but I’m not confident enough to agree to it
and how she changed my life
by Louise Anne Smithson
I don’t remember ever having had such a pleasant evening as I did with Suzanne on that Saturday night. We didn’t do anything special, just shared a tv-dinner and a bottle of wine and got to know one another a lot better. Sometimes women talk to one another not primarily to exchange information but rather as a means of bonding. I told her about my childhood, my mother’s death last year and how I’d travelled down from Newcastle to find work in London. She in turn told me about her own childhood in Melbourne, Australia and the business that she used to run before she became so ill. It was a relaxed and friendly conversation; nobody dominated the discussion or attempted to impress the other – just two girl-friends chatting together.
‘You seem to be enjoying yourself this evening, Clare,’ my new friend commented at one point
‘I am; it is a long time since I had such a relaxed and pleasant time,’ I replied.
‘So no regrets that I transformed you into a young lady for the day?’
‘Not as yet, as long as no-one else finds out.’
‘I was wondering whether you’d consider spending some more time as Clare at some future date,’ she asked tentatively.
‘What do you have in mind?’
‘Maybe we could go to the cinema together sometime, or you could come round for a meal again?’
I thought for a little time, inspecting my beautifully painted finger nails, before responding.
‘I suppose I wouldn’t mind, if you’re willing to provide the clothes and help me with my makeup once again,’ I answered a little hesitantly.
‘In that case, does Tom have anything planned for next Saturday?’ she asked.
‘No, Tom’s weekends tend to be fairly uneventful. As a rule he goes out shopping, catches up with his laundry and any housework and then spends the rest of the time reading or surfing the web.’
‘I’ve had an idea during the course of the evening where Clare could perhaps help me.’
‘Go on,’ I said.
‘Perhaps I need to begin with some background explanation. As you know I’ve been suffering from a form of muscular dystrophy for the last few years.’
‘Yes, I am sorry. Is there no prospect of an improvement in your condition?’ I asked.
‘No, I’m afraid not, not for the type of disease that I have, which is genetic, My muscles will get progressively weaker as my condition worsens. In fact I’ve recently learned that the disease is beginning to affect my heart and lungs and so it is possible that I don’t have more than a few months left to live.’
‘Suzanne, I’m so sorry, I’d no idea it was that serious,’ I said, quite shocked by the revelation.
Suzanne shrugged as if it were one of those things we had to put up with.
‘Yes, life is unfair isn’t it? Muscular dystrophy is just one more thing that I appear to have inherited from my mother, along with her looks and a little bit of her money. But at least I should retain my mental faculties to the end, and I would hate to spend several years as a bedridden cripple. The main thing is for me to keep active and independent for as long as I possibly can or else I’ll end up in a home with a load of geriatrics for the last few months of my life, and I can think of nothing worse than that.’
‘A nursing home for old people! But you’re only a few years older than I am,’ I said in surprise.
‘I know, but the Health Service doesn’t get that many terminally ill patients, who are still in their twenties. There’s a lack of long-term care facilities for people like me. That’s why it’s so important for me to stay active and in my own flat for as long as possible.’
‘Yes, I understand,’ I said, not knowing what else to say. Suzanne always seemed to treat her condition in a matter-of-fact way.
‘I could afford to pay for someone to come in and do my housework for me, but I can still manage relatively light weights and I’m determined to fend for myself for as long as I can. I could even have my meals delivered, if I wanted them, but I prefer to cook and clean for myself. These days I order most of my shopping online and only occasionally do I have to ask anyone to help out.’
‘Well if Tom can ever be of any help, you always have his mobile phone number,’ I answered.
It seemed odd referring to myself in the third person, in this manner, but at that moment I truly felt like he was a different person.
‘Yes, thank you. I appreciate that,’ she continued.
‘But what does this have to do with next Saturday?’
‘I’ll be entertaining a couple of women friends and need some moral support. They’re planning to go abroad for a year soon after Christmas and have been trying to persuade me to move into a nursing home before they leave, but they don’t seem to realise that it would be the worst fate possible for me.’
