THE INFECTION VECTOR
The sequel to 'The House In The Hollow'
CHAPTER 6 - RUTH
By Touch the Light
My freckled fingers freeze, just as they did all those months ago when I feared that death might be waiting for me in the room I was about to enter.
This time it’s life that’s scaring the pants off me.
Rectory Lane, Cosham
June 16, 1979
“That one over there. See the red Ford Escort? Belongs to Rosie.”
The burly young man who has driven me here on what I have to agree is probably a fool’s errand makes sure the handbrake is on, then follows the finger I point across Woodford Road towards the steeply sloping drive shared by Kerrie Latimer and her neighbour.
“Can’t see a VW anywhere,” murmurs Jeremy Egerton through Toby Cunningham’s lips.
“No, but let’s not jump to conclusions.”
“Why don’t you just go up and ring the bell?”
“I think we should at least give her time to put her choppers in.”
“She’s got false teeth?”
“Didn’t you notice when you broke into her room?”
“Evidently not. Funny the things that escape your attention when you’re being shoved through a second-floor window.”
It’s hard to imagine the real Cunningham saying something like that. I wonder how she’s coping as a woman? Probably no worse than I am.
Why the hell did I let Beverley talk me into putting on a skirt? It’s not that it makes me feel uncomfortable – when you’re wearing stockings you don’t know it’s there – but the sight of my knees, calves, shins, ankles and insteps through the sheer nylon acts as a persistent reminder that I’ve joined the distaff side for good.
I glance at my watch, the slimness of the strap adding fuel to that flame.
Twenty past eight. It’s a school day, so we ought to see some movement soon.
“One thing’s always puzzled me about that escapade, Jeremy: why did Yvette pick a fight with her?”
“It was a test. When Yvette found out about the will she gathered together as much information on the beneficiaries as she could. That’s how she learned Kerrie had survived the Loch Garman sinking but was still afraid of boats.”
There’s no queue at the ticket office, but I never seem to reach it. Maybe it’s the memories that flood through me when I watch the ferry pitch in the water as it turns to come alongside the landing stage.
Jeremy’s eyes have narrowed, bringing me back to the present.
I pretend to yawn.
“Sorry, go on.”
“If you could try to stay awake. This was your idea, remember? Anyway, Yvette followed her down to the Gosport ferry one day and saw her go to pieces at the top of the gangway. She figured that if Kerrie had the gift she’d be able to cure herself, so she whispered a trigger phrase in her ear and hey presto!”
Bejewelled, black-nailed hands grasp me by the waist. The softest of ebony lips caress my cheek, move sensuously to my left ear. Whispered words in a strange tongue invade my consciousness, soothing and strengthening me.
That was Yvette?
“And that morning in the dining room, Kerrie seemed to recognise her. So the insults and everything were an attempt to provoke her into giving away how much of this gift she possessed. They also gave me the chance to study you.”
“I hope you liked what you…hey, looks like we’ve got action!”
The door at the side of Rosie’s house is pushed open.
By Sinead Latimer.
“Maybe Kerrie’s staying with her sisters and Rosie’s made the two of them breakfast,” I venture.
“Or maybe she’s somewhere else.”
We wait until Rosie has followed Sinead into the Escort and guided it a safe distance along Woodford Road before stepping onto the pavement.
“I haven’t told you this, but about a month ago Gerald Cooper rang me at the Gladstone,” I confess. “It was actually the day I got enticed down to Sunny Hollow. I put on a local accent and said Ruth had left her job.”
“Why, for heaven’s sake?”
“He wanted to talk about Kerrie. I didn’t.”
A soft breeze ruffles my hem as we cross the road and make our way towards number 113. The sun has been up long enough to give the air a summery flavour and have me wishing I’d plumped for the sleeveless blouse Beverley picked out for me rather than the T-shirt I insisted upon.
Jeremy reaches the top of the drive before I do – but he isn’t broad-shouldered enough to block my view of the overgrown lawn.
“What d’you think?” he asks me. “About a month’s worth?”
I walk over to the kitchen window. The table and work surfaces inside are strewn with magazines, empty bottles of pop, unwashed plates and half-eaten packets of crisps. There’s also a full ashtray.
“Sinead’s been having friends round on the sly. Kerrie would never have let it get in this state.”
“I honestly don’t know what we can do,” says Jeremy. “If she’s gone out there then—“
“Then she’s in danger.”
“Don’t punish yourself for this, Ruth. However responsible you feel for what’s happened to this family, whatever errors of judgement you believe you made, you’ve paid for them many times over.”
He steps closer. I look up into his grey eyes and sense the concern radiating from them.
“Coming here was a mistake, wasn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t say that. It’s one of the things you needed to cleanse from your system. And if it helps you draw a line under the past…” He touches my elbow. “Come on, let’s make tracks so we can get you moved in.”
