A strange girl appears in the dead of night. She can’t speak or remember where she has been, what could her secret be?
Jack is coming to accept her new life as she grows closer to Isaac and Ben. Wren and Tom follow a little bird into a strange forest. Ash has to come to terms with hoop skirts and bonnets in 19th century Manchester.
Thanks to Robin, Chris and Jess for all their help editing and proofing. Please keep reviewing and commenting, I want to improve as a writer and your ideas help feed into the story.
Life had been hard on Stan. It had never quite lived up to the promise and ecstasy of his Hacienda days. Now in his forties he had been running his little newsagents on the approach to Piccadilly Station for five years now. It was in the nature of his location that he was used to strangers. He had few regulars other than the blurry-eyed commuters who spoke very little in the mornings.
That morning was no different. It was a little past ten so the rush had died down and Stan could hear his DAB radio playing the hits of the 90s in the background. Lazily he watched the stranger pace around his shop.
Stan was used to the odd, few people who looked their best after a long train journey, but this stranger seemed odder than most. He was dressed in a well-tailored pin-stripe suit. Not odd in and of itself. City types were always coming up for meetings. What was strange was that this man had wild, untamed hair and a thick full beard. When he placed a newspaper on the counter Stan noticed the black hairs on the back of his hands.
“I say, could you help me?” The stranger asked, “I am looking for a place called Lee Ho Fook's.”
Stan shook his head, “Sorry, haven’t heard of it. Do you have a lunch meeting?”
The stranger shook his head, “No, just going to get me a big dish of beef chow mein.” The stranger placed his briefcase on the counter, flipping it open. Stan noticed the name ‘Wilfred Glendon’ in neat, gold embossed letters.
Wilfred saw him looking, “Friends call me Will,” he smiled a toothy grin and held out his hand..
Half stunned, Stan took the proffered hand. Wilfred, or Will’s handshake was uncommonly firm. Stan noticed his long, sharp fingernails.
As Will put his paper in his briefcase a question came into Stan’s mind, “Are you in town for business?” He was on firmer ground, this was his go to question.
“No, Manchester just seems to be the place to be at the moment.”
Stan nodded. Of course, as a Mancunian he already knew this. It was just good to hear a Southerner confirm it.
“Now this beef chow mein. Where should I go?”
Something about the way Will’s teeth glinted in the weak electric light kept Stan’s attention, “Keep going down the approach and then take a left down Portland Street. When you are about halfway down take a right and you’ll be in China Town.”
“Sounds like a howling good idea,” Will smiled to himself as he picked up his umbrella and suitcase. “Let's see what Manchester has to offer.”
“Tap, Tap, Tap.”
Each little rap on the window went straight through Wren’s head. As she opened her eyes she noticed the half drunk glass of wine on the bedside table. That was where the smell was coming from.
“Tap, tap, tap,”
Her head swam in the fog of regret. After she pulled herself up she noticed that she had slept on the right hand side of the bed. The left seemed very empty.
“Tap, tap, tap,”
She got out of bed and staggered towards the window. The curtain was slightly open. Dust danced in the dirty light.
“Tap, tap, tap,”
“What!” grunted Wren as she pulled open the curtains. Even the dim light coming from outside was enough to blind her for a moment. After it had past she found herself looking down at a small red breasted bird. It lent its head to one side and looked at her. It seemed to be asking her a question.
Wren opened the top window section hoping to dispel the smell of dust and stale wine. Today was the first of two days off. The first time she had two days off back to back in months. She had been planning to spend it in bed.
The robin surprised her by flying up to the narrow crack in the window. It sat on the window frame for a moment seeming to survey the bedroom before flying in further.
“Shit,” Wren cursed as she watched the little bird fly around and around the light. “Now, what am I going to do with you?”
The robin flew down and perched on the huge pile of Wren’s clean clothes that had accumulated on the floor. Wren always meant to put them away but never got around to it.
“There’s a broom downstairs,” she thought, “that’ll do it.” Walking into the living room she saw the empty wine bottle, reminding her of the night before. She thought of Tom’s face when she had told him. He’d looked sad, hurt even. Why? She had been sure he was going to break with her. She was only protecting herself.
Armed with a broom she returned to the bedroom. She was surprised to see the robin had spread her clothes across the floor. She swung the broom in annoyance, causing the robin to fly up and land on the top of her wardrobe. Again it tilted its little head as if wanting to ask something.
