the conclusion that there was nothing wrong with it, but eventually I managed to accept that I wasn't doing myself or anyone else any harm, and since that was the case, then how exactly could it be wrong?
It still didn't do much to change a lifetime of habits, but at least my own sense of guilt subsided. Despite this, I remained convinced that I lived in a world filled with people who saw individuals like me as wrong, just as I had done. People who as yet didn’t have any incentive to change their minds.
So I hid away still, just enjoying my girl time instead of struggling with the misery of guilt. I found that if I allowed the girl in me to come to the surface for at least part of the day, the rest of me functioned a little better during the remainder, and the easiest way to achieve this was always at night.
Thank goodness for the Internet and the anonymity it offered for stealth shoppers. I bought a selection of nightdresses and a pretty robe or two to wear over them. Even a dress or two for special occasions. Then I settled into the habit each evening of enjoying a relaxing bubble bath and a quiet night in, dressed for bed. No one ever visited and none of my neighbours even so much as greeted me, that I've noticed, so I felt safe behind locked doors with the curtains closed
I grew my hair as long as I dared, and kept it neat. It drew its share of comments at times, but for the most part I think I found a reasonable balance between not looking feminine during the day, and not looking horrendous in the evenings.
It was never an ideal solution, but it worked for me. I’d found a compromise that kept me going.
So, put yourself in my fluffy pink slippers for a moment. What would you have done the night the fire alarm went off?
The fire instructions they gave us when we first moved in were very clear. Don't stop to pick anything up, just leave. Fires can spread quickly in places like my block of flats, and even a few seconds could mean the difference between life and death. Not just for you either. Think about the lives of the firemen you'd be putting at risk if they had to come in and rescue you.
Risk assessment is all about balancing likelihood with severity. Sure, you could argue the likelihood of getting trapped in the few seconds it would take to change is way low, but putting someone's life at risk isn't worth taking even that much of a chance.
I grabbed my silk robe off the back of the door, stuck my feet in my slippers – yes, they are pink, and fluffy – and joined the rest of my neighbours exiting the block of flats.
Stairs not lift. If there's a real fire, you don't want to be caught in a lift. But that just made it worse. Rubbing shoulders with so many strangers down interminable flights of stairs, all the while waiting for the first person to notice.
Of course, it was too much to ask that no one notice.
It felt odd to be outside and in company with my nighty flapping round my knees. My legs were cold, but that wasn't surprising since I'd shaved them not a few hours before. It was another offering to the girl inside. Hairless legs are more sensitive. They made me feel considerably more girly in the nightdress, and even a little more in normal clothes, but that night they were just cold.
We made it outside and looked up at our homes. There was definitely smoke, and flickering flames, coming from the flat two floors directly beneath mine. As we watched, they broke through the ceiling. If I'd stayed behind, I'd have been in serious trouble.
"Shit," a quiet male voice said beside me. "Do you know who lived there, or if they made it out okay?"
"I don't know anyone," I replied, keeping my voice soft and in a slightly higher register than usual. "It looks like my flat's next though."
He looked at me curiously. "I thought our neighbour was a guy." Then recognition dawned in his eyes, swiftly followed by a look of contempt that indicated I’d been right to hide this part of me behind closed doors. He sidled away into the crowd.
The fire brigade arrived a few minutes later, but not before the flames had climbed through a couple more stories. I stood in the chill, wearing all I had left in the world, and wondered what the hell I was going to do.
The police worked their way through the crowd, asking for names and flat numbers. Eventually they came to me, and an attractive WPC took me to one side.
"Andrew Warburton," I said in my normal voice. No sense trying to hide who I was. She'd find out soon enough.
She looked up from her notes with an appraising gaze.
"I'm supposed to be interviewing women," she said, "but I doubt any of my colleagues would be particularly respectful towards you, so why don't we just carry on?"
"Thank you," I answered, quietly grateful.
"Five one three."
She looked up at the building, fire now more or less under control, but with a long black scar up its side.
"The fire started in three one three," she said.
"Yes, and made its way up through mine. I doubt I even have a floor left."
"It's as well you came straight out, even..."
She indicated my attire.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," I said. "Everything I own was up there. Wallet, insurance documents, trousers."
"We'll sort something out." She put a reassuring hand on my arm. It wasn't much, but it was more than I'd allowed myself to expect.
There were a few more questions, but nothing that amounted to much. She thanked me and returned to the crowd. Despite her reassurances, it seemed I was already forgotten.
"Hi," a shy little voice addressed me. At least I assumed it addressed me. It's difficult to tell with shy people.
I turned to find a rather homely face smiling at me nervously from beneath an unkempt bush of frizzy hair.
"Hi," I responded.
"I'm Jill," she held out her hand in that awkward, straight arm manner which some people have.
"Andrew," I said, taking her hand gently for a moment.
"We're neighbours," she continued, unfazed by my appearance. "I live in five oh seven. "Sorry about the hair. It takes quite a lot of taming most days."
"None of us are at our best under circumstances like these," I said, shrugging at my own appearance.
"I think you look kind of nice." She blushed. "Do you have a, like a girl name or something?"
"I, er, I don't tend to go out like this much, so I've never really bothered."
"You should, you know. You look good."
"Thanks, but you don't have to humour me."
"Who's humouring who? I'd give my back teeth to be half as good looking as you."
It made me stop and really look at her. Underneath the wild, frizzy hair, the plain face, the freckles, I found I rather liked the person looking back. I managed a smile, despite my circumstances.
"I really don't know what you're talking about," I said. "It's not much of a compliment, but you're way better looking than I could ever hope to be."
She smiled back. "Okay, so neither of us is great at accepting compliments. I wonder if we have anything else in common."
"Not really at the top of my list of worries right now. My flat just got torched and all I have is, well, this lot. I have no idea what to do next."
"You are insured, aren't you?"
"Then what's the problem?"
"Tell me you're not serious."
"No, really. I mean sure, your place is kind of crispy compared to most of the rest of us, but with inspecting the place for damage and looking for what caused it, I don't think any of us are going back in tonight. We're all stuck out here in our nightwear."
"Except I’m the only one wearing a nightdress."
