The Way You See Me - Part 2 of 5
by Maeryn Lamonte
I bit my lip and tugged nervously at my borrowed dress. I could scarcely breath as the door opened and I stepped through, looking straight into her eyes.
“Damn girl, looking good!”
The realist in me was clamouring for attention and it acted like a sort of paranoia. Her words seemed a little forced to me and I found myself searching deep in her eyes, looking for... There. The slight creasing around the edges. She was trying to hide it, but underneath she was laughing at me. It mattered so much to me how she saw me now, but despite my words earlier, despite all I'd tried to explain, she still saw me as a sad old man playing at dress-up. I couldn't stand it. I ran for the door.
I must have taken them by surprise, because I was halfway down the stairs by the time Ruth called to me from the doorway of the flat. I couldn't stop, couldn't face her. I raced on, the heels clattering loudly on the bare concrete stairs. I was outside and halfway down the street before the cool evening air, swirling around my legs, made me aware of what I had done.
I almost turned back, but I couldn't face any of them just then. It was dark, I reasoned, the streets were empty and the girls had done a pretty good job on me. Besides, terrified as I was, this was the fulfilment of yet another dream I'd always been too afraid to realise. I was outside and wearing a dress, and for once I figured I could pull it off. Going back right now was not an option – too much pain, too many awkward questions to face – but this I could do. I took a deep breath, straightened my skirts and walked swiftly down the street and round the nearest bend before the awkward question had a chance to come chasing after me.
I was halfway home before I realised I didn't have my keys or my wallet. They were in my trousers, which currently lay in an untidy heap in Sally and Shiv's bathroom. Fortunately it wasn't too cold an evening, so I decided to walk around for a while, let my emotions settle a little. When I felt calmer, braver, I'd head back and apologise.
I walked down random streets, avoiding the darkness where I could. I was beginning to regret my choice of shoes, although I'm not sure the sandals would have been that much more comfortable. I suspected I was stretching the leather and would owe Siobhan a new pair by the end of the evening. My racing pulse slowed and steadied, speeding up again briefly the first couple of times I passed other pedestrians, but I needn't have worried. They smiled and nodded in a friendly manner as I passed, and I began to settle into the feeling of being truly out and accepted. I was actually beginning to enjoy myself when three figures detach themselves from the darkness as I passed.
At first I wondered if they might be my friends out looking for me, but the clothes were unfamiliar, and as the figures emerged into the light, it became obvious that they were all young lads on the prowl, and I was their latest prey. I started walking faster. My inexperience in heels, even such low ones as these, forced me to take short steps, and the speed of my footsteps left no question that I was trying to get away.
“Hey sweet cheeks, what's the hurry?”a voice called from behind me. It didn't sound that friendly.
“Yeah, we don't mean you no harm.” A second voice, but the hint of malicious humour left me with little doubt as to the lie.
“Wow, that is some piece of ass,” a third voice ventured.
“Yeah, one sweet MILF. I wouldn't mind a piece of that action.” I was losing track of who was speaking, but it didn't matter. Their words were cruel, designed to intimidate. I didn't dare look behind me, but their footsteps sounded closer. I increased my pace a little, feeling a cold sweat trickle down my back.
“Hey come on lady, where you going?”
“Yeah, we only having a bit of fun.” the footsteps behind me sped up, and I responded by doing the same. With my short steps, I was almost running now. There was no-one around and nowhere to go. This wasn't going to end well.
“You know, I think she don't like us guys. I think she being rude.” The voice was too close for comfort. I turned a corner and saw a pub sign not twenty yards ahead. I broke into a run, almost turning an ankle when one of my heels landed awkwardly.
“Shit, where you going?” I'd taken them by surprise, but my advantage was short lived. I could hear them running behind me. I increased my pace, still not daring to look back.
I barged through the pub door and stopped as a sudden silence fell over the room and every eye turned my way. I brushed out my dress and settled my skirt neatly around my legs, took a deep breath and only then looked back at the door. I could see moving shapes past the mottled glass panels and wondered if I was safer facing the group outside or the disgruntled crowd in here. Safety in numbers perhaps, but if they suspected who – or rather what – I was, things could turn just as ugly in here as out there.
“What can I get you?” the voice was friendly enough and came from a large, long haired man standing behind the bar. He wore a black tee-shirt with some heavy metal logo on the front and sported tattoos down both his arms. The rest of the locals turned back to their own business, having decided I was not that interesting.
“Er,” I softened my voice and fumbled with my purse for a moment. “I, er, I seem to have brought the wrong bag with me. I, er, I don't have any money.”
The bartender was looking past me at the movement outside. “Them three arseholes again.” He nodded at the door. “Did they chase you in here?”