Wren came over to the wardrobe and began trying to scare the little bird away. She grunted in annoyance as it playfully flapped out of the way of each of her strokes. She put down the broom and pulled over her little chairs so she could stand on it.
The little bird seemed to know something. It kept hopping around and pointing its beak to the ground.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she grunted as it ignored her best efforts. Over time her arms became too tired, forcing her to give up. She’d just have to leave the windows open, shut the door and hope the bird got tired and left before doing any real damage.
It was then that she noticed the floor. Her clothes were not spread out randomly; they are arranged in a neat pattern. It took her a while to realise they formed letters and words. It took her a while to figure them all out. As she reached the final letter the robin flew down and sat on her shoulder. The clothes spelt out:
The forest? What did that mean? Did it mean the Forest of Bowland, or one of the little woodlands near by? She felt the little bird land on her shoulder, it nudged her cheek with its beak.
She looked down at the pile of clothes and the turned her head towards the bird. She has seen a lot during the last few weeks, what was one more strange thing to her?
“You’re no normal robin are you?”
She watched as the robin shook his little head.
The little robin sat on the kitchen table as Wren went through her fridge. “What do you eat?” she asked not expecting an answer. A picture of a robin pulling a worm out of the ground came into her mind. “How does some old bacon sound?” she looked at the opened packet of bacon, it was past its sell-by date but it didn’t smell. As she took it out and placed in on a little plate the bird danced around and chirped happily.
Sipping coffee, she watched as the bird tucked into the sliced strips she had presented to it.
“What are you trying to tell me?” she took a sip of her coffee, “What does ‘The Forest’ mean?”
The robin didn’t seem to acknowledge her, focusing instead on its meal.
She looked at her phone, who was going to believe her? Who could she call that wouldn’t think she was mental?
At 10am Jack gave up on trying to sleep. Isaac lay next to her snoring gently. She had spent the last half an hour watching his chest rise and fall but was now worrying she was turning into one of those crazy girlfriends. ‘Girlfriend’, was that what she was ? As a boy, she had never been anyone’s boyfriend for more than a month or two.
She got out of bed. There was just enough grey light in the room for her to be able to see her reflection in the mirror. The hair on her head had grown a little. She ran her fingers through it. Perhaps she would grow it out, maybe a bob to start with, or at least a bowl cut? As she was a ‘she’ now, it was something she would have to think about. That was a lot of ‘she’.
Jack leaned in and looked closely at her sandy roots. She had heard that, as she got older, her blond hair would slowly turn to a light auburn, before going grey. It felt unfair to her. Society had chosen to make being blond a big part of her personality and then nature would take it away.
Just before she left the room she stopped herself. She was wearing only her underpants and a vest. There was a teenage boy sleeping on the sofa and as a woman now she had to think about these things. After a little search she found an old T-shirt of Isaac’s. It mentioned someplace called ‘Hogwarts.’ Apparently, it was some sort of school. The T-shirt came down lower on her thighs than the skirt she had worn the night before. It could have been a dress.
She closed the door as slowly and quietly as she could, feeling a pang of separation as Isaac’s face disappeared from view. “Get a hold of yourself girl,” she thought standing in the hall, her head spinning from more than just the booze. “You are going loopy.”
Isaac’s flat was only small, containing one bedroom, a bathroom, hall and a living room/kitchen. She tiptoed into the kitchen area. Ben was still asleep on the sofa. The duvet he was under was half out of its cover and, on top of his chest, his black and white cat slept as well. The boy had collapsed as soon as they had got him in the flat last night. He hadn’t made much sense in the taxi either. Mostly he was mumbling something about a forest and a Witch with many faces?
At first she had thought it was some sort of pop culture reference that had passed her by while she was missing, but Isaac had no idea either.
Isaac’s coffee maker was large, red and chrome. She didn’t think she could manage it. Especially not in her state. As quietly as possible she opened the cupboards looking for tea. Tea would be better anyway. To her, coffee was like junk food and tea was like a lovingly cooked roast. She was feeling in a ‘home’ mood.
She jumped with surprise when Ben suddenly turned over. Jess the cat was forced to jump on the floor and didn’t look pleased about it. Ben had a hand sticking out from under the cover. Jess walked up and licked a finger before curling up next to him and purring softly. She remembered the boy whispering to the cat on the way home. She hoped he was alright?