"No. Mrs Peters over there has one on, and, oh I don't know, I can see another half dozen at least."
"Now you're just being obtuse." I was beginning to get annoyed with her attitude.
"Look it's not the end of the world. Every cloud and all that, eh? If you don't mind sticking with me, I'll look out for you. We'll be alright."
"Well, I suppose so."
"Don't do me any favours, will you."
"I'm sorry, I'm... I guess I'm a bit scared."
A couple of coaches drove through the cordon and pulled up opposite us. One of the policeman took hold of a loudhailer and moved into a clear area.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he yelled, his voice distorting through the horn. "we've arranged for you to spend the night in a hotel nearby. If you'd climb into the coaches, will take you there now."
"See?" Jill said with arched eyebrows. "Things are looking up already."
"Until we get to the hotel and they put us all in double rooms. I doubt whoever they give me to bunk with is going to react very well to my appearance."
"Well, I suppose we'll see," she said, taking me by the crook of the arm and herding me towards the second of the two coaches.
She steered me towards the back and pushed me into a corner seat. I kept my head down, and no one really noticed I was there. The journey took such a short time, we might have walked quicker.
The policeman had followed in his patrol car. He was waiting for us as we climbed down.
"Families first, please," he announced, "and if the rest of you could get into pairs. I'm afraid we don't have any single rooms available."
My prediction of doom seemed about to be fulfilled. I didn't know anyone here, and as the more normal ones paired off, it looked like I was going to be stuck with one of the weirdos; which somewhat ironically was probably what they were thinking about me.
Jill held onto my arm, and when time came for us to go forward, she dragged me with her.
"We're together," she said. I'm Jill in five oh seven, and this is Drew from five one three."
The policeman hunted through his list and ticked off our two rooms, handed us a key and waved us on.
"You didn't have to do that," I said to her.
"No, but then damsels in distress do need to be rescued."
"Now you're making fun of me."
"Not in the least. You are so touchy; did you know that?"
We found our room and Jill let us in. She made a dash for the loo, so I set about making us both a drink.
"Hot chocolate?" I called.
"Sounds amazing," she replied over the sound of her bladder emptying.
There was a knock at the door and I opened it without thinking.
A maid handed me a couple of towels and a couple of packets of toiletries.
"Compliments of the management." She smiled and moved on before I had a chance to respond.
"See?" Jill had returned from the bathroom. "I doubt she suspected you were anything more than you seem."
"A gorilla in a nightdress," I supplied.
"A young woman who's not looking her best in the middle of the night, and who's more than a little distraught because her home just burned down," she insisted and took the towels from me. "Now where's my hot chocolate?"
"If you don't mind me asking, why are you being so nice to me?"
"Why shouldn't I be? You don't strike me as someone who deserves to be despised."
"Well, no, but I mean the nightdress and stuff, that doesn't bother you?"
"To be honest, I'm finding all the whinging and pessimism harder to cope with. I mean sure this is not the greatest of situations, and you probably do have it worse than the rest of us, but you have to learn to roll with the punches and make the best of what you're given."
"And exactly what have I been given that's worth making the best of?"
"I could really go off you," she said looking a little miffed. "How about us meeting? Or am I turning out to be dreadful company?"
"No, of course not. I'm just a bit… I'm sorry, I'm kind of preoccupied."
"With how things might work out, yes, you said. But they haven't turned out so bad so far, have they? I mean you're not bunking with some Neanderthal homophobe who's just been let out of prison, are you?"
"Doesn't it bother you that you're sharing with a, a..."
"As far as I'm concerned, you're just another girl, which is kind of neat, 'cos I know you're a guy underneath it all, but with us being like two girls on the surface, there's nothing getting in the way of us being friends.
"Effectively I get to have a guy friend without any of the usual shit that goes with having a guy friend."
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"What would you say if I told you, the only time a guy ever asked me out it was on a dare?"
"Oh, that's not fair."
"I know. But, you know, we've lived pretty much next to each other for, like what, three years now? You've never once said a word to me."
"Before tonight I never said a word to anyone."
"Fair enough, but be honest. Would you, as a guy, ask me out?"
There was one of those uncomfortable silences where I found myself caught between stark honesty and the more diplomatic lie.
"You'd be thinking, 'What if my mates see me',f wouldn't you?"
"I don't really have any mates," I said, rather cleverly avoiding the question, or so I thought.
"Not the point," she said, even more cleverly pushing it back in front of me. "But you don't have to answer, it's written all over your face."
"I'm sorry, I..."
"Don't worry. It's kind of what I'd expect, and I don't really blame you. I get the sort of peer pressure there is between guys.
"Besides, you don't feel the same right now do you?"
"Well, right now I'm just worried that all this is going to become public knowledge." I pointed at my clothing again.
"Would that be the worst thing in the world?"
"Let me put it this way. Why do you do it? Why put on a nightdress if you're so worried about being found out?"
"Because this is the only way I get to feel like the real me."
"Okay, if that's the case, why don't you do it all the time and stuff the consequences?"
"Because I can't live in a world where everyone hates me. I already had one guy tonight look at me like I was something he'd just scraped off his shoe."
"And how's that ever going to change if you keep hiding?"
"Wait, what are you getting at?"
"Look, it comes down to this. Either what you're doing is wrong, in which case you should stop doing it all together, or it's not wrong, in which case nobody should have the right to stop you. Which is it?"
"I don't really know."
It was and I knew it. I was just reticent to voice my opinion, probably because a part of me still disagreed with what the rest of me thought.
"Well okay, I used to believe it was wrong, but these days the more I try to figure out why that should be the case, the more I can't see it."
"Fine, so it’s not wrong. If that's the case then why do you hide away?"
"You'd understand if you'd seen the way that guy looked at me earlier."
"More bullcrap! You think I don't know what it feels like to have someone look at me like I was a turd that won’t flush?"
"But you're not doing anything to deserve it."
"I thought you just said you weren't, either.
"Look, I get it. You have a choice between pretending to be like every other guy out there and making yourself look normal so nobody notices you, or dressing up like you feel you need to and dealing with the consequences of other people's prejudice, but you know, that's not so different from the nineteen fifties when a bunch of women decided they wanted to wear trousers for a change."
