The Way You See Me - Part 5 of 5
by Maeryn Lamonte
“Fucking queer,” he muttered as I passed. I held my tongue in an effort to regain some of my lost dignity.
“Jenny!” Sally yanked the door open and wrapped her arms around me. “Wow, you look amazing.”
My pseudo-boobs crushed her real ones and we pulled apart after a brief embrace. “We're going to have to do something about those,” she said, mirroring my earlier thoughts as she looked down at my slightly misshapen chest.
“They may have to wait. I'm probably going to be short on cash for a quite a while.” I rearranged myself and smiled cheerfully despite my words.
“What do you mean?”
Siobhan and Ruth pushed into the crowded entrance hall and interrupted us long enough to insist I give them a twirl. I complied and smiled radiantly at their enthusiastic compliments.
“I met my landlord again on the way over,” I picked up from the point of interruption. “I promised him a letter from my solicitor by the end of the week Shiv. Any chance your boss can help?”
“I'll ask first thing tomorrow. Did you bring the lease?”
I rummaged through my handbag and pulled out a thin sheaf of papers, which I handed over. “I'm not sure what you'll find in there, it all looks pretty basic. Anyway, my boss is likely to get a call from him tomorrow at which point the brown and smelly is going to hit the rotating ventilator.”
“It might be worth recording your conversations with him tomorrow then. Do you have a voice recorder?”
“I don't think so.”
“I have one on my phone that's halfway decent,” Ruth said. “We're on the same network right? Why don't we swap SIMs for the day? You can borrow my phone and I'll use yours.”
“Er, you'll have to show me how it works. Why do I need to do this?”
“Because,” Siobhan said, “if the shit-storm's going to start tomorrow, you're going to need a record of it. I'm not sure if that sort of evidence is admissible in court if you do it without declaring it first though, so when he comes up to you tomorrow, be sure to tell him you're recording your conversations. At the very least it should stop him from being an utter arsehole.”
Dinner was ready; they'd just been waiting for me. We sat down and tucked in, the mood cheerful, and the conversation light hearted to match. I noticed Ruth was having difficulty keeping her eyes off me and I allowed myself a quiet smile.
“Do you like it?” I said, touching my hair.
“It looks amazing. You look amazing.”
Was it enough I wanted to ask, but courage failed me. I didn't want to come across as too pushy in any case. She'd let me know sooner or later – sooner I hoped. I chose a different topic.
“I might need some business advice later. I found a great spot for a coffee shop down near the arcade, and my head's been full of ideas pretty much ever since. I need to put some numbers down on paper to see if there's any chance you can help me get it off the ground.”
“For real?” Sally squealed. “You're going ahead with the coffee shop?”
“I'm not sure yet, but I'd at least like to see what's possible. I'm kind of broke, as you all know, and it's nigh on impossible borrowing money these days.”
“Well like I said, that's where I come in,” Ruth said. “Tell me about this place and what you need.”
The rest of the meal centred around my ideas. Ruth jotted down notes occasionally, and as the meal ended and I did my usual thing with the coffee, we went into full blown planning mode, writing down lists of things I would need and putting prices to them when we could.
Sally dragged out her laptop and took us on a virtual window shopping trip across the Internet. She has was the nearest thing our little group had to an internet guru and computer whiz, and seemed to know exactly where to go for all the best stuff. We used up quite a lot of the evening searching through different coffee machines, crockery, furniture, general décor, IT equipment, and in fact pretty much everything I'd need to set up the shop. The bill grew alarmingly until I had such a case of cold feet, I was sure they'd turned blue. The others seemed oblivious.
“I have no idea how to do it myself,” Sally said, jotting down the price of a fifty inch LCD TV, “but I do know a couple of guys in the IT department at work who could put together the software you'd need to make the display work. I doubt they'd be averse to a little moonlighting, and if you bat your eyelashes at them, they may not even charge you.”
She was joking of course, wasn't she?
It was late when Ruth and I left, but we had the beginnings of a business plan and tired as we were, it was a good tired.
I wanted to slip my arm into the crook of her elbow, but I was afraid it would have looked stupid. Not for the first time I more than half wished we could swap bodies – it would have made things so much simpler for both of us, except that Ruth would have ended up with the bum end of the deal, especially as she was so adamant that she didn't want to be a man. I brushed her hand in a not quite accidental manner. She took the hint and took my hand in hers, interlocking fingers.
“So are you going to wear a skirt to work tomorrow?”
“I don't really have the choice,” I said. “The uniform's the same for men and women – polyester trousers and that hideous polo shirt with the company logo – sweatshirt in the same colour for cold days. I did think about wearing a bra and my, er, enhancements, but I don't want to push it.”
She smiled her agreement and we lapsed into our usual friendly silence, enjoying the night and each other's company. When we reached my front door, she turned me to face her and disengaged our hands.
“I'm proud of you, you know that?” She stroked my cheek once and leaned in to kiss me. It was brief, but it was on the lips. She glanced away a little too quickly afterwards, still unsure.
“Good night,” I whispered, biting back my disappointment.
“Good night Jenny.” Her smile was vague and uncertain, then she turned and walked away.
“What the hell do you call that!”
“It's my haircut,” I said innocently. “Do you like it? Oh and I'm recording our conversation.” As soon as I'd seen him making a beeline in my direction, I'd taken out Ruth's phone and turned on the voice recorder. The phone was in my trouser pocket, where I hoped it would work well enough.
Mr Pendleton, it turned out, did not like it. Right in front of my eyes he turned an alarming shade of purple, building up enough of a head of steam to pop rivets. “It's your fucking what? I told you to get it cut, not permed. Do you have any idea what you look like?”
