False Alarm

The hotel was on a steep hill, which left the basement neither one thing nor the other. Uphill, it was indeed underground, but on the downhill side it had windows open to the sun. The hotel entrance, therefore was sort of ground floor, sort of first floor.

“Hello. Booked in for two nights B and B”

“Name, please?”

“Anderson”

“Mark?”

“That’s the one. Do you do evening meals here? I have a friend stopping by tomorrow evening, and we aren’t exactly close to the fleshpots of Gateshead here”

The young man laughed happily.

“Fleshpots in Gateshead? You’ll be after herds of wildebeest and the hanging gardens of Babylon, next!”

I got the reference, whined “Sybil!” appropriately, and he handed me a sheet of card.

“Not a bad table, here. You can keep this; if you use your phone camera you can send a pic to your mate, see what he thinks”

“She”

“Oh? Sorry. Here’s your key card. You’re in seven one five. Seventh floor, lift’s just there. Enjoy your stay, Mr Anderson. I hope this WILL be good enough”

Into the lift, where I had to wave my card at a reader before the thing would move, and off up to my room. Card into the slot; green light. Pull the door, slide the card into its wall holder for power, dump my little pull-along in the corner, and find the kettle and whatever came with it.

No biscuits. Bugger. I started the kettle going while I searched the room for things to take home with me, and bingo! Pen, notepad and individual toiletries rather than a squeeze bottle locked to the wall. I always like a soak in a bath, but those bottles are always set up for someone standing to shower rather than lying down to soak. Razor, toothbrush and the rest went by the hand basin, and then I stretched out on the bed for a read of the menu.

Izzy answered on the third ring.

“What’s it like there?”

“Not bad. There are worse places to stay, but the area’s a bit meh. I can see Newcastle over the river, though”

She laughed.

“Like Moses seeing the Promised Land? Keep taking the tablets, kid!”

I could never stay gloomy around Izzy, so we chatted menus and times, and after she had rung off, I ended up dozing until my phone’s alarm woke me. Change my T-shirt, down to the restaurant, and one of their pies had my name on it, followed by my knife and fork. I kept my booze down to two bottles of Dog, the brown ale bringing back so many memories, not all of them nice ones. Cheer up, Anderson. Big day tomorrow; go at it without red rims to your eyes.

I passed the evening on my laptop, losing myself in an online jigsaw app, and then settled down into a gratifyingly comfortable bed. The winter sunlight had long since faded, which I deemed a good thing as it meant I couldn’t see the decaying town waiting at the foot of my hotel. Thank god it was only a short walk to the Metro station, and then an equally short ride to Newcastle Central Station for my train away, and equal thanks that one stunning symbol of urban nastiness, Trinity Square car park, had been demolished. The things our group put up with, all for the sake of saving money.

I couldn’t work out what that noise was…Shit! Phone alarm. Time to get my donkey moving, dress and grab breakfast. T-shirt and jeans, grab key card and e-reader and back into the lift, which didn’t need a swipe to go down.

“Name and room number, please, pet?”

“Anderson, seven one five”

“Are you on your own the morn?”

“Er, hang on---I can see some friends. Looks like they’ve got a couple of spare seats”

“That’s canny, then. Tea or coffee?”

“Tea please”

“Continental is over there, hot buffet…”

She rattled off my choices, and I smiled and went to join Carol and Paula, who were already ploughing through their Full Geordie. Paula looked me up and down, taking in what I was wearing with a sigh.

“That resolution, then, er, Mark?”

I shook my head.

“Want to see where it is first, and who’s here. Don’t want to have to cross by reception in, you know?”

Carol grinned.

“Yeah, we do indeed! Big step and a long way down to the next one. I think the lift goes straight into our room. Would that work?”

“Well, going to have to, isn’t it? What’s the breakfast like?”

Paula waved a quarter of stottie at me.

“Breakfast isn’t bad, but what on Earth is this?”

I grinned.

“Stottie cake. Local speciality. Type of bread, and the best ones are sourdough, texture like ciabatta. Make sandwiches with them, cut into quarters, usually”

“Well, I hope we get proper food at lunch time. This your tea coming?”

It was indeed, and as I poured, the two of them were rising to go back to their rooms for their luggage. I waved a hand at Carol.

“Staying a second night, me. Izzy’s coming over for a meal”

“See you down there, then. I’ll be… vetting the tea bags”

I worked through my breakfast in silence, amused by the fact that someone had actually thought to leave a tub of pease pudding in the ‘Continental’ area, so I was able to finish off with the traditional stottie sandwich. Down in the lift to the conference room in the semi-basement, and Anthea was already there, setting out some printed sheets. She smiled in genuine welcome, then tried to put a stern face on, without much success.