"Is it? How? You don't think they faced opposition from a whole stack of people who had their own limited ideas about what was proper? You think they didn't doubt themselves sometimes?"
"They didn't look stupid."
"Well, you don't either. No, I mean it. What's more, it wouldn't take much to have you looking amazing."
"Exactly how do you figure that?"
"Give me half an hour with even a few basic bits and bobs and I'll show you."
I couldn't think of a reason, she let the argument fizzle. We found ourselves staring into the silence, wondering what to say next. Jill recovered first.
"You know, I have no control over how people look at me, but I can do something about my reaction. I understand why you feel reluctant, I really do. I can't begin to count the number of times I wanted to lock myself away behind closed doors and end it all, but you can't give into that sort of thing."
"You're trying to tell me you don't hide who you are?"
"I don't think about ending it all."
"Tell me you're happy."
"I can't. You know I can't."
"Yes I do, which is why I also know you can't hide. Do you know what difference it makes to them if you give in?"
"No, but I'm sure you're going to tell me." I had no idea exactly when this quiet, shy little girl had turned into a rabid militant, but she was scaring me a little.
"None at all." She reined in all her passion and spoke quietly and calmly. "They show you the depth of their scorn with a simple look, then once they've sent you packing, they go on as if nothing had happened. You're no more than a minor inconvenience in their lives.
"If you hide away, nobody wins, because they don't care. It took me a while to figure that out. Then I decided that if they had a problem with me, it was their problem and not mine. I hold my head high, I live the life I've been given, and I don’t let them bother me anymore.
"Something else I figured out. There really aren't all that many of them. It's just that they're more noticeable, so you end up thinking the whole world is full of them. You know I reckon if you gave this a chance, you'd find a whole lot more people on your side than against you.
"I guess it’s a little different for you because you can still hide from other people by pretending to be normal - at least other people's idea of normal. If I had the choice of hiding, I'd probably be tempted too, but it's still a coward’s way out.
"Attitudes change. Sixty, seventy years ago almost, no-one thought it was right for women to wear trousers, now no-one bats an eye. It could be the same with guys and dresses, if only people like you would make a stand. Sure, you'll have some shit thrown at you, but nothing worth doing is without its cost."
She was getting scary again, and she must have noticed me reacting somehow.
"I’m sorry, I'm going overboard again, aren't I? I'll stop haranguing you. We should probably try and get some sleep with what's left of the night anyway."
She picked up a towel and bag of toiletries and turned towards the bathroom.
"You know, you're right about one thing," I said.
"The way I feel about you is different. I couldn't imagine having had this conversation with you as a man."
"No. That's probably because women are more realistic about the way the world actually is, or at least it’s a more feminine thought process. Guys are too busy responding to the world the way they think it ought to be."
"Do you have to make a speech out of everything?"
She smiled. "Sorry. It's been a while since anyone listened to me."
I waited while she was in the bathroom, then took my turn. After we’d both done what we needed, we climbed into our separate beds.
It was a matter of moments before Jill's breathing slowed into the gentle rhythm of sleep. I on the other hand, stayed awake for some time, thinking on what she had said.
Which was probably why I was late rising the following morning.
I opened heavy, half-lidded eyes and made a sort of 'mrph' sound.
"Morning sleepy head," Jill said, placing a mug of coffee into my hands. "I thought you were gonna sleep all day."
It took a moment for my brain to register what my eyes were telling me, but eventually I noticed...
"You're wearing clothes."
"Yeah. The hotel management dug a few things out of their unclaimed lost-and-found and distributed them earlier."
"Did they leave anything for me?"
"Yeah, but they kind of made an assumption which I'm not sure you're gonna like."
She held up a dress. It was kind of old fashioned, which either suggested how long it had been in lost and found, or why its owner hadn't come back to collect it.
"I think they either assumed you were a woman, or maybe that you were living full time as one."
"And you didn't think to disabuse them of the notion?"
"Well, I figured you could do that if you really wanted to."
"Of course I bloody want to. How could our conversation last night have left you in any doubt?"
"Last night you said you were most concerned about how people would react if they found out. Here they either haven't figured it out yet, or they don't really mind, in either case it seemed best not to rock the boat."
"You thought I'd be happy leaving the hotel in this?"
"Believe me, there were worse things on offer. Dresses like these are so old, they're almost back in fashion. It's good quality too, and in really good condition."
"I don't care about quality and condition. I can't go out wearing that."
"Remember what I said if you gave me half an hour? Well I have pretty much all I need here. Come on Drew, there has to be a part of you that's wanted to do this."
"Why are you so anxious to get me into a dress?"
"Again, like I said last night, I like the way you are around me when you're not trying to be a bloke."
I put down my coffee mug and climbed out of bed. I needed the loo in any case; coffee is only ever short lease.
"And what am I supposed to say to the guys at my work?"
She nodded at the phone. "You say, 'my flat burned down last night, so I'm taking a day off.' I reckon they'll understand."
Der. Sometimes I can be so blond.
I headed off to ablute, and by the time I returned, Jill had laid some stuff out on my bed.
"Make the phone call first," she said. "It's kind of getting late anyway."
I used the room's phone to dial. Pete's familiar voice answered.
"Hi Pete, it's Dre... er Andrew. I don't know if you heard about the fire?"
"Yes, it was on the news this morning. Was that where you live?"
"Yeah, it started a couple of floors below my flat."
"Shit. Are you okay?"
"Yeah I'm fine, but I need to take the day off to sort some things out. Is that okay?"
"Absolutely. Take as much time as you need. Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yes I'm fine. I'll see you tomorrow."
I hung up.
"So, painless start to the day?" Jill smiled.
"I'm not sure how painless the rest of it will be."
I slipped on the underwear and tights the hotel had provided - hopefully all properly laundered - and turned to the dress. It had a zip up the back and was well made, with good, fine stitching and a full lining made from silvery grey silk.
"Why do they bother lining dresses?" I asked.
"Lots of reasons. It helps the dress to hang right, it stops the clothes chafing - remember, skirts are far more mobile than trousers - it makes it so you can't see through translucent material. It also feels kind of nice."
"I can't wear this," I said with weary despair.