Ben didn’t seem like he was going to be waking up soon, so she picked up Isaac’s laptop and took it over to the big armchair. It was one of those chairs that swivel and Jack suspected Isaac had bought it from some second hand office supply place. The chair was positioned so its back was to the door and it faced the sofa. She curled her legs underneath her and sipped her tea taking a few moments before opening the laptop.
Isaac said the laptop was old and worn out, but it looked amazingly thin and futuristic to her. She found the radio station Isaac had told her about and put it on low. A female Welsh voice introduced an old blues song and Jack relaxed. Outside the window a car drove past. Apart from that it was as quiet as any other Sunday.
She had been sitting there just staring and sipping tea for more than half an hour when two hands slipped over her eyes.
“Shhh,” came Isaac’s voice, “Don’t wake the boy.”
Isaac held out his arms to her, pulling her out of the chair and into his arms. She squeezed up against his hard body. She shivered in pleasure and a little trepidation as he put his hands on her bum.
“How about we go back to bed for a bit?” he looked towards Ben, “He’ll probably be asleep for the rest of the day, the poor kid.”
She bit her lip; did women really do that? Only if they wanted a coldsore. Without her notebook, she had no other way to express her mix of uncertainty and excitement. Isaac took her hand and moved towards the door. She watched him closely as he did so, staying still. When their arms were as stretched as they could comfortably be, Isaac tugged causing her to stumble forwards. Without making a noise she followed behind him.
They had had sex the night before, but that was under the influence of alcohol. It had been physical and without thinking. Now Jack’s mind raced with thoughts and anxiety.
There was something in her head that was stopping her telling people about her change of gender. She wished she could tell him now and explain why she was so nervous. He took her in his arms and gently kissed her on the lips. It felt strange having to lean upwards, as a boy he’d always been tall. Even now he was 5 foot 10, tall for a girl. He estimated Isaac must be at least 6 foot.
She could still feel where Isaac had touched her the night before. It scared her how much she craved to feel him again. At least he didn’t have a ‘dick’ being transgender. Jack wasn’t ready to deal with that, although she had spotted something tucked away at the bottom of one of the drawers. She was frightened Isaac would want to experiment with it. “Not now,” she thought firmly. Today touching would have to be enough.
Slowly but surely, she let herself be led to the bed.
An hour or more later, they lay in each other’s arms. Jack’s body felt strange, but not in a bad way. It was like someone had shot electricity through her, she could hardly lie still.
“I think I hear movement,” Isaac said. Jack looked at the wall dividing the bedroom from the living room. She hoped they had been quiet enough? “I am going to pee,” Isaac followed up. Thanks for the newsflash fella.
She watched him leave the bedroom wishing they could have stayed in bed all day. Even the hangover was worth it. She was tempted to go back to sleep but curiosity about Ben stopped her.
She crawled to the edge of the bed and looked at herself in the mirror, this time with the light on. She turned her head from side to side then, with her fingers, traced the contours of her skull. How strange it was to live inside this thing she thought. Which part was her, was it the thing inside or was it the body on the outside? If they are all the same then what did that mean, was she a different person as a he?
After showering, she dressed in the bathroom, not wanting to wander around the flat half naked with Ben there. She wore the skirt and tights from the night before with Isaac’s Smiths' T-shirt over the top (At least she knew who they were). When she entered the living room, both Isaac and Ben were sitting on the sofa talking. Isaac’s voice was calm but they were obviously talking very seriously.
“He says the cat told him to find you. She knew where you would be,” Isaac indicated Jess who was licking her paws.
She looked uncertain. Even with everything else, talking cats sounded pretty mad; perhaps they should take Ben to the hospital?
“Can’t you hear her?” Ben asked. She looked at him. Despite what he was saying his voice sounded calm, if a little tired. She shook her head ‘no’.
Ben looked at the cat again then turned back to her, “Jess says you should be able to. You just need to learn how.”
Isaac must have been able to sense her uncertainty as he spoke next, “Jack, Ben says Jess told him about the Brownies, and that they are the ones who killed his dad.”
She looked at the boy. How could he know? She hadn’t told anyone except Isaac.
Ben got up, moving closer to her. He looked upset, “I, I, don’t know why they killed him,” he let out a great big sob. “He didn’t do anything wrong. Apparently, they are angry about something moving, but I am not sure what?” His eyes were full of tears.