“So what happened to the resolution, Marie? Coming as yourself? Not looking very resolved this morning”

I shook my head.

“Not so. I wanted to make sure this place was safe before I pushed the boat out. Get the meeting underway, and I’ll slip out at the first coffee break. Lift is only four doors away from my room”

She dropped her feigned accusatory glare, and softly asked, “Are you sure, love?”

I shrugged, then nodded.

“Got to be done. How long have I been coming to this group?”

“Two and a half years, love”

“Support group, aye? About time I trusted it, then”

I settled myself in a chair that was reasonably close to the lift, and watched as the others appeared in ones, twos and small groups. Lots of chatter, and Carol staring at the selection of tea bags, which were from Twinings, and held in a rather nice wooden display box.

“I wonder if they’d notice if…”

I couldn’t hold my laughter in.

“Put the bloody box down, woman! You are worse, every time I see you”

She tilted her head, suddenly serious.

“And you’re still stuck. Any news?”

I drew in a long, slow breath as I gathered what courage remained to me.

“I brought a change of clothes, I told you. More than that… wait for the round up?”

Anthea was calling us to order, and I grabbed a coffee from the big jug before settling back into my seat. There looked to be about twenty members present, and Anthea was already into the domestics.

“We have loos in each corner, and as we have no men at this meeting, we’ve repurposed that one as gender neutral. Lunch will be a buffet down here, no need to go outside, and if there is a fire alarm, our assembly point is out of the double doors there and round to the uphill side, by the car park entrance. There are no fire alarm tests planned for today. I have copies of the agenda here if anyone wants them, and we have one motion to vote on. First item is Chair’s report…”

She droned on for nearly an hour, and then handed over to the treasurer for her piece. I slipped out of my chair and into the lift, with a murmur of apology, and hit the button marked 7. Out of the lift, into my room, and freeze as the door slowly closed behind me.

Courage, woman. Got to be done.

To be honest, the bit that took the longest was getting my tights comfortable. I wasn’t pushing the boat out, but I had decided to be ‘neat and tidy’, as Mam used to say. Kitten heels below a tailored black skirt, black blouse with cap sleeves, and a bright blue scarf worn over my shoulders for a touch of colour. Transfer things to the handbag, including the bloody room key. It was ‘bloody room key’ because I was half way out of the door before remembering to pull it out of the little slot in the wall that allowed me to use the lights. Nearly, so nearly. I stuffed it in next to my phone, then walked as calmly as I could down the corridor, nobody else in sight, thank god, and pressed the call button for the lift. It took ages to arrive, and those ages felt geological in span. I kept checking over each shoulder for other guests, or maybe a cleaner, but I saw nobody.

The lift. I sighed in relief as the door opened: empty. In. Push the button for -1, and wobble slightly as the thing started down.

Ping! Fuck; we were only at the third floor. The door opened, and a man in a suit came in, staring at some broadsheet newspaper or other as I kept silent. my face pointed down at my shoes. Another ping and whoosh of doors, and he was out through the reception, and thank fuck once more: the doors simply closed, and I continued downward.

When the doors opened this time, a large number of faces turned as one to stare at me, and I very nearly hit 7 again, but Carol was already out of her seat, pulling me into a hug, followed by most of the rest of our group. Anthea simply sat smugly until we had all settled again.

“And there we have it, folks: what we are here for. Welcome, Marie! Before any of us put our foot in it, what is the plan?”

I waved my hand at my blouse.

“Like this for the meeting, then straight up to my room to change, Our old friend Izzy is coming over for a meal tonight, but it will defo be with Mark rather than me”

She nodded.

“Aye, love. Baby steps at first. Safe space, of course. You be okay when they bring the buffet in?”

“Face in the crowd, love. I’ll be fine”

“If you’re sure… Right! That motion needs a vote. We have our traditional Trans Day of Visibility charity donation coming up, and as we won’t have another members’ meeting before Tee-DOV, we need to decide who is to receive the wonga. There are two names in the frame, Mermaids and AKT, the Albert Kennedy Trust. Anyone here not know what those two do? No? Then Alison wants to say a few words about AKT, and Gemma about Mermaids, before we vote. Ali?”