I ducked me head and nodded. I actually had to fight back the tears. It seemed feeling like a girl went deeper than just the clothes.
“Don't worry love, this one's on the house.”
I looked up at him gratefully. “Are you sure?”
“Don't make insist,” he glared at me with mock severity and I smiled back gratefully.
“Vodka orange then please, and thank you.” I've mentioned how I don't like beer much haven't I? This felt so natural.
He handed me my drink and nodded to a quiet corner of the bar. “Have a seat love. If they're still there in ten minutes, I'll call the police.”
Yes, yes, I did the whole smooth the skirts out under me as I sat down thing. It's not an essential part of wearing dresses; most women I know don't seem to bother, but it seemed right given the shortness of my skirts. I looked round the pub and noticed a few curious glances aimed in my direction. I didn't think any of them suspected me, but I felt horribly vulnerable even so. I was the only girl in the room, or at least, well you know what I mean don't you? I mean this was a working man's pub, and not a place to bring the missus. I was out of place here, even before taking into account that as a bloke in a dress I would have been out of place pretty much anywhere.
After the first look around, I kept my eyes averted and sipped at my drink. The lipstick marks on the glass left me worried I might be smearing my makeup, since I had no means of repairing it. No skill either for that matter.
My shattered nerves were beginning to reassemble themselves when the door squeaked open and in came Larry, Curly and Mo, or at least their younger, hoody wearing equivalents. It seemed they'd mustered the courage to pursue their quarry into the bar as, after a brief look around, they caught sight of me and headed over in my direction.
“Hey, sweet-cheeks,” the first of them said as he sat down opposite me, “why d'you run off like that? We only wanted to talk to you?”
I didn't know what to do. I looked wildly around for the barman, but he was nowhere in sight. The other two took seats either side of me and I was left with nowhere to look except down at the table. I took a stiff gulp of my drink and set it back down with an unsteady hand.
“Why you so nervous, precious?” the one on my right leaned in towards me causing me to recoil. Where was the barkeeper?
“Hey what's that?” the one on my left said suddenly. “Oh my God, the chick's a dude.” He raised his voice, standing and looking around the bar “Hey man, look at this, the chick's a dude.”
“Right you lot, I've had enough of you. Get the fuck out of my pub.” The barman appeared from nowhere, towered over the table looking menacing. The three youngsters jumped to their feet and scampered for the door. I made to follow, but a large heavy hand settled on my shoulder. “No, not you. I meant these pillocks.” There was a hardness to his voice, and I felt my insides melt with trepidation.
My three tormentors ran for the door. “The chick's a dude,” the last of them yelled gleefully as the door closed shut behind them. The barman stood towering over me as the rest of the customers in the bar looked my way, curiosity and the threat of something more sinister in most of their eyes. I looked up with some consternation into the face of my erstwhile protector.
His features were impassive, unreadable, as he examined my face. His hand still rested on my shoulder, and after a moment I could hold his gaze no longer.
“Are you alright love?” He said it just loud enough for the rest of the bar to hear. “Those three can be real twats, but we don't have many ladies come in here and most of my customers can handle themselves, so I don't usually bother with them much.”
I looked up into his eyes, my own wide with surprise. This close there was no way he couldn't see through the makeup. He raised his eyebrows, daring me to make something of it.
“I, I'm fine,” I stammered, careful to keep my voice soft and in the upper register. “At least I will be. Thank you.”
“It's no problem. Look I'm going to call you a taxi.” I made to protest but he pushed me down with his strong hand. “No. I can't leave the pub, and I don't want you going outside with those three tossers in the neighbourhood, so no argument.”
I found I didn't want to argue, but I did anyway. “I already told you, I don't have any money on me.”
“I don't give a shit. I'm not letting you back out on the street with those arseholes, just for the sake of a few quid. Now stop bloody arguing.” he spoke with a quiet, gentle tone which belied the roughness of his words. I settled back into my chair and he took his arm off me.
“Why?” I asked softly, grateful tears brimming in my eyes. “Why would you help me?”
“Something my dad told me once. Be the person you'd like to meet, be the change you'd like to see. Made a lot of sense at the time and at least as much now.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much. I could kiss you, but I suspect you'd rather I didn't?”
He grinned good naturedly. “I'll just call that cab.”
He held the door for me and I climbed in and gave the driver my address, or at least the street between my flat and Sally and Shiv's. I figured there was no harm in being careful, and this way I had a choice where to go when I got to the other end.
It wasn't far and the barman – Gary he'd told me his name was – handed a fiver through to the cabbie.