"Sure you can. Just undo the zip and pop it over your head. I'll even help you do it up if you like."
I hesitated still.
"Drew, you're most of the way there. Just put it on and let me have my half hour."
I gave her my best sceptical look.
"You don't think I have experience dressing mutton up as lamb?" She pointed at her own homely features.
"I think you'll find there's a massive difference between what you do to yourself and what you'll have to do to me."
"But neither of us knows for sure, do we? Just give me a chance."
I sighed resignedly and slipped the dress over my head. Jill was in, zipping and clipping before I could change my mind.
"Sit there, and stay still," she instructed, pushing me into a stool.
To start with, she attacked my hair with a brush, back-combing it in places and spraying it with a large golden spray can.
"Where'd you get the brush and hairspray?" I asked, my distrustful nature broaching the surface.
"Same place I got the makeup," she replied matter-of-factly. "They have a salon in the hotel, and I asked. I didn't particularly want to appear in public with my own Medusa head."
That shut me up, and I let her get on with it. By the time she was done, my hair felt massively different. More volume, more mobility. I tried to look in the mirror.
"Uh uh," she said. "I get my half hour first. You agreed."
She had about twenty minutes left, so I sat back and let her work.
It was oddly pleasant having someone else pamper me. The soft touch of the makeup brushes, the delicate perfume in the powders. I opened and closed my eyes as instructed, pursed my lips when she painted them. Twenty minutes was not a long time.
"Okay, so you're not going to win any beauty contests," she said at last, "but you look better than me, don't you think?"
She spun me round to look in the mirror, and a young woman looked back. Of course, I didn't know how to answer her - I risked insulting her either way - so I let my expression do the talking.
I was lost in a turmoil of new feelings in any case. I raised a hand to my face, and the illusion faltered. Men's hands. Not much to do about that, I supposed.
"So," she said. "Are we going to breakfast, or do you want to talk to the management about a change of clothes?"
I stood, and the silken lining of the dress brushed against my nylon clad legs.
"Do I have any shoes?" I asked.
She smiled and picked up a pair of shoes from the end of the bed.
"These were the biggest they had."
"Sandals with tights? Really?"
Her smile broadened. "Way to get your girl on. I figured sandals might have a bit more adjustment, and tights might hide some of the hairs you have growing down there. Stockings and sandals isn't totally unheard of, you know?"
They didn't have much of a heel, for which I was grateful, and they were a little small, but as Jill had suggested, they did adjust until they were nearly comfortable.
She grabbed me by the hand and pulled me out the door before I could change my mind. Before I knew it, we were downstairs.
We followed the sound of clattering crockery into the hotel's dining area where a typical hotel breakfast awaited us. Cereal, croissants, toast, fruit juice and coffee - blessed coffee.
With so many unexpected guests, the room had been set out with large tables, each laid for eight. Jill and I filled our plates and settled at an empty table, but it didn't remain so for long.
I was nervous as all hell, but no one seemed to notice me. Jill made excuses for me not talking, explaining that I was upset because my flat had been directly in the path of the fire, and I'd lost everything. This elicited sympathetic noises, but little else. I kept my head down and took small bites, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible.
At one stage, the guy who'd made me the previous night came into the room. He looked directly at me and didn't even flinch. Which was when I finally began to relax.
"So, what did you say your name was?” the girl next to me asked.
"Er, I didn't, but its Drew," I answered, keeping my voice soft and slightly higher pitched than usual as I had the previous night. This time it seemed to work.
"And you lost everything you say?"
"Yes," I answered, unable to come up with any further embellishment.
"That sucks," my companion continued. "Did you lose anything important?"
"Not really." My laptop was the only thing of any value, and I have all my documents and pictures backed up on the cloud.
"You were insured I hope," another girl chipped in. It was then I noticed that our table had somehow filled with female forms, mine being the only debatable exception.
"Sure," I answered, still unable to manage a whole sentence.
"Well that's not so bad then," the first conversationalist leaned against me and gave my arm a squeeze. "Every cloud, eh?"
"Excuse me?" Three syllables seemed to be my limit.
"Will as soon as the insurance pays out, and they're pretty good with things like this, then you get to go shopping."
The way her voice raised in pitch and volume made it sound like the best thing in the world. I looked to Jill for help.
"Oh, come on Drew, what girl wouldn't jump at the chance to buy a whole new wardrobe? Maybe this is a chance to reinvent yourself, eh?"
I was still working on my reply when a couple of uniforms walked in. They both had enough decoration to suggest significant rank.
"Can I have your attention please, ladies and gentlemen?" one of them called above the hubbub.
Attention was duly given and an expectant hush settled over the room.
"I'm Chief Inspector Talbot," he said. "I'd like to thank you for your patience and cooperation while we've been dealing with this matter, and to give you some information.
"The chief investigating officer for the fire brigade has completed his report, and has concluded that the fire was accidental. You can inform your insurance companies to that effect.
"Furthermore, and whilst I do understand the anguish that accompanies the loss of property in this sort of circumstance, I would nevertheless like to announce that no-one was harmed last night."
He waited while a polite smattering of applause rolled around the room.
"Unfortunately, as a result of the fire, the building has become unsafe, so I'm afraid you'll all need to find new homes..."
The room fell into uproar as everyone started speaking at once. This didn't actually affect me, given the degree of damage my own place had suffered, so I let the crowd get on with it. The chief inspector held his hands up for quiet, which he eventually got, but not before one particular question rose above the noise.
"What about our stuff?"
Probably because most people were interested in hearing the answer more than any other reason, the noise subsided again.
"As I'm sure you're aware," the inspector continued, "a number of apartments were totally destroyed. In the interests of clarity, they are flat three one three where the fire started, and flats four one three, five one three and six one three, the three flats directly above. I'm informed that nothing survived in them.
"As for the rest, there is considerable smoke damage, and it's unlikely that much will be salvageable. Firemen will be going through the building over the next few days, and they will recover anything they think might be saved. If you'd like to give a list of what matters most to you..."
The rest was lost in the wave of noise that rose from the disgruntled crowd.
Jill drained her coffee.
"I've heard all I need to," she said. "Shall we get out of here?"
I nodded and abandoned the remains of my half-eaten breakfast to follow her.