I zoned out a little, because I had already decided on the homelessness charity rather than the family support group. The weather outside was typical of Tyneside, where the joke is that it is only cold, wet and windy for four months of the year. The rest of the time it’s Winter. Not true, but it was the decider for me, and clearly the others felt the same way, as AKT got the nod, or rather the larger show of hands.

The buffet appeared, so I turned away from the hotel staff, talking without any meaningful comment to Carol, until I got the nod that we had our privacy once more.

I was slowly relaxing as the day continued, for I wasn’t exactly unused to the clothes. It was just that I was utterly unused to wearing the stuff in front of others. Carol must have noticed a slight wobble, for she squeezed my shoulder.

“You’re doing well, love. And they topped up the teabags, the fools! Mine, I tell you, mine, mwahahaha!”

“You are deranged”

“Nope. Got two shrinks who said I’m not, so why should I listen to you? Buffet… grab your dessert first, or all of that fudgy chocolate will be gone by the time you’ve faffed through the sandwiches and crisps. Want a cuppa? I can do you a deal for some bags”

I could never stay serious around her for long, and yes, I did ensure I grabbed some sweet stuff first before working through the savoury offerings. The conversations around me built up, and I was definitely relaxing properly. Safe space.

“Can we have some order, please?”

Anthea’s voice brought some quiet, but not complete silence.

“We’re starting the afternoon session, the round table. Usual rules, including the Chatham House one: whatever is said here, stays here, unless there is an agreement from the speaker. Usual rules still include respect for others, and in particular remember that what might seem a commonplace to one person, and not worthy of remark, can feel huge to another. There is no road map for transition, and this group will never go truscum or transmed if I have any say. I’ll remind you as well that there is no requirement to speak. If you would rather stay silent, then that is fine. If you would prefer to skip your turn, and come in later, equally fine. So, first to my left is Cathy. Over to you”

One by one, the members shared their updates, covering everything from relationships through dilation issues to simply being called ’Miss’ by a random passing stranger, and then it was my turn. I hummed and hawed for a moment, then took a deep breath. Look up and smile at them, woman.

“Well, many of you know me from my first days with the group. Some of you have joined after me, and to all of you, I have always been ‘that one still presenting as a bloke’. I mean, I even had a beard when I first came to a meeting”

Carol interrupted with a loud “Great big bushy ginger one, as well. Took us ages to persuade her to shave it off”, and I ducked my head again.

“Yeah, right. The Renée Richards method for staying closeted. As you can see today, though, I’m trying out another look. Not being that brave, and I will be changing back before we finish here. Not quite ready for more, at least not yet. Thanks to you all for your support”

There was a round of applause, and then Anthea was congratulating me before moving to Carol, whose update was all about fun runs and being accepted by other women runners.

I started to relax even more as lunch settled into a hint of digestive torpor, and Paula spoke of how she had another scientific paper submitted under her real name, concerning herd behaviour in [something something] musk oxen, and I was just tuning her out when the alarm went off.

I was in total confusion for about thirty seconds, until Anthea banged open the double doors and Carol took my arm.

“We have to get out now, Marie. Stick close, eyes down, and you’ll be fine”

Out the doors, round the corner, the steep little slope feeling odd in heels, and then across the glass frontage of the hotel as other guests and staff piled out. The road was a busy one, and it wasn’t long before the first shouts started, mostly from front-seat passengers but also from drivers.

“That’s a fucking tranny!”

“Tranny! Tranny!”

“Give us a gobble!”

“How much for a shag?”

“Want me to save you some money and cut your bollocks off for you?”

“Fuck off back where you came from you puff!”

I was really starting to crumble, and crumple, before I realised there was a sort of Brownian motion in our group, and before long I was in the centre of a solid mass of twenty-something other women.

That thought crystallised something in me, and my head came up as a little of the fear made a slow departure. Paula was next to me, grinning happily.

“This is my paper, in essence!”

“Sorry?”

She looked at me for a second, before shaking her head.

“I will dumb this one down for you, then. Do you know what a musk ox is?”

“Some sort of cow?”

“Some sort of goat. Live in the Arctic and look like mobile fringes with horns. They have a particular defensive tactic, where the young are surrounded by the adults, who stand in a ring, horns out, against predators. Works, usually”

“What do you mean by ‘usually’, Paula?”

“Ah, standing stock-still in a dense group is a bit sort of counterproductive when the predators have guns. They’re starting to recover now, move away from extinction”

“What do they have to do with us?”

She waved at Carol, Gemma, Anthea and the rest.