“Actually I rather like it. It's certainly smarter than it was yesterday, and I do owe you an apology for that. I didn't realise how far it had gone – I really did look a bit scruffy. This though. I think this looks good, and most of my friends agree.”
“You look like a fucking bimbo.” He was incandescent in his rage. It seemed he'd missed the comment about the recording, as much as he'd ignored my attempt at an apology, but then that was his problem.
“That's a bit unfair. It's not much different from Kathy's and I don't hear you yelling and screaming at her.”
“But you're a, you're a...”
“I'm a what, sir?” It almost physically hurt to be respectful, but I managed it.
“I don't know what the fuck you are, but this is too much. You are fucking well fired.”
“On what grounds, sir? You told me to get a haircut, and I did. I don't remember you being in any way specific about what it should look like.”
“I shouldn't need to. You look like a tart, and I'm not prepared to let you out in public representing the shop in that state.” I bridled at his words. I was prepared to admit that I looked a little unconventional, but without makeup and with Sally's small silver heart ear studs, I looked a whole lot more normal than some of the people we'd had working in the store.
“I look better than I did yesterday, and you didn't fire me then.”
“You looked bad enough to warrant a warning. And this, this is insubordination, and I won't tolerate it.”
“I'm not being insubordinate, sir. You told me to get a haircut and I did. I don't understand the problem.”
“The problem is that you look like a fucking drag act. Get out of my shop. Return your uniforms by the end of the week and you'll get the money that's owed you.”
I was sorely tempted. To walk away from this joke of a dead end job, to be done with the incessant aggravation from this petty minded excuse of a man, and the constant whispering from my colleagues, it was so much what I wanted right here and now, but I needed the money. If this was going to end, it had to end right.
“Sir, just to be clear, would you please show me where I have breached my contract severely enough to warrant immediate dismissal?”
He fumed at me, further enraged by my calm. “Come to my office.”
I followed him to the neat little cubicle we all called his throne room behind his back. The desk was clean and clear of clutter, the pencils lined up in a neat little row, the paperwork sitting in neat stacks in his in and out trays. A tidy desk is the sign of a sick mind, I remembered reading somewhere, and here was abundant proof.
He searched through his filing cabinet until he found his copy of my contract, then he started leafing through it. After a while he found the section he wanted and sat down to study it in greater detail. He flipped backwards and forwards over the same few pages several times, his frustration building by the minute.
The phone rang, making us both jump. He answered it.
“Hello? Yes that's correct. Yes, I am he. Yes, he does work for me.” He glanced briefly my way. “He did, did he? Mhm, he did? Yes, I can quite believe it. Yes, yes, thank you.” He jotted something onto a postit. “Okay, I have that. You've been most helpful. Goodbye.”
He couldn't keep from gloating as he looked up at me. “That was your landlord. He just told me what you've been doing in your spare time, and I think that settles matters. We don't employ perverts and sexual deviants here. You can go.” He placed my contract neatly in his out tray and turned to his computer. It took him a moment to realise that I hadn't left.
“What?” he asked impatiently.
“I just wanted to get a few last things straight. Firstly, what exactly was it my landlord told you?”
“Oh, I think you know.”
“I have my suspicions, but for the record it would be good to know what I'm being accused of.”
“He told me that you have a closet full of women's clothing at home, and that you flounce about like a girl when you think you're alone. He even said you go outside dressed like a woman. You're not going to deny it are you?”
“Those were the words he used?”
“Pretty much, yes.”
“And what proof did he give? For that matter, what proof did he give that he was my landlord?”
“He gave me his name and address;” he showed me the postit, “that should be easy enough to verify. As for his proof, I'm not sure I need a great deal. You come into work with manicured nails, hair all poofed up like that, and bloody earrings in your ears. It's pretty obvious something's up, and I don't need to be told twice when I hear the truth.”
“Ah, so you're dismissing me because I'm transgendered?”
“I'm dismissing you because you're a fucking freak of nature who doesn't deserve to live in decent society, and I certainly don't want your kind working in my shop.”
“Well that leaves me with with just one more question then. Would you please give me the name and address of your immediate boss? My solicitor is going to need them and it would save me having to look them up.”
“You don't want to dispute this.”
“If this goes to court, a lot of things will be made public. I think you have a lot more to lose than we do.”
“I guess we'll have to see about that.” It amazed me how calm I felt. Just the other day I'd been terrified at the prospect of other people knowing about me, but right now I could quite honestly say I didn't care. “Will you give me the details I've asked for, or are you refusing to cooperate even that much?”
That succeeded in wiping the the smug grin off his face. He glowered at me for a moment then scribbled on a second post-it note. “There.” He handed me the scrap of paper. “Now get out of my store.”
I turned and left, tucking the small piece of paper into my wallet for future use. The sensation, as I punched out for the last time, is difficult to describe. Yes there was fear about my uncertain future, but it was all but swept away by the intense rush of joyful release that exploded out of me. I was almost shaking with emotion as I walked out the store for the last time.
I pulled out Ruth's phone and texted Siobhan. “Just bin fired. Gonna need ur help.” I wasn't sure if Shiv kept her phone on at work, or if she'd get in trouble for answering it while on the clock. I had my answer when the brick in my hand started to ring.
“Jerry, what the hell?” Her voice was a sort of stage whisper. Making of personal calls during work hours not approved then.
“Kind of like I expected but worse. He took exception to my haircut. Then while he was trolling through my contract to see if he could fire me for it, my toad of a landlord called and told him about Jenny. Apparently that was enough for him to fire me on the spot.”
“Did you record it?”
“Oh shit.” I fiddled with the phone for a few seconds, stopping and saving the recording. Somehow she was still on the line when I tried talking into the thing again. “Yep. All safe and secure. I don't know what it'll sound like though. I had the phone in my pocket.”
“Where are you right now?”