She could remember that feeling of being completely alone, although she still couldn’t remember why or where she had been. She thought how unfair it was that she had regained a mum, but Ben had lost a dad out of whatever this madness was.
Seeing a tear running down his chin, she put her arms around him and pulled him into a hug. For a moment he just stood there and she worried she had done the wrong thing then he started shaking, letting out silent sobs.
They hugged for a good ten minutes. After the first few minutes, Jack realised she was crying as well. Eventually they had to part, Ben rubbing his now red eyes. The emotion had been overwhelming for her. Her body felt like it had been through three rounds in the ring.
“Thanks,” mumbled Ben. Jack had to turn around so he wouldn’t see her cry again.
After composing herself she left the ‘boys’ talking in the living area. She wanted a little space so she busied herself in the kitchen making tea and looking for something for them to eat. She found bread, eggs and a frying pan. After ten minutes or so she returned to find them both holding handsets and sitting in front of the TV.
“Call of Duty,” Isaac told her in way of an explanation. She just nodded, smiling at how well they were getting on. She almost caught herself thinking of what a great dad Isaac would make before stopping herself. Remember what The Supremes taught you, you can’t hurry… he thoughts trailed off as she put a mug of sweet tea next to each of them and a plate of fried egg sandwiches in between them.
After returning with her own tea, she sat down on the floor next to Isaac. In the flat next door she could hear a group of kids running around playing a game. She laid her head on Isaac’s shoulder and silently watched them play their game.
Wren was nervous as she opened the front door.
“Thanks for coming,” she stammered, not sure what mood Tom would be in.
“You said it was urgent?” Tom looked worried. Wren felt good knowing he was worried for her.
“I don’t know if you’ll believe this,” she ran a hand through her hair, “I am not sure I believe it myself, but I think this bird is trying to communicate with me.”
Tom looked at her, she wondered what he must be thinking. “You'd better show me,” he said simply.
Wren led him through to the living room where the robin was now perched on the mantelpiece. When they entered the room it took flight, fluttering around the ceiling before landing back where it had been. As Tom came close to the robin it hopped from leg to leg excitedly.
“Ask it something, anything,” Wren suggested.
Tom shrugged, “What did I have for breakfast?”
The bird cocked its head as if to suggest that was a stupid question.
“No, more like why it is here,” Wren explained.
Tom nodded, “What do you want to tell us?” He looked at Wren for reassurance, she just shrugged.
The bird jumped off its perch and flew to the floor. It began to do a little dance, making a circle of eight, occasionally stopping to shake its tail feathers.
“Perhaps someone trained it to do tricks?” Tom kept his eyes on the bird as it shook around.
“Strange sort of trick, and how do you train a bird to understand human words?”
“We train dogs, I suppose it isn’t much difference.”
Without any warning the little bird flew up and began flapping its wings in Tom’s face. “What the hell is it do…” Were all the words Tom got out before he, and the bird disappeared.
Wren let out a shout of shock. “Come back!” she shouted, but there was nothing. Wren looked franticly around the room, as if expecting them to reappear and shout surprise.
She stood there listening to her heart beating away. Tom was gone, and it was her fault. She sat in a chair, afraid to move. Slowly the day outside turned into evening, and then into night. She heard her neighbours on the street returning from work and a TV turning on next door. Eventually, when she was ready to give up she heard a popping sound and the bird reappeared.
“You little bastard, what have you done with Tom!” she exclaimed. The bird started flapping its wings in her face. “Hey, no, what are you…” she was silenced and the whole world turned black.
There were a few blissful moments before she woke fully. Every part of her body ached, and it felt as if she has been tossed off of a very tall building and that there was still part of her falling.
“Urrrgh,” she groaned. Somewhere nearby, she could sense movement.
“You are finally awake. I thought you were going to be sleeping through the night.” The voice was accompanied by a ringing in her ears. Opening her eyes, she could see stars in a clear sky. There were more stars than she could ever remember seeing before.
“I don’t know where we are.” She recognised the voice as Tom’s. “I tried climbing a tree.” Wren turned her head slightly to see where Tom was pointing, “but I didn’t see any buildings or roads.
Wren pulled herself up in to a sitting position. “We must be miles from any city, judging by how clearly we can see the stars,” she muttered. Looking around, she could now see they were in a small clearing in a forest somewhere. It didn’t give her much information. She could see Tom sitting on a fallen tree warming his hands around a little fire.