“Tight circle; horns out? Granted Carol’s two fingers aren’t quite as effective as musk oxen horns, but I’m sure you get my point. Hang on… Yes. False alarm. Back in”

Shit. We were heading for the main entrance. Head down again, past the desk and the stares, and then stairs, tricky in heels. I caught a couple of meaningful looks between hotel staff, and then I was past and finally down into the conference room.

I slumped into my chair, friends circulating past me as they confirmed I was still okay.

Smile. Meaningless assurances. Calm the trembling and think of musk oxen. I would look them up later. Carol put another coffee down next to my elbow.

“While we were freezing our tits off out there, they’d already turned the alarm off and refreshed our tea and coffee, the sods. Biccy?”

I simply nodded, and she brought me a couple of chocolate Hob-Nobs. Once the meeting was over, I was almost back to myself, and made the round of farewells and reassurances before the others filtered away by lift or staircase, heading for their car or the Metro depending on their circumstances, until all that were left were myself, Carol and Anthea. Carol was her usual dependable self.

“Got my car, so no rush. Want me to see you to your room?”

“Ta, but no ta. All I have to do is hop the lift to the seventh floor, then four doors to my room. I’ll be fine”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure. Get yourself off home before the traffic builds. I’m going to have a shower, and change, then it’s a meal with Izzy. As Mark, but can’t be helped, at least not for now”

She was off, with one last covetous look at the tea bag stand, and I was alone in the room, in skirt and heels. It was almost like being at home.

Into the lift, press 7 and up. Nobody in the lift, nobody in the corridor; my luck was improving. Out with the key card and into the slot, wait for the green light, and…wait for the green light.

I pulled it out and tried it the other way up, then the other way round, and repeatedly worked through every possible permutation. Check my room card. Check door number.

Shit and bollocks. Why couldn’t I have taken Carol up on her offer? I wobbled around for nearly ten minutes before finally accepting that I had no alternative.

Back into the lift, and press zero. The reception area wasn’t too busy, thank god, and it was the same young man at the desk as had checked me in the day before. He had seemed reasonable. I walked up to the desk.

“How can I help you, sir?”

Shit and bollocks once more, and I found my resolve evaporating. Somewhere deep inside me, I found something. If I was ever to get my transition moving, this was the sort of thing I would have to deal with, and I wouldn’t have my human musk ox herd around me to filter the problems. I was in the deep end. Swim or drown were the only two choices available, for I had dismissed my lifeguards.

I stood up a little straighter, and raised my eyebrows.

“Sir?”

“Oh. Sorry. How can I help, Madam?”

“My room key’s stopped working. Seven One Five”

He visibly relaxed, back on safer ground.

“Did you have it next to your phone?”

“Er, yes. I nearly forgot it, pulled it out of the wall and stuffed it into my handbag”

“That often cancels the coding on them. Give me a minute and… there you go. That should work, and here’s a spare. And, well, sorry about earlier. Just a bit surprised”

Gracious enough to apologise; I felt a sudden urge to return what was clearly meant as a courtesy.

“Yes, well. We are, the people I was with, we’re a support group for trans people”

“So it’s not, you know, crossdressers and that?”

I shook my head, digging out a smile.

“No, not at all. Do you understand the difference?”

“I think so. Life rather than recreation, if I have it right”

I nodded once more.

“Spot on. I’ve been with these people for two years, trying to move that life on, but never had the… Always been too frightened. I thought, you know, safe space? Dip my toe?”

He was shaking his head.

“Then that idiot set the fire alarm going? Bugger a hell, you must have been bricking it!”

I nodded.

“You should have heard what they were shouting at me on that road”

A rapid wince.

“I did. Not nice. Sorry about earlier, Ms Anderson”

“Not at all. You listened, and we’ve both done some learning. While I’m here, can I book a table for two, for seven thirty?”

“That friend of yours you mentioned? Not a problem”

“Thank you. Off to change”

Into the lift, up to 7 yet again, and this time the card did work, the green light came on, the door opened, the spare card slid into its little wall slot, and I fell onto the bed, at an absolute loss as to where all the tears came from, but it was an hour before I could manage to settle myself. I took the kettle to the washbasin to fill it, and spent a while looking at the person in the mirror. Get that lot off, shower, and get ready for Izzy, and hope that the redness in my eyes would fade.

Once I was washed and dried, I lay on my bed for a while undressed, as that phrase suddenly set me to laughing. Not just washed and dried, but soaked soaped, rinsed, repeat and finally through the spin cycle. ‘Drained’ would have been the usual metaphor, but it was far more than that. I had two hours before Izzy was due, so I set my phone alarm once more, just in case, and settled into my current book.
The alarm woke me from a light doze, confirming how right I was to have been a pessimist, and I rolled out from under the duvet, reaching for my socks. I sat in that position for nearly a minute, before going over to my little pull-along case.