I told her. She gave me the address of her boss's firm and told me to come straight away. I hung up and did as instructed.
It took me ten minutes to reach Siobhan's place of work, by which time she was waiting for me at reception. She led me straight upstairs to a large, well appointed conference room where two smartly and expensively dressed middle-aged gentlemen were waiting for us. One she introduced as her boss, Mr Linden, and the other as his partner, Mr Keys.
“You must be Jeremy,” Mr Linden said as he pumped my hand vigorously. “Siobhan mentioned that you have a spot of bother and she thinks we might be able to help.”,
“Er, yes,” I said, feeling suddenly nervous and a little intimidated.
“Please don't be alarmed. Siobhan mentioned that there was a degree of sensitivity over the matter. She didn't say what, but rest assured that whatever you say here will be dealt with in the utmost confidence, and I doubt there is anything much you can say that will shock either Mr Keys or myself. Siobhan can stay or leave as you wish.”
“Er, no that's okay. She already knows most of it. Er, where to start...”
But it wasn't that hard, and once started I went through it all. I even managed to figure out how to play back the recording I'd made on Ruth's phone. The quality wasn't brilliant, but you could make out the words without too much difficulty. In all, it didn't take more than about fifteen minutes to cover everything.
Mr Linden steepled his fingers and pursed his lips for a moment. “I'm sorry,” he said after a moment's thought. My heart sank. He was going to tell me he couldn't help. “No-one deserves to be treated in this manner. Fortunately for you, the law is very much able to do something about it in this case.
“With regards to your domestic dispute, Siobhan gave me your rental lease to look through earlier and, whilst it is a little vague as such documents go, the law is quite clear on your rights, even when they are not clearly written down, as in this case. Your landlord – Mr Nazlije? – quite clearly acted illegally when he entered your flat without your permission, and especially when he went through your things. I was a little worried that it was going to be your word against his, but since he was rash enough to follow through with his threat to call your employer, and unfortunate enough to do so while you were making a predeclared recording of your conversation with him, we have admissible proof of his actions.
“As things stand, you have done nothing to warrant immediate eviction, something he would have to apply to the courts in order to enforce in any case, so you are entitled to remain until the end of present contract. I suspect, with relations being strained as they are, that you would prefer to move earlier, however I imagine it will take you more than a week to make alternate arrangements. If you like, I would be pleased to report his activities to the proper authorities, and to write to the gentleman in question, informing him of his legal obligations and of my actions on your behalf. He will almost certainly receive a sizeable fine, but unfortunately, the legislation being as it is, little else will be done.
“It may be possible to claim further compensation from him since his intentions in speaking to your employer were blatantly and flagrantly vindictive, and since we have evidence to indicate that they contributed to your losing your job. We would have to explore that in a separate small claims law suit, something which falls outside of my perview I'm afraid, but I could ask another of my associates to look into it if you like.
“As to your employer's actions in dismissing you, Mr Keys is your man.”
“Yes indeed,” Mr Keys rubbed his hands together enthusiastically. “Firstly sir, may I ask if you have a copy of your contract of employment?”
“Yes, I believe so. It's at home somewhere, but I think I can find it.”
“Excellent. If you can get that to me sometime, I shall look through it to see what we're dealing with here. I am quite convinced, however, that you have a good case for compensation. There are laws protecting the rights of people such as yourself, and I strongly suspect that the company can be persuaded to settle out of court and quite swiftly. How soon can you let me have your copy of the contract?”
“Er, well I don't have a lot to do right now. I could probably get it to you by the end of the day.”
“That would be exceptional, but it might make things a little easier on all concerned if you perhaps let Siobhan bring it in with her tomorrow morning? It would save you the additional trip, and I doubt I'd be able to get much done with it this afternoon in any case.”
“Er, tomorrow then. I'll see what I can do.”
“Marvellous. That seems to be our business concluded for the moment then, unless there's anything else?”
“Er, I'm not sure how I feel about suing people like this. I've never been a big fan of litigation culture.”
“And rightly so,” Mr Linton said. “Trivial law suits undermine our society, but this isn't like that advert where the man sues for injuries because the employer supplied him with the 'wrong ladder'. As far as I'm aware, you have acted responsibly within the confines of permissible behaviour, and your landlord and manager have both responded unreasonably towards you. You are entitled to some compensation Jerry, please don't think otherwise, and they should be punished if only to make them less likely to act in the same way in the future.”
“Well I suppose.” I still wasn't sure, I mean some people will tell you any kind of shit in order to make a sale. Mind you these were Siobhan's employers, and she had nothing but good things to say about them. “There is the matter of your fee. I'm afraid I don't have a great deal of money right now.”
“Don't concern yourself young man. My letters to your landlord and the authorities are a trifling matter, which I will happily do pro bono. Your friend Siobhan has been a tireless and invaluable member of our little team, and I am glad to have this opportunity to show her some gratitude. As for your claim for unfair dismissal, our fee will be a small proportion of your settlement. Is that acceptable?”
“What if there is no settlement?”
“Oh, I'm pretty certain there will be,” Mr Keys interjected, “and our fee probably won't amount to as much as five percent of what you'll receive. If we can't win this one, we don't deserve to be paid.”
That seemed to settle matter. The two solicitors shook hands with me and marched out of the conference room leaving Siobhan to lead me back to the entrance.
“They really wouldn't be doing this if they didn't believe it was right, Jerry,” she said as we reached the entrance. “Mr Linden is as straight an arrow as I've met, and he's a strong proponent of the LGBT community. I don't think he's one of us, but I first met him a couple of years ago when the council were trying to shut down the club we went to last Saturday. He helped us fight back, and without him we probably wouldn't have won. It's why I applied to work for him in the first place; he's a lawyer who's in it for the law.”
“And Mr Keys?”
