THE TRANSMIGRATION OF RICHARD BROOKBANK
By Touch the Light
"Less than fifty people in the world know of the transfer device. The list includes neither the Prime Minister of this country nor the President of the United States. To learn of our organisation is to join it. There’s no going back, Richard. You work for us now. You always will.”
Insipid light bleeds through glass and fabric, bringing me awake in hesitant, confused stages. My freckled fingers grope for the alarm clock on the bedside table, but encounter only empty space.
My freckled fingers? Since when did I have freckles on my fingers?
Spots in front of the eyes, that’s what you’ve got. I don’t know, pissed again. And behaved like a complete prat, I shouldn’t wonder.
God knows what I was drinking, though. My mouth feels drier than a Jack Benny comedy routine.
Loose strands of hair, honey blonde mixed with ginger, fall across my face. I push them back, puzzled.
I’ve heard of being blind drunk – but colourblind drunk?
Maybe I passed out like I did at that twenty-first in London and somebody dyed it. That means we must’ve gone back to…
Fuck it, I’ll remember where I was and what I got up to sooner or later.
I let my head sink back against the soft, squashy pillow.
Saturday morning. I can stay here as long as I like.
Don’t cock this up, are you listening?
Stop worrying, Derek. It was their own fault it got sent here. They’re not going to make you walk the plank if I’m a couple of minutes late.
But I did cock it up. First my car broke down, then the ferries were on strike and I couldn’t get to Gosport in time. I wonder how I managed to worm my way out of that one?
They’re a heavy rock band from the States. In case you thought I was a devil worshipper or something.
Sarky cow. Fabulous tits, mind. Nice arse too.
Well, that’s this morning’s wrist exercises sorted out. Now where did I leave the kitchen towel?
Actually I’m Ruth Hansford-Jones these days. I got married last May. He runs a restaurant over in Warsash.
Because if you don’t, my darling, I’ll blow your fucking balls off.
Are you all right, my love? You look a bit peaky, if you don’t mind me saying so.
Tell me it didn’t happen.
No need to get your knickers in a twist, darlin’. I was only trying to help.
Nice motor, very reliable too. Nothing wrong with the big end – if you get my drift.
I’ll do anything.
Sorry about this. Has to be done, I’m afraid.
I raise my right arm clear of the counterpane.
Only it’s not mine.
It’s plump, pale and covered in tiny freckles.
It’s a girl’s arm.
I’m still trapped in Ruth’s body.
This isn’t going away.
I’m still a girl.
Cold beads of sweat form on my forehead. I feel like smashing it against the wall until my brains start leaking from my ears.
I can’t. I don’t know how.
Then you’d better learn, because you don’t know why the fuck Cunningham brought you here. And whether it was that toerag or someone else who put you in this bed, not only did they strip you naked first, it looks like they took your clothes with them. You might whine about being imprisoned in a girl’s body, but at the moment it’s all you’ve got.
Very slowly, I claw back enough self-discipline to take stock of my new surroundings.
The room is tiny, no more than ten feet square. The only window is set high in the wall to my left. Most of the floor space is taken up by a tall aluminium cabinet, a wooden chair and a writing desk. On the back of the door there’s a poster showing two men standing at the summit of a snow-capped mountain. For some reason this makes me feel slightly less apprehensive.
Might as well try the handle. It’s probably locked, but you never know...
I sit up, my mouth falling open at the sight of the capacious globes protruding from my chest. This is the first time I’ve seen my bare breasts, and it alters my whole outlook. Yesterday they were merely appendages that might have been bolted onto my torso specifically to cause me inconvenience; now, watching them move as I breathe in and out, I have no choice but to recognise that they’re as much a part of the entity I call ‘me’ as the eyes I’m using to look at them.
I don’t think I can deal with this. I know there’s nothing inherently shameful about becoming female, but it’s too fundamental a change. A person’s gender is their single most important defining attribute. Until this ordeal ends – if it ever does – the first thing anyone will notice about me is that I’m a girl. Nothing else will matter to them remotely as much.