We popped back to our room long enough to pick up our night things, and headed downstairs to check out. The cost of our night's accommodation was being covered by the town council emergency relief budget, we were told. We were allowed to keep the clothes we'd been given, and if we would like to wait, various taxis and mini buses would be coming along shortly to take us where we wanted to go next.
"We're not too far from the town centre," Jill said, "and the weather's looking reasonably okay for a change. How'd you fancy a walk?"
"I'm not sure how far I could go in these shoes," I said. "They pinch a little."
"Well, the alternative is waiting around for a taxi, which could take most of the morning."
I shrugged. I figured I could get by if I had to. She turned back to the receptionist.
"I don't suppose there's any chance we could have our cab fare as cash, is there?"
A shrug and an apologetic smile answered that one.
To his credit, he did let us have another look through the lost and found, specifically in the area where they kept the things they considered to have been abandoned. We found a couple of cardigans that suited our retro clothing, two large bags, which solved the problem of what to do with our night things, and against the odds, I came across a pair of shoes that fit me better than the ones I was wearing. I'm a nine and a half, which Jill told me was probably a nine in women's sizes. Uncommon, but not unheard of - well evidently since I found a pair. They had a slightly higher heel, but I figured I'd get on with them better.
So we walked away from the hotel, every step in the high heels, every movement of my fuller hair style, every gentle sway of my dress, all reminding me of my appearance.
My confidence grew with each passing moment. It had started at breakfast when everyone reacted to me as though I were simply another woman. I was beginning to enjoy myself.
"Best to be prepared," Jill said. "Someone will notice sooner or later, or you'll have to admit to being who you are."
"Thanks for spoiling the moment."
"Yeah, sorry, but I'd rather that than deal with the aftermath when someone finally does notice. It’s not going to happen often, not with you looking like you do, but it will happen, and it's best to be prepared."
She was right of course, and amply demonstrated by our first stop, which was at my bank.
I asked to see a manager in private, and I told him what had happened. I told him I didn't have anything. No means of identifying myself, no cards or wallet, not even an address for them to send new stuff to.
He assured me it wasn't a problem, and started asking questions, the first of which was my name.
He managed to keep a professional smile throughout, but I could see in his mannerisms, and hear in his voice that he didn't much care for my sort. I did manage to offer sufficiently convincing proof of who I was to persuade him to provide me with a temporary cheque book though, and for me to make a withdrawal of a few hundred pounds - enough to get me by for a few days.
Jill managed the same, but quicker and with far less hassle, so she was waiting when I escaped the supercilious shit who'd been dealing with me.
I love the way women pick up on moods so much easier than men. She didn't need me to say anything, just gave my hand a squeeze and smiled at me sympathetically. Amazing how much better that made me feel.
Next, we used a public phone to contact our respective insurance companies. They'd already heard from a few of our neighbours and so were expecting our calls. Claim forms were prepared and would be sent to our work addresses, but in the meantime, they opened up lines of credit so we could start replacing the things we'd lost.
Next order of business was coffee. We hadn't achieved a great deal, but my feet were already aching, and my caffeine reserves depleted. We found a cafeteria and an empty table where I let out a long sigh of relief. It would take me a while to get used to shoes like the ones I was wearing, assuming I particularly wanted to.
Jill fetched the coffees and a couple of pieces of cake.
"You know, that woman at our table had a point this morning. This is an ideal opportunity to reinvent yourself."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you're outside, dressed as a woman, and the only person who's noticed is your bank manager, and that only because you told him your real name. I know that was a bit crap, but including that incident, overall would you say you feel better or worse than usual today?"
"It's hardly a typical day, is it?" I said, dodging the issue again. "I mean with the fire and losing my home and not going in to work..."
"Sure, but still you have to have some sense of the way you feel. So, you want to go back to the way things were, or..." She shrugged.
"Or do you think you might like to try being Drew full time, at least for a while?"
"I don't think this is something you can change your mind about later on," I mused. "Once the genie's out of the bottle, there isn't any going back. I mean I doubt that bank manager will ever look at me the same again, even if I do turn up in trousers next time."
"I doubt he'd recognise you if you did."
"So says you, but you're not the one taking the risk, are you?"
"There's a difference between living and existing you know? And it's down to whether or not you're prepared to take a risk once in a while."
"Yeah, there's also a difference between taking a risk and committing social suicide. You pick and choose your risks. If there's a high chance it won't work out, or if there's a major consequence, you seriously need to think twice, and this is one where there's both a high risk and serious consequences."
"Yeah, says you, but yet again, you're still not the person taking the risk. Last night I had a choice between walking out in my nightie or staying back for a minute or two to change."
"Yeah, and you made the right decision."
"Sure, because the consequences of being caught in the fire were far worse, even if the risk of things going wrong was pretty low. Now I don't have anything to balance the risk against, and if I choose to go girly full time, things could go tits up in a big way."
"Okay, but looking at your experience so far today, seriously what is the likelihood of that happening?"
"I don't care. There's a chance, and I stand to lose a lot. What do I stand to gain?"
"The certainty of going back to the way your life was before today. And don’t tell me you were happy, 'cos I've been watching you for last two or three years."
"You've been watching me?"
She shrugged. "You're a neighbour. How can I help but notice? I even tried talking to you once it twice, but you blanked me."
"Sorry," I said absently.
"It's okay, I could see you were struggling."
"What do you mean?"
"Head down, shoulders hunched, brooding expression. What would you call it?"
"So, I think I've asked something like this before. Why do you sleep in a nightdress?"
"Last time you said something like it was the only way you got to feel like the real you."
"So are you going to spend the rest of your life pretending to be something you're not, or are you going to take a risk."
"What if it goes all wrong?"
"What if it doesn't?"
That was almost a Pooh quote. Something I'd found on the interweb some time ago and rather liked. How did it go?
'Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?'
'Supposing it didn't,' said Pooh after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.
"You could at least do a toe in the water," Jill suggested.
"I thought that's what I was doing."
"Okay, another toe, or a foot or something."
"What did you have in mind?"
"Call your boss and ask him how he feels about the transgendered."
"And what should I use as a reason for the question?"