“I get the impression he enjoys his bonus at the end of the year. Mr Linden's the senior partner though, and I doubt he'd have allowed Mr Keys to go ahead if this were just a money making exercise.”
“Thanks Shiv. You're an amazing friend.”
“You're not so bad yourself Jerry. Why don't you go treat yourself to an afternoon off? Have a bubble bath or something. I'll see you later okay?”
Treat myself is just what I did. My poky little flat only had a shower, so a bath was out of the question, but I did spend some of my dwindling assets on a shower cap, a home waxing kit and several other girly, bath related goodies. There were smirks in the at the counter as I paid for everything, but I raised an eyebrow at the shop girl, daring her to make something of it, and left with my head held high.
Back home, I stripped naked and examined myself. I'd noticed a few hairs reappearing since my last depilatory session and I was due a bit of a going over. As I think I may have mentioned earlier, I hadn't been too happy with the way the cream had left my skin feeling raw and sensitive the last time, which is why the waxing kit.
It didn't turn out to be as painful as I'd expected, but I suspected that was because I was already fairly hairless. I used up pretty much the whole kit clearing all the undergrowth I could reach then, hiding my new hairdo under its plastic protection, I stepped under the cascade of hot water, my skin tingling with renewed sensitivity, and gave myself a thorough exfoliation.
By the time I'd finished with a delightfully floral shower gel and several equally sweet scented skin creams, I felt and smelt, every inch, like a girl. Well okay, not every inch; there were a few inches that could never fall under that category, but they tucked neatly away inside a pair of my ample knickers. I was also conscious, as always, of my makeshift prosthetics, but by the time I had a dress on and a pair of tights, the rest of it faded into a minor annoyance.
I went for one of my Bohemian dresses. Layers of light, floaty, floral print chiffon, calf length with long sleeves. I worked hard on getting my makeup to match, going quite heavy on the mascara and eye liner, and painting my lips with quite a bold pink. There may have been some degree of mutton dressed up as lamb about the final result, but overall I was pleased. I may have been too old and fat to do the look real justice, but it hid the Jerry in me, and that was the main purpose of the exercise.
The rest of the afternoon, I spent curled up on the sofa with Anne Shirley for company. I realised I hadn't turned the TV on since Jenny's first appearance, and decided that if I was going to have to cut back on my expenditure, that would be a good place to start. With Bertha round at Sally and Siobhan's I had to resort to cheap and nasty plastic coffee, but that was a small enough sacrifice.
That evening we had a great deal to talk about over dinner, with me very much the centre of attention. Everyone approved of the efforts I'd made with my appearance, and there was a lot of speculation as to how much Jenny would feature in my life now that I didn't need to be Jeremy for work. I wasn't sure how I felt about that. I needed the freedom to go either way and, round peg that I was, I didn't want to escape the square hole just to be squeezed into a triangular one.
I offered Ruth her phone back, but she refused to swap, insisting that I keep hold of hers until both my legal matters were resolved and I had no further need of the recording. Between her and Sally, they managed to copy the sound file onto Sally's laptop. Sally, who as I say is a bit of a computer whiz, made a second copy which she then managed to clean up considerably, then recorded both the original and the improved version onto several CDs for me, so I had copies to use as needed.
Over coffee, we all discussed my next move, which focused largely on the coffee shop. It was early days yet though, and I didn't want to jinx matters by counting chickens. I still had to sort out how I was going to finance it before I made any firm plans.
Ruth took hold of my hand again on the walk home, but there was something that felt a bit forced about it.
“If you feel awkward about it,” I said to her, “don't.”
She let go and I felt a twinge of regret. This was the hardest thing of all – hiding the way I felt about her and waiting for her to make up her mind. She didn't kiss me goodnight at my door that evening either. I felt more than a little adrift just then. The future was more scary than exciting, and in the midst of it all I had this painful hole that I so wanted Ruth to fill. It had to be on her terms though, and no matter how much I could have done with some closeness just then, I didn't want to push her.
The next morning, I treated myself to a lie-in, or at least I tried to. At about half past nine, my infernal doorbell sounded over and over, accompanied by a pounding on the front door that threatened to dislodge the loose glass.
On the advice of my friends, I'd decided to let Jen sit in the background until the inevitable storms blew over. I hadn't expected the first rumble of thunder this early, but I was glad I'd done as they suggested, as the last thing I needed right now was to be answering the door to some angry so-and-so wearing my nightdress. I threw a towelling dressing gown over my PJs and made my way muggily to the door.
“What the fuck is this,” my landlord yelled into my face. He held up a letter with a logo which read 'Linden, Keys and Masters, Solicitors'. I didn't need to read it, but I took great delight in doing so, and it showed in my growing smile.
“It's just what it says it is,” I replied, stifling a yawn. “I told you you'd be hearing from my solicitors, and after you phoned through to my boss at work yesterday, you left me no reason not to. My lawyer was kind enough to point out to me that you can only evict me with good reason and by application to the courts. Under the circumstances I think you'll have a hard time kicking me out before the end of our agreed term.”
“Not that bit,” he yelled. “This!” and he pointed at the last two paragraphs.
“Oh yes. It turns out that even though our tenancy agreement doesn't say anything specific on the matter, I still have the right to live in my flat undisturbed – you cannot enter freely whenever you want to, and you certainly have no right to go through my things. Mr Linden thought it best to report your invasion of my privacy to the proper authorities.”
“You can't do that!”
“I already have, or at least my solicitor has on my behalf.”
“How you going to prove it?”
“Wait there.” It gave me way too much pleasure insisting he wait on the doorstep to his own property. I dug out my phone – Ruth's phone – and pulled up the recording. I'd bookmarked the relevant time, so it was relatively easy to find the part where my boss told me what my landlord had said. “I have additional copies of this recording lodged with my solicitors,” a small lie in that I hadn't yet arranged it, “and it's sort off compelling proof that you did come into the flat and snoop about.”