We start back down the drive. High above Langstone Harbour, a wisp of cloud passes across the sun.
The lift doors open. I step into the corridor, still not quite able to believe that fate has led me back to the one place I thought I’d never see again.
Flat 806, Belvedere House, Clarendon Road, Southsea.
Wiping a suddenly clammy hand on the side of my skirt, I walk towards the future. Jeremy stands unintrusively beside the cases he’s carried up from the car. He knows how much this means to me.
I take the key from my bag and turn it in the lock. My freckled fingers freeze, just as they did all those months ago when I feared that death might be waiting for me in the room I was about to enter.
This time it’s life that’s scaring the pants off me.
The life that will begin as soon as I exert that tiny bit more pressure on the piece of metal I’m holding.
There. It’s done.
Whoever Ruth Maria Pattison turns out to be, this is the moment the process truly got underway.
Jeremy comes in a respectful distance behind me and lowers the first of the cases onto the woodland green carpet.
“Nice,” he remarks, nodding at the colour television set, the hi-fi stereo system and the desk with the snazzy new word processor.
“Better than I remember.”
The zebra-striped sofa, the velour armchair and the low coffee table in front of the gas fire are still there. The camp bed, thank the Lord, isn’t.
I cast an eye over the plain white walls and polished hardwood shelves, all as bare as the day I first saw them.
“You’re decorating, aren’t you?” grins Jeremy. “Typical woman.”
“Don’t forget, I know whereof I speak.”
“Oh yes! And you’ve got that whole – what was it again? – twelve days’ worth of memories to call on.”
“I packed a lot into them. Simon Whitaker wasn’t the first guy I opened my legs for.”
My hand goes to my mouth.
“You do know the concierge is standing in the doorway,” I say through my fingers.
He isn’t, of course – but it’s worth the insult Jeremy launches at me when he finds out I’m teasing him just to have seen the stricken look on his face.
I head through the alcove into the kitchen, already composing a mental list of the items I’ll need to pick up when I visit the shops later this morning. Once I’ve checked the bathroom and run up another one I return to find Jeremy leafing through the instruction manual that came with the word processor.
“What exactly is this?” he asks me. “As far as I can tell it’s just a typewriter with a screen below the ribbon.”
“It is and it isn’t. When Beverley was teaching me how to use hers she said it was like a computer, but with only one program on it. The best thing is if you type the wrong letter you just press a key and it gets rid of it.” I hold up the box of floppy disks resting on the corner of the desk. “When you’ve finished you can store your work on one of these. It goes in that little slot there. Apparently it has enough space to hold a medium-sized novel. But the machine itself can only process a few thousand words at a time, so you have to keep stopping and saving what you’ve done.”
He starts rubbing his chin.
“I don’t know, this must be about as advanced a piece of equipment as you can buy, and it can hold maybe twenty pages of writing. Yet we’ve both got copies of our entire neural systems on a device no bigger than an ostrich egg. And Yvette told me she broke into Area 51 to photograph the blueprints. It has to be alien technology.”
“You could be right. There’s all those stories about Roswell…”
“That’s it! Interstellar journeys take so long the crew would all die of old age if they didn’t have fresh bodies to jump into. Perhaps they kept them frozen, or in tanks or whatever.”
“Well, we soon solved that one!”
“Yeah, if only everything else was as easy to sort out.”
“What d’you mean?”
“Cunningham was a mess. Especially with money. He only got by because he was fiddling his expenses. His gaff’s nothing special either. He didn’t mind, he was hardly ever there. So I’ll be looking for work, and I’d better be quick about finding some.”
“I don’t understand. You saved a whole town from being converted. Surely they can’t just turn their backs on you?”
“They haven’t. But I want out. Like you did when we talked on Waterloo Bridge, remember? Since then you’ve discovered that you can’t simply walk away from what you are. I can. I’ve got to. I’m determined not to become him, and I will if I stay with the MoD.”
“He’d have been okay with a woman to keep him on the straight and narrow.”
“Would you have taken him on?”
“I might’ve done if he hadn’t given me so many reasons to detest him.”
“So many that the very sight of him still makes your skin crawl?”
“No, it isn’t like that at all. You’re in there now. And from what Beverley told me you have an even chance of being the father of my child.”
He looks away and walks over to the cases. One by one, he lugs them through to the bedroom.
“What’s wrong?” I’m anxious for him to tell me.
He puts the last suitcase on the floor, then turns back to me. His face holds an expression I’m unable to interpret.
“I wasn’t going to mention that. But since you’ve brought the subject up I’ll put my cards on the table. I don’t think you’re adjusting quickly enough to get through this pregnancy on your own. You seem all right about it at the moment, but will you still feel the same way once the morning sickness and all the other things start? I spoke to Dr Sanderson; she told me all you have to do is say the word and she’ll terminate. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t dream of going against you if that’s what you really want. My fear is that you’ll panic, then realise you made the decision too early.”