Could I do this without my herd around me? Once again, that realisation that I would always be flying solo, if I ever managed to get off the ground again.

Sod the socks. I laid out the dress I had brought, along with the ballet flats. Even the low heels had hurt my feet, which is what I now realised happens with cheap shoes. The same underwear would do, that pack of nude tights would be better than the black ones, and sod it: this time I would try some of the lippy in my toiletry bag, along with the mascara.

I checked myself over in the mirror once more, and I didn’t exactly look like shit. Odd, of course, and thickset, but the flare of the dress did more for my hips than the tailored skirt had, and the flat shoes let me walk far more naturally. I put my scarf over my shoulders once more, and headed for the lift.

‘Please wait here to be seated’ read the sign, so I did as I was told, like a good big girl, and to my relief, the waiter or whatever who came over was my young man again. That relief on seeing him was in itself a revelation, for I was only slowly coming to understand how wound up I was.

“I thought you said you were going to change?”

“I have. This is a dress, the other was top and skirt”

He lowered his voice to a whisper.

“Please tell me you’re not going out tonight?”

I shook my head, with a smile.

“I may have gender dysphoria, but I am neither mad nor stupid. I am, however, bloody nervous”

“I have a quiet table for you, which should help. Follow me”

He showed me to my table, well away from the windows or any sightline from the bar or general lobby, and asked if I wanted a drink.

“No offence, Ms Anderson, but a bottle of Newcastle Brown is probably not as suitable as it was last night”

“Well, I have already checked your wine list, and I know what my friend likes, so could we have a bottle of the Frascati ready for the meal? And a diet coke for now?”

“No problems. I’ll bring your friend over when they arrive”

“She. She’s an old friend of long standing, so, well… She knows me”

“I see. Want some olives and breads for now?”

“That would be lovely”

The nibbles arrived before Izzy, and I was just starting to lose my confidence, sitting there in a bloody dress and lipstick, and…

“Here you are, Madam”

“Marie!”

“Hiya Izzy! You driving?”

“Why?”

“Because they have Frascati, and I have ordered a bottle”

“Then it is fortunate that I will be taking a taxi straight to the Central Metro. Nice dress, by the way. And you’ll laugh: I asked that lad for ‘Mister Anderson’, and he bloody corrected me! What have you been doing to him? Or has it been ‘with’ him?”

She caught the look in my eyes, and reached out for my hand.

“Marie, my gaydar isn’t firing on that young lad, and---ooh, look! He’s just given a quick peck to that waitress”

“Pardon?”

There’s a young woman heading our way with a menu and a notepad. He stopped her, had a quick word, then a quick peck on the lips. I suspect he was giving her a quickie”

“I beg your pardon!”

“Not a quickie shag, Marie: a quick update, so she doesn’t put her size sixes in things. So that lad will be straight, unlike Richard”

“Open old wounds, why don’t you?”

She turned to the waitress.

“Hi, pet. Marie here sent me the menu, so I know what I want. Could I have the calamari for starters, then the sirloin”

“How would you like that cooked?”

“Blue, please”

“Certainly. You will want the wine with your starter, then?”

“Please”

The girl turned to me.

“Um, the squid as well, please, and could I then have the pork medallions, not blue?”

That brought a laugh.

“Brian warned me you had a sense of humour. Did you want another bottle for the meat course? If so, I can let it breathe for you”

Izzy nodded.

“The Medoc, please. When’s the wedding?”

Our young woman grinned, holding out her hand.

“He only asked us a fortnight ago, Madam!”

“Well, best wishes, love”

“Thank you. I’ll fetch the first bottle for you”

Izzy turned back to me.

“Not old wounds, love: bloody recent ones. I’ll be there with you, you know that”

“Well, first time marriage, yeah: first time divorce”

“He doesn’t hate you, love. It’s just, well, you’re not a gay man, are you?”

“Well, not now?”

She shook her head.

“Not ever, as I see things. Now, got this party coming up, and…”

No, I didn’t travel home in a dress, nor wear one to work, for I was still at the doggy-paddle stage, and that water was deep. I did wear a dress for the party, though, as I drove there, using Izzy’s spare bed, which somehow turned out rather more populated than I had expected, and oddly enough, he was also called Brian.

There was no alarm that night, but the fireworks were amazing.



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