Fucking hell, here we go again. Call for the violins and pass round the paper tissues. You have no idea how well this has turned out for you. How would you feel if Ruth had been fat and ugly? Or it wasn’t her who pinched that machine but a sixty-odd year old geezer with arthritis and false choppers? What if you were black, and had the prospect of racial prejudice to add to your troubles?
And while we’re at it, a bit more honesty wouldn’t come amiss either. It’s not being female that’s bothering you so much as the thought of having joined the opposing side. All those girls you put on a pedestal for so many years instead of treating them like ordinary human beings, then ended up despising when they wouldn’t go out with an insecure, tongue-tied berk whose dress sense and general deportment made Albert Steptoe look like the embodiment of sartorial elegance, and now you’re one of them. What’s scaring the pants off you is that you might start to think the way they did and realise what a sad, inadequate tosser Richard Brookbank really was.
Perhaps that’s true – but it’s a harsh lesson that costs a lad his genitals.
It had to be me, didn’t it? Of all the snobs, spoiled brats, bullies, snivelling tell-tales and violent nutters I grew up with, it had to be me this happened to.
All the way down to Watkinson, Wilkins and Young.
Some went to university, others left school with no qualifications at all and had to earn their corn shovelling shit. Some will live in mansions, others will rent poky little houses on rough council estates. Some will rub shoulders with the aristocracy, others will consort with burglars and drug pushers.
Only one of them managed to get himself turned into a fucking woman.
The door clicks open, and I shrink back against the wall like a rabbit mesmerised by the roar of an approaching juggernaut.
I’ll go to church every Sunday. I’ll never take your name in vain again. I’ll write hymns.
Just let it be anyone but that cunt.
“Good morning, Richard. I trust you slept well?”
For once my prayer is answered. The speaker is a strikingly attractive woman in her middle to late thirties. She’s wearing a smart black jacket, a cream silk blouse, a calf-length pleated black skirt and black knee boots. Her glossy raven hair is cut in a fairly short bob, brushed forward into a fetching fringe. For a moment or two her exquisitely chiselled features and alluring, almond-shaped eyes put me in mind of Mademoiselle Malraux, the Saigon-born French assistant who worked at Westbourne Grammar School the year I sat my O levels – but of course it can’t be her, and in any case there’s no vestige of a foreign accent in that clear, crisp voice.
“Who are you?” I ask, clutching the quilt to my chest. “Why am I here?”
“My name is Mitsuoko Tatsukichi. You can call me Suki, it’s easier to remember. You’re in HMS Nereid on the South Downs, a few miles from Petersfield. As the base is closed for refurbishment at present, we have the premises to ourselves. Now we’ve a busy day ahead of us, so if you follow me I’ll take you to the shower area. I’ve found you some fresh clothes, and one or two other bits and pieces that will doubtless come in handy.”
“Why did Cunningham drug me?”
“As a precaution.”
“The device Ruth used on you sends a signal that stimulates a certain region of the brain to produce natural mood stabilisers called gabba-aminobutyric acids, or GABA inhibitors as they’re sometimes known. They help to mitigate the psychological shock a transfer inevitably brings on, but their effectiveness diminishes rapidly after a few hours.”
She’s talking as if people exchange bodies every day.
“Are you going to tell me what this is all about?”
“I’m afraid you haven’t been granted the necessary clearance.”
Typical of the Navy. They won’t give a civilian directions to the nearest phone box for fear it might be classified information.
“You don’t sound very Japanese,” I remark sullenly.
“You don’t sound very male,”comes the stinging reply. She claps her palms together. “Any more questions? Good. Well, what are you waiting for? Chop-chop!”
Yes, miss. Whatever you say, miss. Three bags fucking full, miss.