“That's the fare and your tip mate. If I hear she didn't get home safe, I'll come looking for you.” The threat wasn't necessary, but it hardly seemed the time to argue. I thanked Gary one more time and we drove off.
As it happened, the driver chose a route that went past my flat, and I noticed the lights on as we passed. I called for him to stop, and with a bored shrug he pulled into the side. The ride had been short and the meter showed Gary's five pounds had ended up being more tip than fare, but it felt good to be home and safe. At least I hoped I was safe.
There were signs of movement through the front window. The main lights were on, which meant whoever was in there wasn't trying to hide – not likely to be burglars then. My front door had a Yale lock, so it was unlikely to be open. I gritted my teeth and pressed the doorbell, cringing as the dissonant chimes scraped fingernails down the blackboard of my soul.
I had barely recovered from my wince when the door flew open and Ruth wrapped her arms around me.
“Jerry, thank God, where the fuck have you been.” I didn't have time to respond to the hug or the questions before she pushed herself away and slapped me hard across the cheek. “You fucking arsehole,” she said, her tone a lot harsher. “Don't you ever try anything so fucking stupid again, you bastard.” She dragged me into the flat and slammed the door closed behind me. I stared, bemused, at her retreating form as she stalked back into the living room and grabbed her phone.
“Yeah, he's back... No he's fine, just turned up on the doorstep... No, I haven't asked him yet... No, I'm fine too. No don't worry... Yeah, thanks for this evening, and sorry about... Yeah alright. See you tomorrow then... Yeah thanks. Bye.”
I barely recognised the flat. All the dirty cups and plates were washed and draining beside the kitchen sink, the rubbish was in the bin, with two bin bags filled to overflowing sitting beside it, and she'd managed to find a laundry hamper from somewhere and had piled all my dirty clothing into it. It also was overflowing, piled high with twice the contents it had been designed to carry, but it was a vast improvement on how I had left the place.
“Oh, that's what colour the carpet is.”
“Don't you get flippant with me you fucking bastard,” Ruth's eyes blazed with a rage I had never suspected they could contain. “Do you know how worried we've been? Sally and Siobhan go out of their way to do something special for you, and you storm off like that. Fuck me but you've definitely got the unpredictable, emotional mess of being a girl down pat haven't you? I mean what the fuck were you thinking?”
I retreated from her salvo with widening eyes, until the wall prevented any further movement. Her fury robbed me of words and I stood, mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. She waited, arms folded, and bored into me with those burning eyes. I wasn't going to escape without giving her some sort of answer.
“I, er, you, er, you were laughing at me.” It came out in a jumble of incoherence.
“What?” It was short and sharp, like a punch in the gut.
“I said you were laughing at me,” I managed a little more clearly, allowing some of the hurt I had felt to resurface.
“I heard what you said, but just how do you figure I was laughing at you?”
“When I came out of Sally and Shiv's bedroom, I could see it in your eyes. Maybe you tried to hide it, but you still couldn't see the girl in me could you? To you I was just a sad old man in a dress. Still am. Always will be.”
“Oh, you stupid fucking idiot.” The rage vanished as though it had never been, replaced by exasperation and concern. Binary emotions. I'm not sure if they're specifically a girl thing or just something Ruth does, but I've never seen a mood switch so fast. She pulled me into a hug again then pushed me away and grabbed my shoulders, staring deep into my eyes. “I was happy for you, you pillock. I thought you looked amazing, and with Sal and Shiv and me, I thought you could be yourself for once. Oh God, I'm sorry,” I she pulled me back into a hug and buried herself in my false cleavage. “Did I really look like I was laughing? I would never laugh at you. Not about this.”
I settled my arms uncertainly around her, returning the hug. This was so hard. If I let my defences down, I'd never want her to leave, but the hug was so much what I needed right now, especially from her.
“I may have been looking for it too hard. I'd have probably seen it no matter how you reacted.”
I held on to her and let the silence wrapped us in its gentle embrace. The walls were crumbling inside. In a minute I'd say something I'd regret. I searched for something less disastrous and found it. “Were you really that worried?”
She pushed me away and play hit me between my pseudo-boobs. “What, out on the streets on your own dressed like that? No money, no phone, no keys? Of course we were worried.”
Of course Sally and Siobhan would have been worried too, I mean it was Sally's idea and the two of them had played Dr Frankenstein on me, bringing to life a part of me that was all but dead. 'We' was a depersonalisation though. It wasn't Ruth who was worried, but Ruth and her friends. I shored up my flagging defences and pushed myself away from the wall. “Would you like a coffee?” I asked.
“Well, now that you have some clean cups to drink out of, I don't mind if I do.”