"I don't know, I'm sure you can come up with something. While you're thinking, you could at the very least come shopping with me. Help me pick out a few things for myself, maybe try on a few dresses if you find any you like, maybe buy a couple. See what it feels like to live in a woman's world for a while. See if you like it. I mean, come on, you're already outside wearing a dress, that much of a risk you've already taken. This at least isn't too big an additional step."
She was right. We finished our drinks and hit the shops.
By lunchtime we were done. Exhausted and laughing. We found another cafe for lunch and sat down amidst our booty. Somehow my collection of bags rivalled Jill's, and my wallet - newly purchased and deliberately unisex - was lighter than hers.
"See?" she said. "This is the first time I've seen you smile. Tell me this isn't worth a risk."
"You're determined to push me into this, aren't you?"
"I've waited long enough to see if you'll jump, so yeah, I think a little persuasion might be in order. Give your boss a call."
"Later," I said. "Let's eat first."
So we did. Chicken salads. I figured I ought to experience the full spectrum of womanhood if I was going to consider it as a lifetime change. I decided I didn't mind the food, though I still wasn't too keen on the shoes. I'd bought a couple of new pairs, more in my size, and still my feet and calves were aching. I reached down to rub one of them.
"Give that a few days," Jill said. "You're not used to the new stresses it puts on your legs, but you'll adapt."
With lunch out of the way, and with considerable prodding from Jill, we went in search of a public phone. They're becoming something of a rarity in this age of mobiles, but I wasn't ready to invest in a new one of those just yet. There at least I could use my change in circumstances to review my options, and I didn't want to rush the decision.
Come to think of it...
"Why are you so keen for me to do this?" I asked when we finally found a pay phone.
"Because I'm going to need to find somewhere new to live, and I was hoping to do so with a flatmate. That's something I'd be happy to do with a girl friend, but I'm not so sure about sharing with a guy."
"And when were you going to suggest this to me?"
"I didn't want it to affect your decision regards the elephant in the room."
"But you're quite happy to push me into it even so?"
"Yeah. I think it'll be good for you. I didn't want you to be put off by the idea of sharing with me. That was going to be a totally different matter."
"Yeah. I know I'm maybe not your first choice of people to share with."
"I've never really thought about sharing before, but I think I'd rather enjoy doing so with you, regardless of whether I do so like this or the other."
"Well that might be okay for you, but I'd rather share with another girl, if you don't mind."
"I’m not a..."
"Yes you are. In every way that matters."
"How can you say that? You hardly know me."
"No, you hardly know me. I've been watching, remember."
"You know that sounds a little creepy?"
"What? 'Cos I notice people? I mean I don't go through your bins or steam you're mail open or anything like that. I just notice things about people.
"Okay, so tell me about the guy who lives - lived - between us. The guy in five oh nine is actually a girl, not that you'd notice most of the time. She's just in a rebellious phase though. Angry at her parents, but she's coming round. It wouldn't surprise me if she calls them over this and sorts things out. In five eleven you had a really pleasant gay couple."
"Really? I thought there was only one guy."
"So which of us is the most dysfunctional? Me because I take an interest, or you who doesn't even know how many neighbours you have?"
"Look, are you going to do this, or what are we standing around here for?"
I picked up the phone and dialled.
"Hi Pete, it's, er, Andrew again. I was wondering, Pete..." Come on Drew, before you lose your bottle. "What's your views on, er, on transgender." There, I'd said it. No going back now.
"Finally made you're way out of the closet, have you?" he asked, his voice bearing the same friendly tones I was used to.
"We've been having a pool on when you'd finally come out. I don't suppose you'd consider hanging on for another couple of months would you? I'll split the winnings."
"Hang on, how come you're so certain about this? I mean I haven't done anything to make you think I'm, er... I mean what have I done to make you think..?"
"Look Andrew, don't sweat it. After you've been in the business as long as some of us, you get used to spotting the signs. None of us have any issues with it."
"So let me get this straight. If I turned up wearing a dress tomorrow, you'd be okay with that?"
"Well, after what you've been through, I'd rather you took a few more days, but as to the dress, I think we'd all be okay with that if it made you less miserable."
"I had no idea. I mean you never said anything."
"Well, it's hardly the sort of thing you would say, is it? I mean I'm not about to go up to someone I only suspect of being that way and say to them, ' you can wear a dress if you like,' am I?"
"I suppose not. What gave me away?"
"Like I said, there wasn't much to notice. The fact you're obviously unhappy about something was a starter, but that could have been a lot of things. Probably what made most of us suspect was the hair. When men grow it long, they tend to let it grow wild. Yours has always been neat and styled. Then there's the kind of wistful way you look whenever a woman comes into the office. Again, you find a lot of your colleagues do the whole tongue lolling out thing whenever they see something in a skirt, but you've always been different in that regard. Not easily definable, until you think maybe you're more attracted to the clothes than the person in them."
"Wow. I'd never have guessed. Who wins the pool?"
"I don't know. Tom's running the whole thing, so I don't even know if anyone's picked this date."
"What happens if no one has?"
"That's kind of up to Tom since it’s his thing."
"And you really don't mind?"
"Andrew, you're well liked here. You work hard, you do a good job, you help others when they need it. We kind of leave you alone because you have this 'go away' vibe about you, but honestly, if this is something that would make you happier, I can't think of anyone here who'd have a problem with it."
"Not even Jude?"
"Jude's problems are his own. If he can't handle it, he's welcome to go find work elsewhere. If I had to choose between the two of you, there'd be no contest.
"So, what should I tell everyone? I mean seriously, don't come back until Monday for one thing. You need time to get yourself sorted after something like this. I take it you're alright? I saw the fire on the news and it looked nasty."
"No, everyone got out okay. No deaths, no injuries. My flat was one of the ones that was totally destroyed though."
"Okay, even more reason to take the time. You need to find somewhere new to live, you need to buy some new stuff, and you need to give yourself a chance to deal with what happened. So, no coming back before Monday. Other than that though, do I tell everyone to expect you in trousers or a skirt?"
"You've completely blown me away Pete. I don't know what to say."
"You could try answering my question."
"Skirt then. Say a skirt."
"And what do we call you?"