‘Surely it’s up to you what you do?’ she asked.
‘Yes of course it is, but now they are talking about changing their plans for my sake, and I really don’t want that to happen. Somehow, I need to be able to convince them that I’m going to be alright continuing to live here on my own, and that when the time comes I’ll be able to make my own arrangements for my care.’
‘In what way would I be able to help?’
‘Some time ago I told my friends that I have two relatives living in the UK: an aunt and her daughter Clare, who is a few years younger than me – in fact about your age. I said that they would be able to keep an eye on me and help out in case of any emergency. It was a white lie as my only surviving cousin is in Australia and we’ve had no contact with one another for many years. I’m now wondering if you would be prepared to come to the dinner on Saturday and pretend to be my cousin Clare?’
‘But you can’t expect me to try and impersonate a young woman in front of your friends,’ I said in some alarm.
‘I don’t see why not!’ she answered. ‘You’ve made a most attractive and convincing young woman so far today, and have even been down to the convenience store across the road without giving yourself away. I’ll lend you my long wig and a dress and help you to get ready again.’
‘But Suzanne, there’s a lot of difference between spending a few minutes at the local shop and several hours in the company of your friends. I would be bound to give myself away during the course of the evening, and then you would be in a worse position than before.’
‘Clare, I’ve spent most of the day with you and, honestly, I keep forgetting that you were ever a young man. If you did give yourself away then of course I’d explain that it was all my crazy idea, but I really don’t think you would do so. In any event we’ll have all next Saturday for you to practice.’
‘So what would I be expected to do as your cousin?’ she asked.
‘Nothing much, just come along, eat your food and pretend to be my cousin from the Midlands who has come down to London to make sure that I’m managing alright. I only need to demonstrate that you exist to put their minds at rest.’
‘I may look like a girl and even sound one, but I don’t think or act like one, and that’s what would probably give me away.’
‘No, not if you’re careful. You’ll only have to act the part for a few hours, and, as I said, we’ll have all day for you to practice.’
‘I don’t know Suzanne, of course I would like to help you, if I can, but I don’t think that I could keep up the pretense for so long.’
‘Please Clare, you did offer to help me in any way you could just now.’
‘I believe I offered Tom’s help,’ I said a little guiltily.
Our conversation died and an awkward silence ensued, but Suzanne wasn’t prepared to leave things like that and after a few minutes she responded.
‘I have a suggestion to make: why don’t you stay as Clare in my spare room tonight. Tomorrow we’ll go out together to have lunch in a restaurant that I know in Covent Garden and then you can take me in my wheelchair around the market during the afternoon. If anyone recognises you as a young man, or even acts a little oddly towards you, then I promise that I’ll forget all about my plan for next week.’
‘And if I’m not recognised?’ I asked.
‘Then we’ll discuss my idea again tomorrow evening, after you’ve gained a little more confidence.’
‘I can’t go back to my flat for my bedclothes, dressed like this.’
‘Don’t worry about that, Clare, I’ve everything you’ll need for tonight including a brand new pink toothbrush.’
I sat quietly for a few minutes thinking about the implications of Suzanne’s request. I’d enjoyed my evening and wasn’t particularly anxious for it to end, but she was asking a lot of me. My friend said nothing more, not wishing to push things too hard.
‘Alright then I’ll see how we get on tomorrow, but I’m not promising to go through with your idiotic idea next week,’ I replied eventually.
‘Good, come with me through to my bedroom, I’ll show you how to remove that makeup and then we’ll find you some night clothes to wear.’