I wandered through to the kitchen and reached for my paraphernalia. “Yeah, I noticed all the hard work. Thank you.”
“I had to do something while I was waiting. I could hardly sit still.”
She. She could hardly sit still. Conversation was interrupted briefly while my grinder went to work on some fresh beans, screaming loudly as it did so. I went into auto-drive, coffee in here, water in there, plug in, switch on, hunt out mugs, milk, spoons. It's as well my hands knew what to do because my mind was lost in an inner turmoil. I turned towards where she stood in the doorway.
“It's not enough, is it?” She looked at me quizzically. “This,” I indicated the dress, the hair, the makeup, the extras. “It's not enough to interest you, only I thought... I hoped... I...” I trailed off. The tears that had threatened all evening but never quite fallen, broke through the barrier and started to stream down my face, cutting deep runnels in the makeup Sally and Siobhan had so painstakingly applied.
Ruth pulled me into her arms. She didn't need words to answer. The expression on her face was enough.
So much for fairy tales.
Love has to go both ways, otherwise it's not so much love as selfish infatuation. While there's a hope – even the faintest glimmer of one – that your feelings might be returned, it can survive. Mine had just died its last death.
By the time the coffeenator finished its asthmatic wheezing, I had cried myself out. It would probably take a while yet, but now I knew without a shadow of doubt that Ruth would only ever be my girl friend rather than my girlfriend. I would be jealous as hell when she finally found someone, but I cared for her enough to know that I wanted her to be happy, and if I wasn't going to be able to make her so, then what love I had for her would have to stand back and be satisfied when she found someone who could.
We separated and I discovered the way Ruth genuinely looked when trying to suppress laughter. My reflection in the kitchen window revealed the most hideous pair of panda eyes I've ever seen. I dashed for the bathroom, leaving Ruth in charge of pouring out the coffee.
One minute and two clogged flannels later, I was spitting my full extended vocabulary at a mirror, which showed pretty much the same clown face I had seen reflected in the kitchen window. The bathroom door opened a crack and a hand reached through offering me a small plastic squeeze tube with a pink lid.
“Cold cream,” she explained through the mostly closed door. “Good for the complexion, but also useful for removing the gunk you have all over your face.”
I thanked her and took it, removed the lid and squeezed a generous glob of the stuff into my hand. It was unsurprisingly cold as I applied it to my face, making sure to rub it into my eyelids and other difficult to reach places. I grabbed a fresh flannel, moistened it, and within seconds my face was more or less clean. I allowed myself a fresh glob of the stuff and rubbed it into my skin, leaving it feeling soft and smooth, but filling me with an aching regret that I wasn't permitted to enjoy such things on a daily basis.
With the makeup gone, the old me stared back. Curly hair and earrings not withstanding, I was a bloke in a dress once more. I took the flannels, and the towel I'd draped over my shoulders to protect the dress, and dropped them with the rest of the washing. Ruth was sitting in my recliner. I wondered if she was making a point that she didn't want me sitting next to her, but I reminded myself how much trouble I'd already made for myself by over-thinking a situation, and gave her the benefit of the doubt. I proffered the tube of cold cream but she shook her head.
“A gift from Sally and Siobhan.” She nodded at a bag sitting on the coffee table. “They asked me to drop off your clothes, and I think they added one or two extra things as well.”
I picked up the bag. “I should get changed.”
“Well if you want to be more comfortable, I think Sally put one of her old nightdresses in there for you, but don't feel you need to change for my sake. Don't let your coffee get cold.”
I examined her eyes, her face, her voice, for any hint of distaste or ridicule. Found none. Decided to fish for it. “You must think I'm ridiculous.”
“After everything you said earlier? I don't think anyone's ever come closer to understanding me than you, Jerry. I owe you at least as much consideration. Sit down and drink your coffee.”
“But I look like...”
“You look like my friend, Jerry, and if you can accept me dressing the way I like, then I can do the same for you, now sit the fuck down.”
I settled onto the sofa, tried tucking my legs under me the way I'd seen so many women do, but decided I didn't have the anatomy to do it comfortably. I wiggled around until I found a position that worked and settled back.
The coffee was perfect, but then it pretty much always is round my place – anal retentive, remember, and no I'm not talking about the Kopi Luwak.
“So what happened to you tonight?” Ruth asked before sipping at her coffee.
So I told her. About how I'd felt too distraught to return. About how I'd wanted to just walk, despite the shoes. About the three yobbos, which prompted a knowing look – yeah, yeah, it's dangerous walking as a woman alone at night without any form of protection. About the pub and Gary, which had her raising her eyebrows at me suggestively and asking if I might be interested.