Slowly and painfully, she picked herself up and went to sit next to him. As she sat, he took off his coat and placed it over her shoulders.
“No,” she protested, “you’ll get cold.”
“I’ve been in front of this fire for hours, you look frozen.”
It was only then that Wren realised just how could she was. She was wearing a sweater and a cardigan but had not put a coat on.
“Where did you go for all that time?” She asked.
“I was here, although I have no idea where we are,” Tom turned and smiled at her. He returned his attention to the fire poking it with a stick. Embers floated out of the fire, illuminating his face.
“Why do you think it brought us here?” Tom asked.
“I don’t know, but I get the feeling it wants to show us something.”
That night they slept under the stars, huddled together for warmth. In the morning Wren woke to find the fire had gone out and someone had come to join them.
The deer reminded her of childhood visits to Tatton Park. She watched as it sniffed around the little campsite, seemingly unafraid of we humans.
Tom was still asleep and Wren kept herself as still as possible, not wanting to scare it away. Her breathing was shallow and the cold air felt sharp in her lungs. The moment didn’t last however. A noise somewhere deep in the forest startled the deer and it ran away.
They decided to keep on the move if only for their own sanity. Tom had spotted higher ground nearby and they hoped to get a better idea of their location from there.
About half an hour into their journey, Wren pointed upwards. “Look, in the trees.”
Tom looked but didn’t seem to see what she had seen.
“Can’t you see them in the branches,” she pointed towards a flock of bright green birds. “Parrots I think. I’ve seen them in trees in London before, just not this far north or in those numbers.”
“How would parrots get to England?”
“They are the descendants of domesticated birds that escaped. Apparently they do quite well.”
It was past midmorning when they finally reached the top of the hill. Wren’s stomach groaned from lack of food. Why couldn’t the robin have warned them to bring some with them?
They both stood seeing the same thing. In the distance, in what Wren assumed from the position of the sun was south, were a number of skeletal shapes taller than anything else in the landscape.
“Are they alien?” Tom asked.
“Maybe.” Wren was uncertain and she had a bad feeling. “They look like the bones of buildings.”
Tom shook his head seeming to not understand.
“I think we are looking at Manchester,” Wren heaved a sigh, “Or at least what used to be Manchester.”
Jack had spent most of the day cleaning the flat. She didn’t quite know why, just that it was something to do and it made her feel useful. Isaac was out on a shift and Ben seemed self-contained playing computer games. She didn’t like disturbing him.
At lunchtime, she made them both sandwiches and sat on the floor watching Ben play. The improvement in the graphics was amazing.
‘Why do you keep talking to the characters?’ she wrote on a piece of paper.
Ben flicked down his mic, “I am playing with some guys in Copenhagen,”
Denmark? Jack didn’t quite believe it. She took a bite of her sandwich mulling the idea around in her head. She picked up the case the game came in and read the back. Would she have been into this if she had never disappeared? She would have been nearly forty and male. Do thirty or forty something guys still play computer games?
It had gone dark outside and Jack was mopping the bathroom floor when Isaac came in. She heard the door close and the jingle as he dropped his keys in the little dish he kept on a small table next to the coats.
Isaac came into the bathroom and sat on the edge of the bath. “We need to go see your mother,” Isaac said. Jack nodded. “We need to let her know what is going on.” Again Jack nodded, she watched his reflection in the mirror. Isaac got up and put his hand on her hips. He pulled her close and kissed her neck, and she closed her eyes, enjoying the sensation.
“Is that OK?” Isaac asked. Jack nodded in agreement. “We don’t mention Ben though.” Jack shook her head, all the while looking at him in the mirror and feeling his body against her. Isaac took her by the hand and led her into the living room where Ben was still playing his game.
“Ben.” Ben turned to look at them. Jess was sitting in his lap, “We are going out for a couple of hours. Jack needs to get some things from her mum’s.”
It was true. Jack needed something other than her short skirt and Isaac’s old t-shirts to wear.
“We’ll pick up some takeaway on the way back. Is that OK?”
Jack watched as Ben bent down so Jess’ mouth was close to his ear. After a few moments he looked up, “Sure.” He smiled.
Ben gave the thumbs up.
You could see bits of old pavement and road here and there. Much of the terrain was uneven, red bricks showing through tree roots and grasses.
“I think this used to be the Northern Quarter,” Wren said. Looking up at what was left of a brick wall, the colour of the faded graffiti contrasted against the green of the plant life that grew there.