"Well, I have a friend who's been calling me Drew, and it kind of works."
"Like Drew Barrymore? I approve. Okay Drew, take care of yourself, and we’ll see you next week."
"Okay Pete, thanks."
I hung up in a complete daze. Jill was grinning smugly, but she had the good grace not to say anything. Above us, the sun slid from behind a cloud, outlining it with a brilliance that lifted my spirit out of the mire where it had been stuck for so long.
"So okay, girl friend," I smiled. "What say we go hunting for a flat to share?"
“So how was your first day back?” Jill’s head appeared in the kitchen doorway. The smells and sounds of cooking emanating from the room behind her set my stomach growling. Jill had been quick to confess to a level of mediocrity when it came to food preparation, but since I wasn’t much better, we had agreed to take turns on galley duty. It worked well as an arrangement, as we both appreciated any food we didn’t have to cook ourselves, and we both found having someone else enjoying our efforts inspired us to greater culinary adventure.
I stepped out of my heels and reached down to massage my right calf – not the easiest manoeuvre in the tight skirt, but the muscles were knotting, and I needed to do something before the grumble turned into a growl. Despite Jill’s assurances, I wasn’t adapting to heels that well.
“Surprisingly good,” I said, hobbling through to our sizeable lounge where I collapsed gratefully, if not particularly gracefully, onto the sofa. “Certainly better than I would have thought possible before this week.”
Jill followed me carrying a glass of red wine in each hand. She passed one to me and settled down beside me. “Tell me,” she commanded, and took a sip from her own glass.
I smiled. This was one of the things I liked best about my new circumstances: the opportunity to share the events of my day with someone. A week ago I would have shut myself away in my room and brooded in silence. Now I had a friend and confident with whom I could share both the intimacies and inconsequentialities of my day, and I found it was something I not only wanted, but needed.
“Well, it was a bit nerve wracking at first, facing that forest of furrowed brows when I first arrived. It wasn’t until after I sat at my desk that anyone figured out who I was. I mean I know I look different like this, but I had no idea how much. No-one recognized me ¬at first, not a single one of them. It took most of them a minute or more to link Pete’s announcement about me with the appearance of the ‘new girl.’”
Yeah, sorry. I did the finger twitch.
“I told you they wouldn’t. But how were they once they knew it was you?”
“Okay for the most part. Sort of walking on egg shells, most of them. I don’t think they have much of an idea how to cope with me, but they’re trying, most of them.”
“Most of them?”
“Jude gave me a few filthy looks, but he didn’t say anything. I spent most of the day expecting him to come over and get in my face, but he kept his distance. I kind of suspect Pete must have had a word with him.”
“Is that such a bad thing?”
“I’d rather he said his piece and got it off his chest. Right now it feels like some oppressive weight hanging over my head, ready to fall at any moment.”
“The Anvil of Damocles.”
“Nothing. Why not confront him?”
“I tried, but every time I approached him, he walked the other way.”
“Okay, so aske Pete to arrange for a mediation; get the two of you in a room together to talk it through. You should nip it in the bud before it becomes an issue.”
“You think so?”
“Oh yeah! Leave something like that to fester, it’ll just get worse. Tackle it head on, you may have a chance of turning it around. It may still turn to shit, but at least you’ll know where you stand.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to Pete tomorrow.”
“You are so not like any guy I know.”
“What do you mean?”
“For one thing, you listen. For another, you take advice.”
“That’s not fair. I know loads of men who’d be glad of this kind of advice.”
“Names and addresses, and can you set me up on a date with any of them please? No, honestly, maybe it’s because I’m this mousey insignificant female…”
“Hey, less of that.”
“It’s how guys have always seen me.”
“This guy doesn’t.”
“Just proves my point. You’re different. In a good way.” She stood up and took the empty glass from my hands. “I’d better get back to the kitchen before I set off the smoke alarm.”
I climbed to my feet and followed her through. What looked like a bolognaise sauce sat bubbling away in a large frying pan while our steamer hissed gently on the back burner, cooking the spaghetti as well as the veg by the looks of the foam escaping round the edges.
“I didn’t tell you the best thing,” I said casually, collecting plates and cutlery from their various nooks.
“Mm?” Jill’s response came from around a teaspoonful of bolognaise.
“Tom took me to one side part way through the morning. Did I tell you, he’d been running a pool on when I’d come out of the closet?”
“I think you did mention it, yes.”
“No-one picked the day after the fire; didn’t even come close. He had words with everyone who paid into it, and they all agreed that I should get the money.”
“That was kind of them.”
“More than you know.” I rummaged in my handbag and pulled out a cheque, which I handed over.
She stared at it for several seconds.
“Apparently the pool’s been running for several years,” I continued. “Every now and then someone would go past the date they'd chosen, so they’d chip in a few more quid and choose a new date.”
“It's a lot of money. “
“Tom suggested it might pay the air fare to Thailand, if ever I decided to go.”
“Do you think you will?”
“I'm not sure. A week ago I wasn't ready to go this far. It'll take me a while longer before I start thinking about how much further I want this trip to take me.”
“Don’t put it off too long, eh? If the last few years are anything to go by, you’ve got mad procrastination skills.”
“I’ve made an appointment with a gender specialist for next Thursday. I’ve no plans to make any life altering decisions until after I’ve talked it through with someone who knows more about this than me.”
She smiled at me. I waved the cheque absently before putting it back in my bag.
“This’ll pay for a quality pair of falsies though, or maybe a couple of sessions with a decent chiropodist.”
“You and your bloody feet. If you're having such a hard time with those shoes, maybe you should try starting with kitten heels.”
I had considered that, but there hadn't been any I liked that were also available in my size.
The kitchen timer sounded, and Jill set about draining the pasta.
“Do you mind if I change quickly?” I asked. “I don't want to risk spilling sauce down this blouse.” It was silk and really would have been easy to spoil.
“It'll take me a couple of minutes to serve up, so be quick.”
“Yes Mum,” I said, and dashed out before she had a chance to throw something at me.
Up in my room I wriggled out of the tight skirt, stripped off the blouse and replaced them with a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. Women's jeans of course, which meant they didn't have much room for my added extras. The material was stretchy though, so they were comfy enough, and the sun-bleached pink sweatshirt was oversized, even on me, so it hid any unsightly bulge down below. With a wide boat neck, it showed enough skin to reveal more of the girl in me than the man.