“Not a chance,” I told her. “Gary struck me as a straight arrow, just amazingly kind with it. Besides, you know who I'm interested in.” Way to go Jerry. Way to trip up a perfectly good friendly conversation. “There's something Eddie Izzard said on a talk show once.” I tried to push through the mistake. “He said he was a sort of male lesbian. That describes me too.”
“Not even a little tempted? I mean big, strong, kind hearted. You could do a lot worse.”
“No, no and no.” There was a little nervous laughter in my response. She was teasing me and I guess we both knew it.
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
“The lady maketh no protestation, but merely stateth the facth. Anyway, he kicked the little dicks out of the pub after one of them started yelling, 'the chick's a dude' at the top of his voice, then he insisted on paying for a taxi to take me home, so that I couldn't get into any more trouble.”
“Are you sure he's not interested in you?”
“I'm sure. It's too easy to mistake kindness for affection. I did that with you, remember?”
She let off the attack and settled back behind her coffee. Silence settled over us again, but this time it was companionable, restful. My eyes kept returning to the bag of clothes I'd put back on the table. Ruth noticed. Smiled. Reached for it. Pulled out a white bundle and threw it across to me.
It was a Victorian style, cotton nightdress with lace and pink ribbons around the bodice.
“Sally said she thought it would fit you better than it does her now.”
I put my mug down and stood, holding the garment against me. It was gorgeous, and looked just about my size.
“Do you mind if I put it on?”
Her smile broadened. “You might want this as well then.” She pulled another bundle out of the bag, this time a silk dressing gown, covered in pale pink flowers.
I took it from her and dashed for my tiny bedroom.
I took my time, putting the dress on a hanger and placing the shoes and borrowed jewellery carefully out of the way. So much of the enjoyment in any experience is the anticipation. Eventually I re-emerged. I'd kept on the underwear, complete with artificial endowments, just to give everything the right shape.
“Wow all over again,” Ruth said. “It's amazing the way you come alive like this. You literally glow, you know that?”
“Let's turn the lights out and see.” Her expression froze. Shit did it sound like I was coming on to her? “I didn't mean anything by that Ruth. Shit this is so difficult. I'll take the compliment. Thank you.”
She stood, picked my mug up and carried it, with hers, through to the kitchen. I followed her, picking up a tea towel as she rinsed them quickly under the tap.
“I was planning on going out with Sally, Shiv tomorrow night,” she said. “There's a gay nightclub, not too far away, that we go to sometimes. Do you fancy coming with us? In girl mode, I mean. I'm sure there are a few girls down there progressive enough to be interested in a weirdo like you.”
Evidently I hadn't wrung out all my emotions. A rush of unexpected excitement flooded through me at the thought and I I felt oddly faint. Ruth rescued the mug from my hands and helped me to a chair before I collapsed.
“God, will you stop acting like such a girl!” She said, causing us both to collapse into giggles.
I recovered enough to accept Ruth's invitation. “If you're sure you're okay with it, I mean. If you think I can pull it off.”
“You can pull it off. You managed it tonight, except for those cretins who chased you. Besides, the girls down at the club won't mind as long as you're up front and honest with them. Sally and Shiv will be happy to help you get ready again, if you promise not to run off this time.”
Ruth noticed the kitchen clock. It was getting late enough to be early. “I'd better go,” she said. “You'll be alright now, won't you?”
“I'll be fine,” I nodded, “but I don't like the idea of you walking home at this time. You can crash here. I have a spare toothbrush, and I'm happy to take the sofa. I don't mind.”
“Well, okay, but I'll take the couch. I'm used to roughing it, and besides, you'll need your beauty sleep for tomorrow night.”
I stuck out my tongue at her, and we collapsed in a heap of giggles once more.
I dug out a spare duvet, a sheet and a pillow for her before heading to the bathroom to brush my teeth. I took the opportunity to rub some more of the cold cream into my face and hands. It wouldn't last long at this rate.
I changed the bedding on my own bed, already some weeks overdue. This felt like a new leaf being turned, and it deserved to have all the old habits, especially the more gross ones, discarded with the rest of the dross. Eventually I settled down in my bed and lay on my back facing the ceiling. I was still wearing the bra and makeshift falsies, but on purpose as I wanted to continue feeling as girly as I could.
I felt oddly at peace. It had only been a few hours since Ruth had dragged my reluctant and dejectedly sorry arse from this same miserable excuse for a flat, but so much had changed in those few hours. I was too tired to think about it. I turned onto my side and curled up into as small a shape as I could manage, luxuriating in the feel of crisp white cotton against my skin. I was asleep an instant later.