The following morning I awoke in Suzanne’s spare bed with a number of strange sensations. My legs, arms, and hands all felt different, and there was a slight ache in my earlobes. I opened my eyes to find that I was wearing a pink nylon nightdress, and noticed that my long painted finger nails. I then remembered the events of the previous day and smiled at the recollection. I looked around for my clothes, but could find no trace of them I must have left them in Suzanne’s bedroom, and she seemed to be still asleep. She had however left out a towel, dressing gown and clean set of female underwear on the chair by the dressing table for me. I thought about Suzanne’s request from the previous evening. How could I refuse a request from someone with less than a year to live? On the other hand it seemed a crazy scheme that was bound to be found out. Yet the idea of being able to pass successfully as a young woman also intrigued me. I had at least agreed to a dry run today, although in retrospect this too seemed a bit of a rash thing to promise. But if it was going to work then I’d have to learn to walk, talk, act and even think of myself as Clare from this point onwards.
I got up and took a shower then carefully dressed myself in the new underclothes. These were not quite so ‘girly’ as those I’d worn the day before and included a pair of tights rather than stockings. I inserted the breast forms into the cups of the bra and then slipped on a camisole top. I now had a choice between continuing to wear the dressing gown that Suzanne had left for me or else the dark red dress which I’d worn the previous evening. After a moment’s thought I chose the latter and put it on. It was a little fiddly to zip up behind and to hook the eye at the top as I was unused to having such long finger nails. Finally I sat down in front of the dressing table and put on the wig as Suzanne had shown me the previous day, and brushed it into a style.
I then inspected the various items of makeup that Suzanne had given to me the previous evening. I didn’t feel confident enough to attempt do my face properly without her guidance, but I did at least put on some lipstick and mascara, just to show willing. Once I was finished I put on the pink slippers and went to the kitchen to prepare us some breakfast.
Suzanne emerged from her room on her crutches half an hour later to find that I’d made us coffee and toast.
‘Good morning Clare, it would seem that you’re still willing to go ahead with my suggestion for today?’ she said.
‘Actually, I was beginning to wonder whether this is such a good idea and whether I might have got a bit carried away after a couple of glasses of wine last night.’
‘Oh please don’t say that when you’ve already made a pretty good job of getting yourself dressed.’
‘Alright I’ll do my best at being Clare for today, but remember that I’m not making any promises about next week,’ I answered.
‘That’s all I ask of you. After breakfast I’ll take my shower and in the meanwhile I want you to show me how much you learned from my makeup lesson yesterday.’
‘You’ll have to check me over and make any repairs before we leave,’ said Clare.
‘It’s best to start with a clear canvas so make sure you remove the makeup you’ve put on this morning and moisturise your face. Also make sure that you wipe the holes in your earlobes with antiseptic.
When Suzanne came into her spare room carrying a dark blue jersey dress an hour later, I was still trying to put on some eyeliner, but had made a fairly good job with the other cosmetics.
‘Here you’re Miss, you can wear this, together with my spare winter coat, and some medium heels.’
‘I’m afraid I’ve not done too well with my eyes.’
‘So I see, but everything else is alright, and it’ll come with more practice.’
Suzanne quickly repaired the damage, and then drew the line around the edge of my lips.
‘If you finish off your lipstick and mascara and get yourself dressed, I’ll sort you out a purse and a handbag for you.’
Ten minutes later Suzanne returned.
‘How do I look?’ I asked.
‘Not bad for a novice,’ said Suzanne, but then changing her mind she said, ‘actually, Clare you look lovely.’
I blushed, but it was nice to receive such a compliment.
‘Now remember to try and walk in the way that I told you, without taking big steps. You’ll not have the high heels to help you in this respect.
‘My goodness, there are so many things that might give me away.’
‘The odd slip up probably won’t be noticed, but the overall impression you give is important. However don’t worry, I’ll tell you if you do or say anything that’s likely to give you away.
Suzanne handed over a black leather handbag.
‘This is for you to use. Make sure you take your lipstick, powder compact, mascara, and some tissues. You’ll also find a purse containing sixty pounds, as I want you to pay the taxi driver and for the meals.
‘Do you have everything you’ll need?’ asked Suzanne as they waited for the taxi to arrive.
‘I believe so.’
‘Are you ready to face the world as Clare.’