I took time to shake out the skirt and blouse and put them on hangars in my wardrobe; with luck they’d be good enough to wear again later in the week. Probably not together, and definitely not tomorrow. I mean what would people think if I went around wearing the same thing two days running?
I took a moment to hunt through the clothes hanging in my wardrobe. There were a lot of A-line skirts and dresses which I loved, both for the way they enhanced a figure I didn’t really have and for the way the skirts swirled around my knees. In the end I settled on a figure hugging dress with a tight skirt and hung it on the wardrobe door.
I was developing a passion for tight skirts despite the necessary discomfort of having to tuck my added extras out of the way. A lot of it was the way they showed a total absence of bulge when my gear was properly stowed, leaving little doubt in the eyes of any beholders that I belonged in a dress. Most of what I enjoyed though, was the way they restricted my movement, enhancing my sense of vulnerability. High heels did the same, which was also why I would be buggered if I’d ever resort to kitten heels. The effect was worth the pain.
I’m not sure if it’s just me, or whether other women feel the same way, but wearing clothes that restrict your movement so much has a strange effect. Like I’ve said, I feel far more vulnerable; I mean dressed that way, I could neither fight nor flee to save my life, but then I’ve never wanted to do either. It’s not a gesture of submission though. More the price of showing off your assets. You look good. You know you look good, because you looked in the mirror before you left home, and you can see it in the appreciative looks people give you. It’s the strangest contradiction, feeling both confidence and vulnerability enhanced like that. I can only imagine it’s like skiing, surfing or tightrope walking. You need confidence to do it in the first place, yet while you’re doing it, you’re fully aware that you’re balancing on the edge of a precipice.
“Hey, your highness!” Jill yelled from the kitchen. “It’s just dinner. It’s not as if we’re going out or something.”
I hurried out of my room, and passed Jill’s. It was in its usual state of high entropy. Bomb site didn’t come close to describing her personal space. We'd been tempted by several one bedroom flats larger and better appointed than this one, but our relationship was one of friendship rather than anything more. Much as we enjoyed snuggling up on the couch in front of a good film, we both recognised that sharing a bed would likely push us both into dangerous territory, and neither of us wanted to risk what that might bring.
Besides, despite not being the tidiest person in the world, I'm not sure I would have been able to live in the kind off chaos Jill seemed to generate on a daily basis. Who'd have thought I'd end up being the neat freak out of the two of us?
“About time”, Jill said as I reappeared in the kitchen. “Though I'm not sure that top’s going to survive your eating habits any better than your blouse. “
“I'll be careful.” I never said she was the only one of us with bad habits, did I? “Besides, this'll go in a hotter wash if needs be.”
I was trying to be careful too. Smaller bites, slower rate of eating. It looked more feminine, and it meant I was satisfied with smaller portions, which gave me hope that I might be able to lose some of the softness that had been growing around my middle in recent months.
I listened to Jill talk about her day while I negotiated the culinary minefield in front of me. I didn't contribute much; still enough off a man that I had a short supply of words in any given day, most of which I’d already used up, but I enjoyed hearing her talk about her friends and colleagues.
My sweatshirt survived the meal unscathed, and we washed up together before digging through our selection of films for something suitable to our shared mood.
So I guess I was lucky. Given the same circumstances, you’d most likely have done the same thing, but whether you’d have landed on your feet like I did, I can’t say. I’m pretty sure I’d never have taken this step if it hadn’t been for the fire, and it might have turned out very differently if I hadn’t been interviewed by a kind policewoman, or met Jill, or had such an understanding boss and work colleagues. I know I’m happier now, and whether I end up going all the way, only time will tell.
Looking at it from this side though, I wish I’d found the courage to step out without the excuse of a fire to push me. I think I’d still wish for it even if my current circumstances weren’t so great, though it’s likely that’s something I’ll never know. It helps that I have friends and colleagues who are prepared to make adjustments for my sake, and I like to think if I didn’t have them, I’d keep looking till I found people like them, rather than letting people’s prejudice push me back into my shell.
In the end, that’s what life’s about. There’s nothing so important as the people we know, and nothing so profound as the degree to which we know each other. I remember when I was younger, I used to sabotage the relationships I had with girls, and I could never figure out why. We’d start getting serious and I’d be filled with an overwhelming urge to run away. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious now that those urges were a subconscious realisation that the growing closeness between us was based on a falsehood. The person she thought she was getting close to wasn’t the real me, and I couldn’t stand that I was creating a bigger and bigger lie out of the most important part of my life. There were one or two girls I felt strongly enough about that I did tell them about the girl deep inside me, but they didn’t understand - didn’t even try. Those relationships I didn’t need to sabotage, and after a few failed attempts, I stopped trying all together.
Now at least I know that anyone who chooses to be with me does so knowing who I am all the way through; I can be one hundred percent honest from the outset. Maybe there is hope for something deeper between Jill and me. If there is, only time will tell. She’s been hurt enough times to be cautious about such things, and I certainly don’t want to get involved and then be the cause of yet another painful breakup in her life.
Whatever the future may bring, at least I know it’s the real me that will face it. It scares me a bit, because I know there are a lot of people out there who will react badly to the way I’m now choosing to live, but it gives me courage too, because it’s the real me who’ll be facing up to them, not the pretend me I turned myself into in order to avoid the prejudice of those same people.
Something I reread recently in Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents:
“If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story.”
“And what if your story doesn’t work?”
“You keep changing it until you find one that does.”
And something remembered from a long time ago from Tubby the Tuba at the Circus:
“Be yourself, and do the things that you know best.
Be yourself, I know that you’ll be happiest,
by being no-one else but you.”
Now if only I had the courage to take my own advice…
I’m not a writer who survives long in a vacuum. If you enjoyed this, please comment. If you hated it, please comment. I’d rather not read a trite reaction to the guilt trip this kind of begging might elicite, but please bear in mind, I’ve poured a fair bit of myself into this (as I always try to do). I’d love to have you spill a little bit of yourself back my way.
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