I woke to the sounds of singing and cascading water. My poky little flat offered not the least bit of privacy, and Ruth wasn't trying to be quiet in any case.
I groggily climbed out of bed, momentarily confused by the tight feeling around my chest and the odd way my pyjamas felt – until I remembered they weren't pyjamas.
The load had shifted during the night and a mutant stared back at me out of the mirror, one breast impossibly higher than the other. I adjusted my straps a little and, once satisfied, slipped my arms into my silk dressing gown. I retrieved a fresh towel from the storage cupboard before padding, a little inelegantly, out of my room.
I knocked on the bathroom door. “Fresh towel on the floor out here,” I called, and received a mumbled thanks.
I was used to feeling the weight of the world slowly descend on me early in the morning. It usually started with first sight of my bomb site of a home, but the lounge and kitchen were tidier than usual, and I still held onto that unusual calm from the previous evening. Even so, my brain wasn't firing on all cylinders and it might well have been cognitive dysfunction that was interfering with the usual. I needed my fix, so followed my autopilot to the kitchen and the promise of caffeine.
We'd washed the cups up last night, but not the coffee machine. Autopilot mode was advanced enough to cope and I did my version of the soldier dismantling and cleaning his weapon in the dark. By the time Ruth stepped out of the shower, wrapped in one towel and drying her hair with another, the coffee was brewed. She came through, making noises of appreciation as I handed her a steaming mug.
“Mmm. You know, I could pretend to be in love with you just for the coffee.”
“Don't joke,” I said, my voice weighed down by a sudden ache in my chest.
“Sorry. I wasn't thinking. Are you alright?”
“I will be.” I managed a brave smile and drowned the lie in a gulp of steaming liquid. It was too hot and burned the roof of my mouth, which gave me the distraction it needed.
The kitchen clock read half nine.
“Would you like some breakfast before you head for home?”
“Thanks. What have you got?”
Plastic white bread, seriously-bad-for-you cheapo margarine, half a carton of eggs of questionable age and a packet of bacon in serious need of using up. I showed her.
“Not my usual breakfast fare, but yeah, why not.”
I didn't have an apron and I was conscious of not wanting to splash hot fat over my nightdress. I looked around for alternatives.
“Why don't we both get dressed first?” Ruth suggested, not exactly ready for breakfast herself.
“Okay,” I agreed, grateful for the short reprieve. “I'll just be a minute”
I was ten in the end, and by the time I reappeared wearing my jeans and a slightly more presentable shirt than the previous evening, Ruth was dressed and tending a sizzling pan.
“Oh!” she exclaimed looking at me with some surprise.
“I didn't want to risk Sally's dress with the greasy food either,” I explained. “Besides, it's a bit dressy for breakfast.”
“Don't you have anything else? I mean, I thought from what you said about it, you'd have a few bits and pieces of your own.”
“Nothing I'd care to wear in public,” I said. “I'm kind of restricted to ebay for the things I can get, and I've never been able to justify spending much. It's all pretty cheap and nasty.”
“Well I guess we'll have to change that, won't we?” She shifted the bacon onto a piece of kitchen roll to soak up the excess fat, and reached for the eggs. Testing them in a jug of water before cracking them into the pan.
“What's that about?” I asked pointing at the jug as I reached past her for the loaf of bread.
“My dad used to test eggs this way. If they float they're likely to be bad.”
“Live and learn.” I dropped a couple of slices of bread in the toaster and hunted plates, knives and forks out of the pile on the draining board. “More coffee?”
I poured out two fresh cups, buttered – or marged rather – the toast after it kerchunked. It all felt very domesticated and... wonderful.
“You know, I could get used to this.”
“i wish I could say it was going to happen, Jerry.” My turn to overstep, hers to react. She finished frying the eggs and served them, with the bacon, onto the two plates. “I wish I could feel about you the way you want, you're such a great guy. Just...”
“...I'm not your type, I know. Give me time, Ruth. I'll get the hang of this. We both will”
We sat together at my small kitchen table and tucked into our breakfast of grease and fat with a side order of cholesterol. It wasn't half bad.
“So what are your plans for today?” she asked.
“I don't know. I guess I have some washing I need to get out of the way.” I glanced over at the overflowing hamper. “I also thought I might go back to that pub at lunchtime, you know the place I ended up yesterday?”
“Are you sure that's wise? What if someone recognises you from last night?”
“Then I shall have to be my own brother for a bit. I want to say thank you to Gary at least.”
“If he was on last night, he probably won't be there this lunchtime.”
“I know, but I'm going out tonight, aren't I? I can always leave him a note.”
“Well get your arse back here by two o'clock will you?”
“Why, what do you have in mind?”