“Nope, my parents were married when I was born. I have their marriage certificate if you want to see. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some sleep I'd like to catch up on.” I closed the door, leaving him to fume, and headed back to my bedroom.
The next news came at the end of the week when Mr Keys invited me into his office. He showed me a letter of apology from some high up official within my previous place of employment. I skimmed down to the relevant paragraph.
“We are deeply distressed about what has happened to you, and would like to assure you that your manager acted beyond the scope of his authority in dismissing you. We hope you will accept the accompanying cheque as a good will gesture on our behalf, and we wish you every success in your future endeavours.”
There was a cheque for ten thousand pounds, which equated to roughly six month's wages. Not a great deal in the grand scheme of things, but better than a kick in the teeth.
“They don't have a leg to stand on,” Mr Keys said, “and they know it. We could probably get a lot more out of them if we took it to court, but it would be public and unpleasant, and could drag out for months. If they can prove that your former boss was acting outside company policy, they might be able to shift the liability onto him rather than them, in which case it's anyone's guess what the settlement would be and whether and when you'd get paid. I imagine Mr Pendleton's going to get a roasting over the matter either way.
“I suspect, after your comments about litigation culture the other day, that you'll be inclined to accept this offer, and I can't say that's a bad idea. If you want to pursue matters further, I'd be glad to do so on your behalf, but in the end, the choice has to be yours. All of that's yours by the way. It's normal practice for companies to make out separate cheques to cover solicitor's fees in these cases.”
“And what would be your cut in all this Mr Keys?” I probably didn't have the right to ask, but I needed some reassurance.
“Five hundred pounds. Nowhere near as much as if we went to trial, but a good return for the work I've put into this so far.”
The choice was easy. I didn't have any argument with the company, and it seemed that Mr P would be getting his comeuppance either way. Ten thousand quid was a healthy amount of capital to have floating about in my back pocket at this stage in the game too, so I signed the small stack of papers Mr Keys pushed across, agreeing not to pursue the matter further, and headed down to my bank to cash my windfall before I pinched myself to see find out if this was some bizarre dream. Once the money was in, I phoned Ruth.
“Hey. It looks like I have something to put into the coffee shop after all.”
We arranged to meet for lunch, and I spent the rest of the morning gathering intel. I dropped in on several different cafés and coffee emporia, checking their prices, and what they had on offer, and used it as a basis for putting together my own menu. Almost everywhere served a range of foods as well – sweet and savoury pastries for the most part – so I made a note to look around for a caterer who might be able to keep me supplied with cakes and sandwiches to sell.
I was early at the café, and just a tiny bit disappointed when Ruth turned up with someone in tow. He turned out to be a colleague of hers who had more experience financing small ventures like mine. He didn't stay for the whole lunch period, but left as soon as he had all the relevant details. The rest of lunch become something of a celebration between Ruth and myself, in which we toasted my future success with, appropriately, coffee.
There followed several weeks filled with boring details. The business plan Ruth had drawn up for me succeeded in impressing someone with money, because she managed to find me the necessary loan to get the ball rolling. The shop I was interested in had a flat over the top, and I was able to arrange a very reasonable rent on both. It was quite a lot more than I was used to paying, but between my settlement cheque and my loan, I figured I had a little over year to start making a profit.
With ink still drying on my loan agreement, I made arrangements to meet with the property owner. Ruth came along with me and made sure all the necessary questions were asked and that a comprehensive lease agreement was put together. Once bitten and all that. I decided I didn't want to enter into business under false pretences though, so I raised the question:
“Do you have any issues with transgendered or gay people?”
“I don't know that I've ever given it much thought,” he admitted. “I suppose I might have some concern over damage to the property through hate crime, but as long as your insurance covers that and you pay your rent on time, I don't see why I should.”
I moved out of my flat less than a month later. Mr Weasel still refused to pay me back my deposit, so I went to visit Mr Linden again, who put me in touch with Mr Masters, his other partner. That settlement took over a month, but in the end, the court ruled in my favour. Mr Nazlije was instructed to cover all legal costs and to pay me back my full deposit along with a small amount of compensation for both the invasion of my privacy and the attempt to cause trouble for me at work.
The flat above the shop was larger than the one I'd moved from, and it came unfurnished. Sally, Shiv and Ruth helped me decorate and fill it. In a way, you could say that Mr Weasel helped too, because it was his money that bought most of the furniture. Among my new acquisitions, and perhaps most treasured, was my new doorbell. It was a simple two tone device with long, hanging tubular chimes made out of brass. They weren't that well tuned, so I visited a music shop and bought two tubular bells which rang with a deep, rich and pleasing harmony. The new chimes were easy enough to fit, the originals hanging on simple loops of nylon cord. The final result was so delightful that started tapping them with my knuckle as I passed, just for the enjoyment of hearing them sound.
I finished Anne of Green Gables about the time I unpacked the last of my boxes. I slid it into its place on my new bookcase, the last of my possessions to find its new home. I'd thoroughly enjoyed it. On the surface it was a story about a young girl growing up. Given to extravagant excess and easy distraction, she learned through her mistakes and her fierce determination, to become more disciplined and self-controlled, and a better person as a result.
There was so much more to the story though. Anne's actions, impetuous and un-thought out as the were for the most part, were usually guided by her kind nature and good heart. Even as she learned to tame the wild impulses inside her, so the people she met and grew to love were affected by her unbridled passion and love of life, and so they learned in their turn to loosen the straight-jacket restrictions they imposed upon their own lives. Anne changed, adapting to her surroundings as she needed to, but she also changed the people around her, and everyone was the better for it.