I look down at my T-shirt, and the way it curves to follow the contours of my breasts. I’ve found that by doing my best to put them from my mind I’ve begun to accept that this is my natural shape. But in not that many weeks from now another part of me is going to blossom outwards, one I won’t be able to ignore because every square inch of it will remind me of the ordeal I’ll be facing in the delivery room, not to mention the years of parental care that will come afterwards. ‘Panic’ would appear to be a justifiable word to use.
I force myself to meet Jeremy’s grey eyes.
“What’s your solution?”
“That you divide the load with someone who appreciates the situation you’re in. Someone who understands a little of what you’re feeling. Someone who’s experienced a change of sex and had to come to terms with it.”
I feel my mouth fall open.
“Are you suggesting we—“
“I’m offering to be the guy who tidies the flat while you’re in the bathroom spewing up. I’m offering to be your punchbag when you want to lash out at someone. I’m offering to be there for you when it all gets too much.”
I want to shake my head and tell him to leave. I really do.
Apart from anything else, he’s just propositioned me. The kind of relationship he's describing won’t last very long if I make him sleep on the sofa. If I agree to him moving in I’ll be giving him my tacit permission to share my bed and therefore to expect regular sex. It can’t be any other way.
You’re not thinking like a woman, Rich. It doesn’t matter what he expects, it’s up to you what he gets.
He knows that. He’s been female himself.
But every morning I’ll be waking up next to a man!
That old chestnut. What about when you and Cunningham were on the ferry? You didn’t fancy him then, and look what happened. What you wanted to happen. Okay, you hated yourself for it but that was only because he was a cunt. This bloke’s got the same body, and none of the swagger. And he’s committed to looking after you. He’s perfect for you, babe.
Shut up and listen. On this of all days, when you’ve decided that your new life as Ruth Pattison is really going to begin, do yourself a huge favour.
TAKE A FUCKING CHANCE!
Now it’s my turn to move closer. I don’t do it deliberately, but all the same my hand comes to rest on Jeremy’s sleeve.
“I reserve the right to kick you out any time I like,” I tell him.
“Of course. It’s your flat.”
“And don’t get any ideas about having the run of the place once I’ve started work.”
“Oh, and as soon as I get my bulge I’m going on top.”
“That’s fine by me!”
“Good. I can see I’ll have you house-trained in no time.” I give his arm a squeeze. “Now you can take me shopping.”
Welcome to the sisterhood, babe.
I step from the shower, towel myself dry, brush my teeth and tie a robe around my middle. I think about lifting my wig from its stand, but decide against it. If Jeremy doesn’t fancy me as I am, he knows where the door is.
A splash or two of scent and I’m ready.
Only I’m not.
It isn’t the thought of being fucked that makes me hesitate. I can live with Jeremy thrusting his penis into my vagina night after night – I suspect I might even come to enjoy it. What’s stopping me is the sudden realisation that sex will be the cement that binds us together as a couple. After we’ve slept together I’ll be his girlfriend, with everything that implies.
I remind myself that Jeremy will be acutely aware of my misgivings. Not long ago he was a forty-four year old woman sliding out her dentures ready for a spot of fellatio with Simon Whitaker. If that hasn’t taught him to empathise with the female half of the population then nothing will.
My hand moves to the barely healed scar in the centre of my forehead, and from there to the first scattered patches of gingery down sprouting from my resuscitated follicles.
I owe that man so much!
Haven’t I a duty to at least try to make it work between us?
How I get there I don’t know, but finally I’m standing in front of the bedroom door.
I turn the handle as quietly as I can. Beneath the covers lies a naked man reading this week’s Melody Maker.
The man with whom I will spend the night.
It’ll be okay. It has to be.
Jeremy looks up. If he’s disgusted by my near baldness he hides it well.
I gesture with my eyes towards the light switch.
“Mind if I…?”
“Uh…no, go ahead.”
He folds his paper up and leans over to put it on floor. I plunge the room into darkness, then tread carefully forward. My knee finds the edge of the bed before my fingers do.
I sit. The mattress doesn’t give like it should. That’s because of the thirteen-stone lump of human flesh I’ll soon be lying next to. I can feel its warmth, smell its cologne, hear its breathing.
It’s a person. It’s Jeremy.
It’s the man who’s probably just as apprehensive about the journey on which we’re shortly to embark as I am.
Because neither of us knows what our eventual destination will be.
Might as well hit the road…
I pull back the sheet. God, there’s so little room!
I can’t avoid my body coming into contact with his so I don’t try. But I turn on my side, facing away from him. If I don’t know when it’s coming there’s less chance I’ll react badly and ruin everything.