But an urgent need to use a lavatory ensures my compliance. Wrapping a sheet around my middle, I swing my feet to the carpet.
Suki leads me through an empty barrack room to a communal latrine block and promises to return in twenty minutes. I can’t let her leave without asking the question that I must have an answer to, no matter how unpalatable it turns out to be.
“Can you…I mean, the people you work for…are you going to, you know…?”
“Return you to your original body?”
“I’d advise you not to raise your hopes too high. While we’re in the process of mounting an operation to apprehend Ruth Hansford-Jones with the aim of placing her under military arrest, the recovery of the device she stole from us is and will continue to be our uppermost priority. If in order to achieve that objective we are forced to employ extreme measures, then you can be certain those measures will be taken.”
She doesn’t pull any punches, does she?
“You’d kill her?” I gasp.
“It’s an eventuality for which you should certainly prepare yourself.”
Suki walks away, and as I stare after her the sheet falls from my useless fingers. I step over it, my cumbersome breasts bouncing and swaying.
This is how it might always be for me.
Every time I move.
Month upon month, year upon year...
No escape but the grave.
They’ll find a way to bring her in alive and in one piece. They have to.
Pushing my hair away from my face, I walk towards the line of benches set against the nearest wall. Here I find two large towels, as well as clean underwear, a thick-knit fawn jumper and a pair of khaki camouflage trousers. My leather jacket hangs from the peg directly above, and my high-heeled ankle boots stand to attention on the tiled floor. Next to them is a grocery box filled with all manner of toiletries and grooming aids, everything from shampoo and soap to sticking plaster.
As if I gave a flying fuck.
I just want to go back to bed, close my eyes and pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. Instead I’m expected to function normally, as though all I had to contend with was a slight head cold.
I reach for my jacket. The cigarettes and matches are still inside. It’s not much of a silver lining, and too much has happened in too short a space of time for me to hope that it might be a turning point.
The pressure in my bladder reminds me that some tasks have to be seen to regardless of circumstances. Trying – without very much success – to yank my eyes away from the womanly curves of my waist and thighs, not to mention the unmistakeable lack of anything dangling from my crotch, I go about my ablutions.
The mess hall is deserted, apart from the long, Formica-topped table where Suki Tatsukichi has laid out a breakfast for two of cereal, toast, marmalade and coffee. I eat sparingly, my appetite dulled both by the warning I’ve been given and the intelligent oriental eyes that every so often glance up from the spiral-bound dossier they’re perusing to check on my progress – as if to make sure that the aberration facing her can perform such simple tasks as spooning corn flakes into her mouth.
I don’t know what she has planned for me, but I doubt if it includes a tropical island populated exclusively by beautiful young lesbians.
The moment I push my plate to one side, Suki lays the folder flat on the table. Printed on the front cover is RICHARD ARTHUR BROOKBANK, followed by a forward slash and an alphanumeric identification code. There’s one other word: BELLADONNA.
“You’re not wearing a bra,” she observes.
“Yeah, I’m a real slut. Mind if I smoke?”
“Is that because you had difficulty putting it on?”
“Couldn’t be bothered, to tell you the truth.”
She doesn’t get it. She can’t understand that slipping my arms through those straps and fiddling with the hooks at the back would have been acts of surrender.
“Where’s Ruth’s wedding ring?” she asks as I light up and inhale, careful not to take too much back this time.
“It was getting on my tits, so I flushed it down the pan.”
She looks horrified.
“What if her husband wants it returned?”
“He should’ve thought of that before he married a body snatcher.” I rest the cigarette in the saucer, then sit back and cross one sturdy thigh over the other. “Relax, it’s in her bag.”
Suki’s dark red lips curve in what I suspect is the nearest they ever come to forming a genuine smile. Evidently my decision not to introduce Ruth’s ring to the twists and turns of the local sewage system has qualified me for immediate membership of the great sisterhood who’d cut off their own thumbs rather than deliberately destroy another woman’s jewellery.