I related to Anne in the story, both of us misfits in society where we were unable to find a place among the unconscious restrictions and expectations people put on their lives and the lives of those around them. There were some differences though. Anne was so filled up with her strangeness that she was unable to stop it spilling out, whereas I had grown up in many ways more like Marilla and the other inhabitants of Avonlea, bottling up my peculiarity, and having to learn to let it out. Both of us had faced varying degrees of opposition to being different, and both of us had found a middle ground where we could be ourselves and still be accepted by the people around us.
More than anything though, both of us had found close friends, perhaps more by luck than judgement, who were able to see far enough past their usual blinkered view of life to realise that there were ways of being different that weren't all that bad.
I knew I would reread the book. It had taught me it was okay to be different. It had taught me there were dangers to hiding your true self, just as there were dangers in allowing it free and unfettered reign. It had taught me that there would always be people who were too small minded to see past their own limitations, and they were best avoided. And it had taught me that most precious of all were the people who cared, who looked deep enough to see the real me, who embraced, accepted, even rejoiced over what they found there.
Sally's IT guys were as good as she'd said they'd be. The program they came up with showed an attractive and very readable map of of the bus stops and nearby shops, all in relation to my coffee shop. Each bus stop was linked to a text box that displayed a continuously updated list of buses due to arrive, showing the number of each bus, its estimated time of arrival and where it would be going. They even found enough space at the bottom of the display to put a ticker-tape news feed. The displayed information came from a database which I would have to keep up to date, they said, but they showed me what I had to do, and it seemed simple enough.
I invited someone from the local bus company to come take a look at it. He was politely impressed and offered to put me on the mailing list for any schedule or route changes, but it wasn't something he felt the company was interested in investing in. I can't say I was too upset as it allowed my shop to keep its uniqueness.
Sally's friends also sorted out internet access for me, setting up a wi-fi connection I could share with my customers. In light of my landlord's concerns, I asked if they could design some sort of security system as well, and they put together a combination of cameras and alarms, all of which were linked through to the computer that ran everything. The computer itself was locked away in a cupboard upstairs in the flat, which meant that it was relatively safe from thieves. They said it was a kind of a poor man's solution, but with shock sensors on the windows and doors, and infra red detectors throughout the ground floor, it seemed more than good enough to me. There was enough disc space to record a week's worth of continuous video, before it began to overwrite the data, and if any of the alarms were tripped, it would send me a text message and link me to an internet address where I could see the most recent footage from the cameras.
Around the same time the courts were awarding me my win against my former landlord, the opening day for the new coffee shop finally arrived. I could not remember that last time I'd worked so hard, or such long days, but with the help and support of my friends, everything fell finally into place. I wore my best dress for the opening. It was a risk, but if I was to make this work at all, I had to find space for Jenny in it. I had a sign made up which I hung behind the counter. It read:
'Yes I'm a man (at least physically). As human beings, we all have our idiosyncrasies. One of mine is that I have a need to let my inner girl up to the surface at times, another is my passion for coffee. If you'll allow me the first, I'll gladly share with you the second.'
I wish I could say that it worked. Well maybe it did with some, but there were still quite a few potential customers who took one look at me standing behind the counter and turned right around. Every such rejection stung like a slap in the face, and I was only too glad that they were fewer and further between than I'd expected. It did help that my friends took time out to celebrate the opening with me. Ruth took the whole day off work and claimed a small table close to the counter, offering up the odd word of encouragement whenever someone said something unpleasant. I spent what time I could with her, but the place was busy right from the word go. Sally and Siobhan came by towards the end of the day, and even Mr Linden dropped in to wish me well.
There was a lot of interest in the place. From day one, the number of people who crowded around the screen in the window astonished me. As hoped for, a lot of them came in for a drink while they waited for their bus. That first day, I would probably have been completely swamped if there hadn't been those who decided I was a little too weird for their tastes.
My feet ached by the time I closed shop at the end of the day. I wasn't wearing much of a heel, but I decided that flats would have to be the way to go when I was working. Sally, Siobhan and Ruth all stayed after I flipped the sign, and Ruth helped me balance my receipts against the contents of the till. I was astonished at how much business I'd done, and I had to place some quick phone calls to top up my already depleted stocks. If I could keep selling at that rate, I'd be able to pay my loan off before the end of the year rather than just reach the break even point.
Gary and Michelle dropped by shortly after I closed up. They'd made special arrangements to have their pub covered so that they could attend my not-so-surprise opening party. The girls had managed to sneak in a few bottles of bubbles while I wasn't looking, and had ordered in a couple of pizzas to go with. The king of foods to go with the queen of drinks.
We headed upstairs and Gary dived into the bathroom to change – yes I had a bath now; luxury – Sally, Siobhan and I had been helping him with his wardrobe, and he looked pretty amazing when he re-emerged ten minutes later wearing a brightly coloured dress with long loose sleeves that successfully hid his biker's arms, and a short mobile skirt that showed of his surprisingly shapely legs to stunning effect. He still wasn't getting on too well with his makeup, but with all eyes going south that didn't matter so much.
Gary polished off pretty much all of one pizza on his own, while the girls and I were content to share the other. The distribution of the champagne was a little more even, and we were all pleasantly fuzzy by the time Ruth stood and waited for everyone to quieten down.
“We all know why we're here, so I'm not going to waste any time with all that bollocks. I just want to say, on behalf of all of us here, Jen we're massively proud of you, and may things only get better from today. Now, who wants to go first?”
Michelle was quickest off the mark, and before I knew it, I had a gaily – original meaning of the word – wrapped parcel, about the size of a shoe box, dropped on my lap. Everyone was grinning and looking at me expectantly. I hadn't expected anything along these lines, and I guess my expression showed it.