“Shopping trip, and don't even thing about arguing. Don't worry, we'll take you far enough away from here there won't be anyone to recognise you.”
Icy cold trepidation trickled into my veins. “Shopping trip?”
“Yeah. Sort out your wardrobe a bit. I mean I'm rubbish at all this frilly stuff, so we'll have to ask Sally and Shiv to lend you the clothes and do the makeup and sort out your hair again, and give you all the advise you need when we're in the shops.”
“I can't.” The reaction was instinctive.
“Why not? You did yesterday.”
“I was probably half pissed, and it was dark. People are sure to spot me in daylight.”
“Let Sally and Siobhan work their magic on you before you make up your mind. Actually, I ought to check first...” She grabbed her phone. “Hey Sally, it's Ruth. Yeah, I was wondering if I could drag Jerry round this afternoon... Shopping trip... Yeah, you got it. Great, around two then? Brilliant. See you then.” She turned back to me. “Sally and Siobhan's at two, and don't be late.” She scrambled to her feet and reached across to give me a hug. “I'll see you later. Two o'clock and no excuses.” And just like that, she was gone.
I looked around my unusually tidy flat. My keys and wallet were in their usual place, courtesy of Ruth. I wasn't sure how things were going to go from here, but I felt better about, well everything. I picked up the breakfast mugs and plates, and dropped them into the sink. It took only a few minutes to wash them and the relevant bits of the coffee contraption. It felt odd to want to stay on top of things for a change. I headed for my washing hamper and started sorting clothes into bags to take down to the laundrette.
It was twelve-thirty by the time I made it back with the washing, and I was beginning to feel hungry again. I dropped my freshly laundered clothes by the door and ducked back out again. I recalled the taxi ride from the night before and retraced the route, arriving outside the pub by ten to one.
The young woman behind the bar was petite and very pretty. Business was slow and she smiled at me as I stepped through the door.
“Er, I don't suppose Gary's in, is he?” I asked quietly.
“He's just having some lunch, love.” She leaned through the doorway at the back of the bar. “Gary? Someone asking for you.”
“Oh! I, er... I didn't mean... It's not urgent.”
“Don't worry, he's about finished anyway.”
A familiar face appeared behind her. He looked at me curiously for a second, then, “Vodka orange wasn't it mate?”
Rabbit in the headlights. How the hell did he figure it out so quick?
He shrugged, guessing what I was thinking. “I wasn't sure till I spotted your nails. I'd try not to show them off too much in here, mate.”
Shit. Shit, double shit and triple shit. How could I have forgotten those? I folded my arms, hiding the offending digits under my armpits.
“Thanks. Yeah, vodka orange would be good. I don't suppose you do lunches as well do you?”
“I could sort you out a few sandwiches if you like,” the woman said cheerfully, pulling one of my hands out from its hiding place and examining my nails critically. “Cheese and pickle alright? These are really good. Did you do them yourself?”
“Er, no. Some friends did them for me.” I drew my hand gently out of her grasp and hid it self-consciously back under my armpit. “And cheese and pickle's great, thanks.”
“Just be a minute then, love.” She favoured me with one last smile, and disappeared through the door. Before I had a chance to draw breath, Gary placed my vodka orange in front of me.
“Thanks. I take it she's not the hired help.”
“More like the boss, mate.”
“I heard that.” The voice was muffled and distant through the door.
“My wife, Michelle.” He raised his voice slightly, enunciating his words carefully. “And a more lovely woman you'll never meet.”
A snort of derision floated through the doorway, accompanied by an appreciative snicker from the one or two locals who'd managed to escape their own ball and chain1 for a lunchtime bevi.
I offered Gary a twenty. “Can I buy you a drink, and maybe clear my tab from the other night?”
“I'll join you in the drink, and thank you,” he said, taking the money, “but last night was last night, and you don't owe me anything.”
He rang up a price on the till and gave me back way too much change. “But...”
“No buts,” he said, pulling himself a pint, “though if you feel that strongly about it, you could maybe pay it forward.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, one of these days you're bound to bump into someone who up to his eyeballs in shit. Stop and help and you can consider the debt repaid.”
“Be the change you want to see?”
He winked back at me. “Be the person you'd like to meet.”
Michelle reappeared carrying a plate piled high with sandwiches. “There you go love,” she said, placing them on the counter in front of me, then turning to her husband. “What crap you spouting now love?”
He kissed her briefly. “Oh, you know, same old same old.”
“How much do I owe you for these,” I asked, still eager to repay some of my debt.
“Nah, don't worry about it. We don't have a license to sell food on the premises, so just tuck in and enjoy. I'm not sure it would be right selling the old girl's kitchen offerings in any case.”