So much for staying on the outside looking in.
“To business,” she says briskly. “How do you feel?”
“What a stupid question. I’ve been turned into a woman and you ask me how I feel. Jumping for joy. How the fuck d’you think I feel?”
“I mean in yourself. Any headaches, dizzy spells, that kind of thing?”
“No...uh, should there be?”
“We don’t think so. The trials we were able to conduct produced little in the way of long-term effects.”
“Are you saying people actually volunteered to have this done to them?”
“Yes, and you owe them a great deal. Thanks to the data they helped us collect you’ve been cleared to undergo the remainder of your adjustment under my supervision.”
“The alternative being...?”
“An exhaustive programme of physical and psychological tests carried out in an underground laboratory, your movements monitored by closed-circuit television cameras twenty-four hours a day.” She sits forward, her bearing suddenly more confrontational. “But for better or worse the responsibility’s fallen to me – and part of my remit is to decide how you can best be of service to us in your current situation.”
“You’ve got a nerve,” I laugh. “You stood by and watched Ruth steal my body, then let her give you the slip. Doesn’t matter why, the damage is done. But the fact remains that you used me. To my mind you lot are every bit as much to blame for these jugs I’ve got to carry around with me as Ruth is. And now you tell me that getting your precious machine back is more important to you than whether I go back to my original body or stay stranded in this one. So in view of the fact that you’ve thrown away your only bargaining card, what the fuck makes you think I’ll lift a finger to help you?”
The glare radiating from the other side of the table could penetrate a concrete wall the thickness of a medium-sized county.
“What makes you think you have a choice? Do you really imagine that even if things turn out favourably we’ll allow you to return to your old life, as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred? Less than fifty people in the world know of the transfer device. The list includes neither the Prime Minister of this country nor the President of the United States. To learn of our organisation is to join it. There’s no going back, Richard. You work for us now. You always will.”
She pauses to give her words time to sink in. They absorb my false bravado like a black hole sucking in light.
“Doing what?” I croak, my voice weaker than a homework excuse.
“Ruth’s disappearance presents us with a serious problem. Like her husband, she was a technician attached to the team responsible for developing the device – in fact that’s how they met. Although Timothy Hansford-Jones can be relied upon to exercise the utmost discretion, the Pattison family are under no such obligation. Fairly soon they’re going to start wondering why she hasn’t been in touch with them.”
“What about my folks? I’m supposed to be in Dorking tomorrow for my mum’s birthday.”
“We’re aware of that. The matter is being attended to.”
“I bet it is.”
“Richard, listen to me. You have to trust that we’re acting in the best interests of everyone concerned. Not just those who are directly involved, but everyone. You’ve experienced at first hand what this machine can do. Look me in the eye and tell me you haven’t thought about what the consequences might be if it falls into the hands of a hostile government – or worse, a terrorist organisation. And what about the panic that would ensue if its existence became known to the general public? If the operation to get it back is to have any chance of succeeding – any chance at all – then it has to be carried out under conditions of extreme secrecy. Surely I don’t need to spell out how vital it is that we avoid the kind of publicity the search for one missing person will attract, let alone two.”
I feel my eyes narrow. It’s a quintessentially feminine trait, but I’m past caring. I know where this conversation is heading, and I don’t like the scenery one bit.
“You want me to impersonate her, don’t you? It’s not enough that every time I look in the mirror I’m going to be faced with the bitch who landed me in this hole, now I’ve got to pretend to be her?”
“It’s a challenge I’m confident you’ll rise to.”
“Oh yeah, I can just see myself on Christmas Day, sitting at the table scoffing turkey and mince pies with a load of relatives I’ve never met.”
“I’m glad to hear it, because that’s part of the plan.”
My God, she’s serious.
I open my mouth to object, but an even more disquieting thought floats in from the edge of my mind.
“What about the other crowd, the ones Cunningham had to shake off last night?”