“Go on,” Gary prompted. “Open it.”
I did as I was told, and lifted out two handfuls of, well, breast I suppose. I held them up in the appropriate place and grinned like a loon.
“There's a couple of tubes of goo in there as well. One to hold them on and the other take them off. I got a pair too,” He thrust out his chest to show his own realistic enhancements. “Shell decided that it would be too cruel to me for us to buy you a pair and leave me without, so thank you.”
His were considerably larger than mine, but then mine would have been lost on his larger frame. I wasn't into big boobs anyway. More than a handful's a waste, as my Dad used to say.
“Can I just go and pop these in?” I was eager to get rid of my much over-used temporary measures.
“Why don't you wait and see what else you have?” Ruth held out a gently restraining hand. “It'll save time.”
Sally and Siobhan were next with a larger box, except that this one actually held shoes, or rather boots.
“You didn't!” I breathed as I pulled them out. Siobhan had a fidgety, expectant look about her and kept shuffling her feet. I looked down and there was her pair of blue slingbacks. “He fixed them!”
“Good as new, and he didn't even charge me.”
“Well after all the money you spent on these...” I held up the boots I had so admired on my first visit to Magnaped so I could look at them more closely.
“Actually, he gave me a discount on them. They've been in the shop for quite a while and no-one's been prepared to pay full price. I made him and offer and he took it.”
“Well, that makes me feel better. I remember how much he wanted for them.”
Ruth was last with a much smaller box. It was padded, with a sprung hinge, and opened to reveal the most gorgeous matching necklace and earrings. Gold and lapis lazuli. Trust her to come up with something totally new and unexpected – and perfect.
Of course I had to rush off and try everything on, and of course everyone had to have a look – and a feel when it came down to my new breasts. I may only have a few friends but they're amazingly generous.
On my next visit to Terry's, I provided the coffee. He was a little nonplussed until he tasted it, at which point he immediately asked if I could supply him every day. We agreed that I would have a large Thermos ready for him to pick up at half past silly in the morning, and he could pop in at lunchtime for a top up if he needed. It started as a favour to a friend, but before long word spread, and about a dozen businesses in the area asked if I could do the same thing for them. It meant I had to be up an hour earlier than I'd otherwise have preferred, but two dozen litres of coffee sold before seven thirty, even at bulk discount, is a good start to anyone's day.
There were the inevitable arseholes during the first couple of weeks. In my case they amounted to one hooded monkey spray painting obscenities across the window, and one dick with a brick.
The first didn't disturb the security system enough to trigger the alarm, but that just meant he carried on spraying until he'd completed his masterpiece, which in turn meant the cameras managed to take quite a few recognisable shots of his face. The police knew him and arrested him. At his arraignment, I asked for him to be assigned to me for his community service. I was tempted to make him waitress for me, but you don't cure homophobia by ramming it down a person's throat. Instead I worked him hard, fed him good coffee and doughnuts, and I talked to him. He was still something of an arsehole when he finished his time with me, but he didn't try to graffiti my shop again.
The second incident proved the effectiveness of my security system quite nicely. I was upstairs in the flat when I heard the window smash, and my phone beeped to life even as I was reaching for it to call the police. I'm not sure if it was luck or good police work, but there happened to be a jam sandwich1 down the road, and they pretty much managed to catch the numpty 2 as he fled the scene. He was a minor, so I ended up taking his parents to the small claims court to cover the cost of repairs. I didn't make any friends with that particular incident, but word spread that I didn't take any crap, and no-one else tried anything.
The initial surge of interest settled into a steady stream of customers, especially after the local LGBT community cottoned on. I was concerned their presence might discourage more conventional clients, but the shop was placed too conveniently for the buses, and my coffee was too good to miss in any case. If anything they brought me an additional surge, largely because a contingent of God botherers took it into their heads to target us.
No, nothing sinister or unpleasant about it. In actual fact I was rather impressed by their approach. They came in and bought their drinks along with the rest of my customers, then they sat down and started chatting to people. Not about God and stuff, but just generally getting to know the people they were talking to. The only time the G word was mentioned in a conversation was when one of my regulars brought it up.
I mean, it may be that they do have the answer to life, the universe and everything, who knows? All I know is that I'd be a lot more inclined to listen to them if they took the time to get to know me first – after they made an effort to understand the sort of struggles I have to deal with in my life. That's what most people don't seem to get these days: Religion isn't about rules; it's about relationships. In that respect there's something quite religious about coffee.
We still get the odd numpty through the door. They're fewer and further between these days, but there was one last week. He breezed into the shop looking like he owned the place and came right up to the counter. He placed his order, then, while I was putting it together, he decided to show his more obnoxious side.
“What’s with all the poofs and queers? Don’t you have a say over who comes into this place?”
His tone was jocular enough, but there were real barbs in his words. Enough to make me stiffen and stop what I was doing. I turned away from the coffee machine and rang up no sale on the register. I retrieved his money and passed it back across the counter.
“Actually, I do,” I said, “and it's people like you I choose not to serve.”
“What? Normal people?” He wasn't sure yet if I was joking.
“No sir. Bigots. This place is open to anyone who’s prepared to leave their prejudices at the door. I don't like to turn away customers, but I’m afraid this is one area where I won’t compromise. I’m sorry sir.”
He stared daggers at me for a few seconds then, ignoring the money on the counter, stormed out. A smattering of applause drifted round the room and I became aware that every eye in the place was on me, every conversation suspended.
I found I was shaking and finished making the coffee I had started for him. I needed something to steady my nerves and those waiting in line gave me the time I needed to pull myself together. His money went in the charity box on the counter – I wanted none of it.
Positive, supportive comments came across from each waiting customer, and after a while I was back to my usual self. The rest of the day passed without incident.