“Oy! I'm right here you lummox.” She jabbed him in the ribs. “Don't mind him, he only behaves like an arsehole because that's the way he thinks blokes should act.”
The pub's main door opened and Gary detached himself from us to deal with the newcomers. Michelle leaned across conspiratorially.
“Would I be right in guessing you're the damsel in distress from last night?”
My blood ran cold, and my over-active imagination conjured images of Gary and Michelle lying in bed laughing at me. I felt myself withdrawing, a sea anemone pulling in its fronds. Michelle noticed.
“It's alright love. He was a little worried about you – to tell the truth we both were. I'm glad you popped in. It's good to know you're okay.”
I sipped at my drink, turning slightly to hide my manicured nails from the rest of the bar. “You don't mind then? About... you know?”
“Are you kidding?” She rested a kindly hand on my own. “It makes a nice change, being able to talk to another woman in this place.”
That one took me by surprise. I searched her eyes, but could find no hint of mockery there.
“Is that how you see me then? As a woman in a man's body? Or am I just a man who thinks he's a woman in a man's body?”
“You think I'm humouring you?”
“Aren't you? I mean you have no idea what it's like to be me?”
“You're right, sweetie, I don't. But I do have a few friends like you.”
“And you're okay with people like me?”
“Well, some of them are a bit self-absorbed, but that goes with the territory doesn't it? I think if I couldn't be accepted for who I am inside, I'd be more than a little defensive. The thing is, once you get past that hurdle, they tend to be among the kindest, gentlest people you're likely to meet, men or women.”
It was taking a bit of sinking in. “So you really wouldn't mind me coming in here wearing a dress?”
“I wouldn't, certainly, and neither would Gary. I can't talk for some of our regulars though. Dyed in the wool, unimaginative, narrow minded bigots most of them, but good enough people within their own limited subset.
“No it might be as well if you come in disguise when you pop down here. It won't stop us from having a good old gossip though will it?”
There it was again. I still struggled to see it, but she really was talking to the girl in me. An overwhelming sense of release washed though me with such force that I barely realised I was crying before Michelle handed me a tissue.
“It's alright love, let it out.” She settled a hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently. “Quietly though, eh? We don't want to give them lot a chance to demonstrate their ignorance.”
It took me a few moments and a couple of generous swigs on my vodka to regain composure. I wiped away my tears and took a deep breath.
“I could probably persuade some of my friends to come in with me.” It was a lame offering, but it was something to say at least. “I mean they're real women. Not like...”
“Don't put yourself down, love.” She slapped my hand with mock severity. “Real women in-bloody-deed. No, I'm not sure your friends would fit in down here. Most of our regulars sneak out to get away from her indoors2. I hate to think how they'd react if we had a sudden influx of girl power.”
“They seem to accept you alright.”
“Yeah, but I'm different. As far as they're concerned, I'm Gary's, so off limits. It gives them one over on him as well. They can escape the old trouble and strife3 whereas Gary's stuck with me.”
I glanced at my watch. Time was moving on, but I had a few minutes yet. I offered her my glass. “One for the road, and one for yourself too?”
She did the honours, but declined my offer. “I wish I could love, but it would upset the old geezers here. I accept a drink from you and when I turn the next offer down, they take it personally. Downside of being a girl, I'm afraid – having to fit in with all these stupid blokes trying to show each other how far they can piss up the ladder.”
“Do you mind that much?”
She shook her head. “No, it's a small enough concession, and worth the sacrifice to be able to spend all my time around this old lump.”
Gary had finished talking to a small group of customers down the other end of the bar and was heading our way. “What are you to blathering on about like a couple of old women?”
“Oy, less of the old if you don't mind, and what do you mean like?” Shell defended my corner, which was just as well since I wasn't sure I had much fight in me.
I paid for my new drink and gulped down. “I'm going to have to scoot,” I said. “I'm meeting some friends in a while.”
“Yeah, well don't be a stranger,” Michelle said, her smile as genuine as I'd seen. “We're here pretty much all the time except for Saturday evenings. Gary hires in a couple of young lads to look after the place on a Saturday evening, so we can go out and let our hair down, so to speak. Any other time of the week, morning, noon or night and we'll be around.”
“I'll see you again soon then.” I lurched towards the door. The chat and that last drink had done wonders for my self-confidence, but perhaps had been less kind with my balance. I collided gently with the door frame and was chased out the pub by a few hearty chuckles. I didn't care much for the locals, but I could get used to the company of Gary and Michelle. I made a mental note to drop in later in the week as I made my slightly meandering way down the road towards Sally and Siobhan's.
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