‘I suppose so, but you’ll have to try and remind me if I do or say or do anything out of character.’
‘I’ll use the word ‘awkward’ as our private code to mean ‘mannish.’ So if I tell you that you’re walking or talking ‘awkwardly’ then you’ll know what I mean. If I use the word ‘nice’ it’ll mean feminine. So if I say that you look ‘nice’ or are walking ‘nicely’ then all is well.
‘Alright, I’ll do my best to have a ‘nice’ time.’
‘Don’t worry Clare, you look and sound the part, I’m sure you’ll do very ‘nicely’ and nobody will guess.’
‘I hope so.’
Suzanne had booked a minicab to collect us at midday. It was a company that she regularly used as they could cope with her folded wheelchair and the driver knew her well.
‘Hi Suzanne, you look very smart this morning where would you like to go?’ he asked as he helped her into to back of his cab.
‘We’re going to Covent Garden, Joe, next to the transport museum. By the way, this is my cousin Clare.’
The driver smiled and said hello to me and I acknowledged his greeting He helped Suzanne into his cab and loaded the wheelchair then proceeded to drive us to our destination.
‘So what are you ladies up to today?’ he asked cheerily.
Suzanne prodded me to indicate that I should answer.
‘We are going to have some lunch and then look around the market stalls for Christmas gifts,’ I said.
‘You girls do love your shopping,’ he said in a jokey, but patronising manner.
It occurred to me that he was reacting quite differently to me as Clare than he would have done as Tom, which I suppose was just as well. We carried on a friendly three-way conversation throughout the twenty minute journey, before Joe dropped us off at our destination and helped Suzanne into her wheelchair. As requested, I paid him.
‘Thanks love, now you have a nice day ladies.’
Suzanne smiled, and I blushed.
‘We would like you to pick us up here again at four o’clock please,’ I said as he was about to leave.
‘It’ll be my pleasure, dear,’ he replied.
‘Well so far so good, I didn’t notice any awkwardness there,’ I commented as he drove off.
‘No it all went very nicely,’ said Suzanne as I pushed her unpowered wheelchair towards the market.
In fact the remainder of the day went remarkably well; Suzanne was always good company despite her disability, but seemed to respond to me particularly well as Clare. Our relationship as girl-friends was different, and somehow warmer and more relaxed than it had previously had been. We ate a leisurely lunch in a restaurant with good wheelchair access and then I pushed Suzanne around the various stalls where we made a few purchases. We both had cause to talk to a number of people during the day and no-one seemed to take any particular notice of me other than to compliment me on my looks (particularly if they were trying to sell me something). I wasn’t aware that anyone thought there was anything odd about me or my demeanor. I was also able to try on a silk scarf and sample some perfume without a trace of embarrassment. Gradually as the afternoon went on I became more confident about my appearance and my voice and so I began to engage the stall keepers and waiters in conversation. I began to appreciate the fact that I could be more talkative with strangers in my new role, than I could ever have been dressed as Tom.
‘How am I doing?’ I asked Suzanne as we stopped for a coffee whilst waiting for our taxi to arrive.
‘Very nicely my dear, but be a little careful when you’re talking to young men or else they may get the wrong idea and think that you fancy them,’ warned Suzanne.
‘I suppose I still have a lot to learn about presenting as a woman.’
‘Yes, but don’t worry, you’re doing fine.’
‘I must say that I’ve had a good time during my weekend as Clare.’
‘I thought you would do so. How would you feel about coming to my dinner party next Saturday night?’ asked Suzanne.
‘You promise not blame me if I give myself away,’ I replied.
‘No of course not, so long as you gave it your best effort.’
‘Alright then, I’ll agree to go along with your plan, but I do think that we both must be mad.’
‘Thanks so much, Clare,’ she said, kissing me on the cheek. ‘As soon as we get home we can make our plans.’
‘Alright but remember that you’ve promised to help me to become Tom again afterwards,’ I replied.
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