It was a few days later, around the same time, the doorbell jangled and I looked up into the face of the same individual. It happened to be a dress day for me, and I was wearing a light blue, floral print, cotton summer dress, along with the earrings and necklace Ruth had given me, and a light amount of eye shadow and lippy.
Unconsciously, I stood up a little straighter, preparing for a confrontation, but keeping my face impassive, hoping to avoid one.
He walked up to the counter looking more than a little nervous. Quite a few customers had been present at the first incident, and silence washed through the place in a gentle wave.
“That’s er, that’s a pretty dress,” he stammered. “You look… erm… pretty.”
“Thank you.” I kept my tone neutral and waited. He had a way to go yet.
“I, er, I came by to apologise. I was really angry for pretty much the whole day after I left here earlier in the week. It’s taken me a while, but I realise you were right. I was being bigoted, and you had every right to refuse me. I er… Well I suppose that’s it really. Just sorry. Really sorry. Not just to you but to everyone who was here.”
He waited for a moment, the silence so deep I could almost hear him sweating, then he turned to leave.
“Excuse me sir.” He paused. I continued. “You forgot your coffee.”
“I beg your pardon?” He turned to look at me.
“Your coffee, sir.” I turned to my machine and started preparing his order from his previous visit. It only took a moment. I offered it to him with a smile. “It would be nice to see you come back.”
He looked around the room where his gaze was met, for the most part, by equally welcoming smiles.
“Thank you,” He said, taking the proffered cup and, still a little uncertain, headed for the door.
That was something else it took me a long time to understand. We all get it wrong from time to time, and there's nothing wrong with that. What we need at such times is for someone to point out our mistakes before we begin to believe our own lies, and also to forgive us when we realise that we've fucked up and want to make things right. He hadn't meant any harm by his attitude but if I hadn't confronted him on it, he'd have carried on spreading his poison and the world – our world in particular – would have been the worse for it. What's that phrase? 'All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.'
Liquid Esperanto, I called my shop – it's a place where barriers break down. I look around my establishment now where my customers – gay and straight, cis and transgendered – sit back to back and side by side, sharing the little events of their day. I didn't set out to create this, not deliberately, but I'm glad I did. For a busy coffee shop on a bustling high street, there's a remarkable sense of peace about the place, and right now there is no other place I'd rather spend my days.
Things took quite a while to settle into a routine, but they're there now. It's hard work, and usually requires me to be available at odd hours to take deliveries and the like. I've taken a leaf out of Gary and Michelle's book and insist on giving myself at least one evening a week to go out and let my hair down – especially enjoyable now that I have enough hair to let down. I also take Sunday afternoons off just to relax. Sally, Siobhan, Ruth and I still meet up semi-regularly for meals and silliness, but since the shop opening, the venue has shifted to my place. The others don't seem to mind the slightly longer trek, and it means I can deal with anything that needs doing work-wise.
Ruth should be here in a while. She's fallen into the habit of stopping here on her way home most days, usually towards the end of the afternoon rush. She helps me keep my books straight, and I've started cooking for us. It's something I never expected to enjoy, but having an appreciative guinea pig means that I've become quite adventurous in my culinary experiments. There were one or two disasters early on, but more recently everything I've put in front of her has met with approval and occasional eagerness. They say the way into a man's heart is through his stomach. I'm not expecting the same to be true for Ruth, I mean she was quite clear about not being a man, but it can't hurt to try, can it?
I have no expectations of our relationship, unless it's that things should continue as they are. I'm usually Jen for her since she seems to prefer it, and on occasions we'll snuggle up together in front of a film after we've eaten. It's oddly platonic, both of us enjoying a deep and affectionate relationship somewhere closer to friends than lovers. I'm more interested in companionship and closeness in any case. If Ruth ever decides she wants more, that will be her choice. She'll let me know in time, and in the meantime I'm content.
Other things have changed. I've become rather house-proud, which makes the girls laugh – especially Ruth after what she had to face that night in my old flat. The thing is I need to maintain certain hygiene standards for the shop, so it's a small step to transfer those habits to my home as well. Ruth seems to like it, which is an added incentive. I've also dropped a dress size in the last month – also something that meets Ruth's approval – which has necessitated me investing in a second-hand sewing machine and getting some lessons in its use from Siobhan. I've managed to alter most of my clothes to fit, as well as buy a few more. I have my eye on a little black dress in one of the shops in the arcade, but I have quite a way to go before I'd even dare trying it on.
I like who I am now, which is such a dramatic improvement on where things were a couple of months ago. I don't fight to suppress the girl in me anymore, which I'm sure is why she doesn't fight back. It's strange not to feel the constant compulsion to put on a frock, but I guess that's in large part because these days I dress when I want to rather waiting until I becomes a need. A lot of the time I dress like a normal bloke during the day – chinos and polo shirts as a normal choice – but most of my customers don't seem the least bit bothered when I have a Jenny day. Oddly, the loudest protestations come on the days when I don't wear a dress, but then that's kind of a nice problem to have.
It's also strange not to feel guilty about who I am, or to be afraid of what other people might think. I have my friends to thank for that. This whole Jennifer/Jeremy thing is who I am, not something that I do. I never realised that until I revealed my secret to Ruth, Sally and Siobhan and they not only refused to freak out, but actively encouraged me to embrace the whole me. We are essentially social animals, and it matters how other people react to us; that's why I tied myself up in knots trying to be something I evidently was not for such a long time. Having just a few very good friends who see and accept the real me is enough for me to find peace.
- Police car – so named for the red stripe down the middle.
- silly person
Part of the inspiration for this story came from a poem entitled White With Two Sugars Please by Steven Turner. Google it if you're interested. There are quite a few of his poems on the Internet, all of which I would say are worth a read.
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