For a long time we just lie there. I feel I ought to do something, if only to stop him falling asleep. How frustrating will that be, after I’ve psyched myself up all day for a rogering I’m sure I’ll remember when I’ve started mouthing the words I hear on the television news?
Eventually I find the mettle to let my back press against his chest so I can become accustomed to its rise and fall. Jeremy’s response is to let his feet play with mine, tickling their soles with his toes.
Then his hand touches my shoulder, making me shiver.
“You know I’ll stop the moment you ask me to,” he says softly against the lobe of my ear.
“It’s okay,” I whisper back. “Just first-night nerves.”
I’ve got this far without wanting to throw up. I’m not backing out now.
He begins caressing my plump upper arm. The sensation is pleasant enough, I suppose, but I can’t say that it excites me.
Then his other hand is on my waist. I gasp, because it doesn’t stay there but travels directly to my left breast. Not pawing, not kneading. Just holding it.
Which may explain why I grip his arm but don’t pull it away.
And now my lips part and my eyes widen in shock, for a boundary has been crossed. I’ve sent a signal that permits him to fondle my tits whenever he wants. I don’t have to endure it, I’m not his toy – but after I’ve deemed this form of petting acceptable I’d better have a very good reason for refusing it.
He slides his hand under my arm to cup my other breast, and for a while nothing else happens. He’s aware – as no other man could possibly be – that I need time to relax, that if it takes until the small hours for me to let him know I’m ready then so be it.
In the end it’s his erection that tips the scales. Not because of the electrifying hardness slowly widening the gap between the tops of my thighs as it pushes towards my sex, not because of the pulsing heat searing away the last of my male inhibitions, but because I appreciate how much he wants me. And that’s turning me on.
“Okay,” I murmur, leaving Jeremy to do the rest. There’ll come a time when I begin to take a more assertive role in our lovemaking, but tonight the rookie is happy to let the pro show her the ropes.
When he throws back the covers. When he kneels beside me. When he spreads my legs and I know that in a few seconds I’ll know how it feels to be a woman having sex with a man. When he pulls me roughly towards him. When our mouths meet. When that blistering granite rod finally slips between my labia and I fling my arms around his neck. When it withdraws, only to stab into me with renewed vigour. When it fills me again and again. When it spurts sizzling hot seed deep inside me…
When it’s over and I’m locked in an embrace with the man I must now think of as my lover, my initial reaction is that it’s all been a bit of an anti-climax really.
But when he takes me again, long and slow this time, and my back arches and I writhe and moan in pure animal ecstasy, my conscious mind remains detached and pensive. It reflects on the circuitous path along which destiny has tugged me since that damp November afternoon on the ramp outside Portsmouth Harbour station, a trail I can at last say has yielded up a reward I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.
Not Jeremy, for who can tell how strong the bond between us will prove?
This concludes a story arc conceived in 2004 as a novel with the working title 'The Chrysanthemum Inheritance'. It was intended to form the first part of a sequence that spanned a quarter of a decade and told of the relentless spread of the Bucovina hive, as well as the authorities' increasingly impotent efforts to contain it.
The tale in its present form was begun in the late summer of 2009, when I replaced the original protagonist, Norah Russell's disillusioned nephew Richard, with the equally world-weary Trisha Brookbank. Unable to decide which of these would interact most effectively with Kerrie Latimer, I wrote, purely as an experiment, an extended version of Richard's backstory in which he was turned into Trisha. So completely did I identify with this new version of Richard that I expanded it into what eventually became 'The Transmigration Of Richard Brookbank'.
At the moment I can't see another volume being written. If it is, the tg element will have to take a back seat as that transfer device is staying under lock and key if I have to patrol the corridors of the vault myself!
The project I'm currently working on is in much lighter vein, and has the male to female transition as its central feature. There'll be no alien technology, government conspiracies or mutated memes, just a couple of young lads finding new identities - and having some knockabout fun on the way.
I'd like to thank:
Mike Scrafton, my test audience for 'The Transmigration of Richard Brookbank', 'Death By Misadventure' and 'Truth or Consequences'
Bryce Zabel and Brent V Friedman, co-creators of the 1990s tv series 'Dark Skies', my principal inspiration for this story arc
Ridley Scott, for the sublime transformation scene in the movie 'Legend', which led me by various insalubrious vermin-infested mental alleyways to the unhealthy, fetishistic nightmare world whence came the kuzkardesh gara
Most of all the reviewers on this and the other sites where these stories have appeared, whose generous comments have done so much to encourage me to finish this tale. I hesitate to single out individuals for special mention in case I've forgotten anyone, but I can't end without acknowledging the debt I owe to Kelly Ann Rogers, whose penetrating yet invariably constructive criticism of my work has been invaluable. I raise a glass of Sicilian Shiraz to you all.
See yers in a bit, as they might say in Northcroft
Richard Furness, Roker Avenue, Sunderland
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