“I saw nothing of that in his report.”
“You must’ve done! The bloke in the Cortina—“
If you look round I’ll break your arm.
The lying git.
He knew I’d make less of a fuss if I believed that someone was intent on ending my life.
The next time I bump into that prick I’ll leave him with exactly the same number of testicles Ruth left me.
Suki reaches into the black leather briefcase at her feet. She takes out a dossier similar to the one bearing my name, opens it and removes an assortment of papers.
“Ruth’s application form, her Curriculum Vitae and the results of her background check,” she says, passing them across. “You’re to study her biographical details and practise imitating her handwriting and signature. You shouldn’t have too many problems.”
“Oh? Any particular reason?”
“The device is currently configured so that only the episodic, or conscious memory is imprinted. By that I mean the—“
“Hold on a minute. Are you saying that subconsciously I’m Ruth?”
“Your mind has access to Richard Brookbank’s unique personal history up to the moment of the transfer.” She pats the top of her head. “Everything else that goes on in here was unaffected.”
“I don’t know if I like the sound of that. What’s the bottom line? Am I going to take on her personality as well?”
“Some aspects of it, yes. Most of her habits, tastes and preferences will eventually become yours. More importantly, your body has retained the skills and abilities it acquired from early childhood onwards.”
“Like knowing how to ride a bike?”
“That’s right. In layman’s terms, if Ruth was good at something then so are you. Or rather you have the aptitude for it. Had you exchanged bodies with a world-class soprano, you’d have her voice – but you’d still need hundreds of hours of training before you were ready to perform in front of an audience.”
“Is that why I’ve got her accent?”
“And quite a few of her mannerisms as well. With the right coaching you’ll be able to pull the wool over her family’s eyes for as long as you want. But at this stage all we require of you is a letter. In it you’ll explain that your marriage has broken down irretrievably, and that as a consequence you’ve resigned your position with the Ministry of Defence and gone away somewhere in an attempt to put the pieces of your life back together. We’ll work on the exact wording over the next day or two.”
“A bit impersonal, isn’t it? Won’t they think it’s strange that she didn’t at least phone them?”
“Not necessarily. Ruth’s parents never approved of Tim. I think it’s fair to say that at the moment she isn’t on the best of terms with them. And they know very well that she isn’t the type to run home in tears and admit they were right about him all along.”
“So I forge a letter. Then what?”
“We’ve your placement to consider. But first there’s the adjustment process I spoke of. You’re clearly uncomfortable with the idea of being female, and that has to change. You may have to spend a considerable amount of time as Ruth, possibly the rest of your life.”
I’m visited by an unwelcome vision of my body jerking about like a puppet as bullets tear into it from every point of the compass.
The only letter I should be writing is to Jimmy Savile.
Fix this fucker, Jim.
Twenty to three on a Saturday afternoon.
I ought to be in the Brewers Arms with Graham and the rest of the squad, sinking a last pint of HSB before beginning the short walk to Fratton Park for the FA Cup tie against Northampton. With Pompey lying fifth in the table, unbeaten at home after losing to Bradford City on the opening day of the season, and a crowd of between twelve and fifteen thousand creating an atmosphere most opposition players at this level have never experienced, a thumping victory is all but assured.
I should be there, cheering the lads on. It’s part of my life.
Instead I’m standing on a gravel forecourt outside a two-storey country house, watching the wintry sunshine gradually weaken, taking tentative drags from a Winston and trying not to grimace at the red stain my painted lips have deposited on the filter.
How the fuck did it come to this?