“What are those?” Tom pointed in the distance to what looked like tree tops rising above the mounds of rubble.
“Trees?” Wren shrugged.
“They are bigger than any trees I’ve ever seen, you could live in one of them.”
It took them a good half an hour to reach them, their progress hampered by tree roots and rubble.
“I wonder how long it has been since,” Wren tried to find the words, “whatever happened, happened.” She finished a little lamely.
“At least several decades, maybe fifty years or more?” Tom mused.
They had reached the first of the large trees. Wren had seen pictures of the great trees that grew in places like California and western Canada. These put them to shame. The closest tree was at least the height of a three or four story building. Several of the trees behind it were even taller.
“Look at that,” Tom pointed.
“What am I looking at?” Wren shrugged.
“There’s a face.”
Wren squinted, it took her a while but she finally saw it.
“Has someone carved it?”
“There’s another over here,” Wren turned to see that Tom had moved on to the next tree. They spend twenty or so minutes wondering around the strange forest examining as many trees as possible, each one had a face, usually high in its branches.
“This is nuts,” Wren stopped for a moment, “excuse the pun. Who has done this? Who would carve faces on all the trees in this forest?”
“I don’t think they are carved,” Tom said slowly, “They have bark growing over them. If they were carved that would be impossible.”
Wren shivered. At first she had thought the forest was beautiful, now she was scared. “How far back do you think it goes?”
“I don’t know, but we could find out of we climbed that.”
Wren looked where he was pointing. Through the tops of the trees she could see a bare concrete structure, the top half was bigger than the bottom. “That’s the Beetham Tower, or what’s left of it. I read once that concrete structures will be the last ones to collapse, after human civilisation is over that is. Apparently there are still concrete structures standing from Roman times.”
“They had concrete back then?”
“That’s what they say.”
The climb was a difficult one. There was a stairway that had survived in the middle of the structure, but without glass in most of the windows there was little escape from the wind.
By the time they had reached near the top, it was already getting dark.
“I think we should stop here,” Tom said out of breath.
“Why? There are only a few more floors to go?” Wren thought there might be about ten.
“The light is going. We need to find shelter and start a fire. This floor looks good.”
Wren had to admit the light was going, and she didn’t fancy climbing up or down in this weather.
In one of the corners, most of the wall had survived. There were also sheets of metal and broken bricks that could be pulled together to create a windbreak.
While Tom worked on the shelter, Wren looked for things to burn. After rummaging around on the closest two floors, she found an old chair. It was broken into pieces but seemed dry enough to burn. She stopped a while and looked over the edge. The tops of some of the tallest trees were only a few metres below. The wind blew through the branches causing them to shake. The sound freaked her out, reminding her of whispering. She turned, determined to find Tom.
It took them a good hour to finish their little home for the night. Wren huddled close to the fire trying to get warm while Tom took a burning chair leg to search for more fuel. As she sat there quietly, she noticed something, little black birds? Swooping in the dim light. It took her a moment to work out what they were. Little bats chasing flies and other insects.
She wanted to call to Tom to come and see, but didn’t dare in case it scared them away. It was amazing. How often would you get the chance to see something like this?
“Wren!” Tom’s voice rang out. She wanted to shush him so he wouldn’t scare the bats away. “Wren, come see this!”
Slowly, sad to be moving away from the bats and the fire, Wren got up. There was little light to see by inside the structure so she had to move carefully following Tom’s voice. When she found him he was standing near the edge looking out.
“What is it?” She hissed, not knowing why she was keeping her voice down.
“Come look,” he pointed outward.
She was scared to get close to the edge, not trusting herself not to slip. When she did reach him he took her in his arm.
“Look,” he said, “A light.”
She had to squint her eyes but she saw it off somewhere to the north, in the hills “Another fire?”
“No, it doesn’t flicker. It must be electric.”
Wren thought for a moment, “Bugger, that’s all the way back where we came from.”
The grey light came in through window, waking Ash. He turned over on his front to try and escape it but the feel of his breasts squashed against the bedding made him groan. It reminded him of his situation.
There was a soft knock on the bedroom door. Despite how quiet it sounded it still made Ash jump. He pulled himself up into a sitting position, using his hands to flatten down his ridiculously lacy nighty.
“Come in,” he said, his voice reedy and thin.