Less than five hours have elapsed since Suki Tatsukichi drove me the few hundred yards from HMS Nereid to Hayden Hall in her light blue Austin Allegro. In that time I’ve been given a thorough indoctrination into some of the more esoteric aspects of my new role as one of the fairer sex. I now know what foundation and blusher are for, and where to apply them. I’m alert to the benefits of moisturising cream. I’ve discovered which colours complement my hair and skin tones, and which ones clash with them. I can look at a photograph of a female celebrity in a magazine and judge whether her choice of accessories tends towards elegance or ostentation. I understand what the terms ‘38D’ and ‘matching separates’ mean. I’ve added words such as popsock, fascinator, slingback, choker and basque to my vocabulary. The only thing I haven’t been able to grasp is why women put up with all this shit in the first place.
I finish my cigarette and let it fall to the ground, then crush it with my heel. Behind me, a wide lawn dips from a paved terrace towards a thick belt of mixed woodland. It’s an idyllic setting, but one I won’t have the chance to enjoy for very much longer. Soon I’ll be back in Belvedere House, which Suki has earmarked as our headquarters while my tuition continues apace.
I’m sick of the sight of her now. What will I feel like after a couple of weeks stuck in the same flat as her?
More to the point, who will I feel like? Just because I’ve got a slit between my legs and boobs threatening to burst out of my jumper doesn’t mean I’m suddenly a different person. I realise I’m a girl now and it’ll make life a lot easier if I start thinking and behaving as one, but under all this powder and paint I’m still me.
And I’d like it to stay that way.
“Give me a hand with these things, would you?”
Suki is standing in the entrance hall beside half a dozen large suitcases. Closer inspection reveals that one of them is a folded-up camp bed.
No prizes for guessing which of us will be using it.
“What are we going to do for furniture and stuff?” I ask her as I pick up the nearest of the cases and struggle outside with it.
“It’s being delivered as we speak. Tim will be bringing over most of Ruth’s belongings this evening. He’s also agreed to put together a detailed account of their time together, including a list of her likes, dislikes and other personal habits. Don’t worry, I’ll make quite sure the two of you don’t meet.”
“Is that for my sake or his?”
“I think he’s suffered enough, don’t you?”
That gives me pause for thought. It seems mine isn’t the only life to have been turned upside down, back to front and inside out by what happened yesterday afternoon.
When the last of the luggage has been stowed in the Allegro’s boot I push back my fringe and wipe the perspiration from my forehead. Some things never change: if I was kidnapped by slave traders and sold into a sultan’s harem I can guarantee there’d still be shifting to do.
Suki lifts a set of keys from her bag.
“Hard work, isn’t it?” she says. “That’s what comes of having a higher fat-to-muscle ratio. Men have their uses, even in this day and age.”
“How very liberated of you,” I sniff.
“Oh, and from this moment on I’ll be calling you ‘Ruth’. As far as you or I, or indeed anyone we meet is concerned, that’s who you are. Now run a comb through your hair before we set off, there’s a good girl.”
I clench my fists, then leap into action. Something inside me has snapped, and I’m unable to contain my fury. Frothing at the mouth, I pull Suki back by the shoulder. She reels away from me, but my fingers are already entwined in her hair. Then it’s my turn to stagger backwards – and when I see what I’m holding, my legs give way completely.
Suki crouches to retrieve her wig. My lips part, not so much at the pale skin visible through the patchy stubble covering her scalp but the row of small, perfectly circular scars running from the centre of her forehead to her crown and beyond to the nape of her neck. Then I notice her eyebrows, each of which is adorned by a dozen or more tiny black gemstones.
“What happened to you?” I gasp.
“That is a story I shall never tell.” She smooths the strands down from the lattice they’re tied to, then fits the wig back in place. “Now if you’re quite finished taking out your frustrations on me, we have provisions to get in.”
I lever myself up from the gravel and follow her to the car.
You work for us now. You always will.
A life sentence.
To run concurrently with the unstipulated term I’ll spend locked in the prison of a female body.
And although I feel as if I’ve been behind bars for a decade or more, I know that my incarceration has only just begun.
Richard's story will be continued in the sequel to this tale, 'Death By Misadventure'.
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudo!
Click the Good Story! button above to leave the author a kudo:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.