“Excuse me ma’am,” a small, plump maid entered the room backwards. She was using the side of her arm to push the door open while holding a tray with both hands. Ash’s first thought was to try and help her, but he knew only too well not to. Over the last week he’d cause three maids to drop various trays and bowls with his attempts at chivalry.
The maid placed the tray on his lap, he felt odd being treated like an invalid or a child. “Thank you Dolly,” Ash mumbled, again hating the sound of his new voice.
“I’ll be back in half an hour ma’am, with your clothes,” Ash sighed, what mad dress were they going to make him wear today?
Dolly mistook the general cloud of discontent around Ash as the will of a fashionable young woman. “I’m sorry ma’am, I know that the Lady Godwinson’s old dresses aren’t exactly fashionable. Not for a pretty young lady such as yourself. But sir has sent away for some more appropriate things.”
Ash made a huffing noise, indicating that he didn’t think much of the idea. After Dolly had gone, Ash was left nibbling on toast and contemplating the dress she had gone to fetch.
He wished they would leave him alone and let him spend the day in bed. The first few days he had been full of energy, fighting the clothes they put him in, trying to leave. After that proved fruitless he had calmed down, playing along while expecting the prank to be revealed at any time. Only now he was losing hope.
He watched as Dolly and two other girls came in carrying the clothes they expected him to wear. “I told the young sir that you were feeling down having to wear his mothers old things,” she explained while he eyed the corset/torture implement she was going to expect him to wear. “He suggested a trip into Manchester,” Dolly beamed, for all the world looking like she had just told him they were going to Alton Towers.
When Ash didn’t say anything Dolly continued, “So I thought we’d go for something practical.”
Ash eyed the bamboo cage that was designed to hold his dress out. He didn’t think the word ‘practical’ was an accurate description.
No wonder so many women faint in those old books, Ash thought as Dolly tied the corset closed. He dared not look down at the cleavage it created. A small girl with mousy brown hair came in.
“Please ma’am, the master is waiting downstairs with the cart. He says we have to hurry if we are to catch the train into Manchester.” Dolly made some disgruntled noises and the mousy girl ran off.
“Come on Miss Ashley, we better get the dress on you.”
Ash looked down at the bloomers he was wearing and the strange bell like structure tied around his high waist. He didn’t want to miss the trip. It would be his first chance to see the world around him. To test how far the illusion stretched. Surely they couldn’t have created a fake Manchester, could they?
Edward Godwinson was waiting as she came out of the house. Ash felt stupid, not only had they insisted on the damn dress but Heather had tied a stupid bonnet onto his head. He felt even more stupid as Edward helped him up into the little carriage.
“I thought we’d take the train in,” he said as if it was some major treat. “Train?” thought Ash, “how far does this prank go?”
They arrived at a small country station and Edward handed him down from the carriage, taking care that the wide crinoline didn't catch in the door. Unable to see his feet, Ash was convinced he’d go flying at any moment. There was a well-appointed waiting room for first class passengers (second and third classes were forced to wait in the cold on the platform) but there was only a short wait before a whistle and a plume of smoke and steam heralded the arrival of the train.
There was a squeal of brakes and a hiss of escaping steam as the locomotive drew to halt. He couldn’t help but stare down at the steel wheels. There was nothing separating their deadly inhuman strength and his fragile new body. He felt faint, almost as if he was drawn to them but, without asking, Edward took his arm. Once again Edward helped Ash to manoeuvre his voluminous skirts into a First Class compartment. There was a blast on the whistle and the wave of a green flag from the guard before the train drew slowly away from the platform. Ash could feel it’s great mechanical strength pulling him forward.
The journey was a slow one, mainly involving Ash sitting and listening to Edward as he talked about his desire to travel. Mostly it was the usual tedium people talk about when they are on a long journey with someone they don’t know well. The one time he did brighten up was when Ash got him on to his favourite subject; biology.
From what Ash could make out, Edward was quite knowledgeable in the subject.
“Did you go to university?” Ash asked.
“I did, Oxford.” Edward replied.
“I’ve always wanted to go to university but I'm not sure what I would study,” Ash said as they relaxed in their seats.
“University?” Edward laughed openly, “What would a pretty girl like you be doing at university? Or any girl for that matter!”
Ash crossed his arms. They were really taking this whole ‘realistic’ thing too far.
They got out at a station Ash didn’t recognise. It was full of hundreds of people. Ash’s spirits sank. There was no way anyone could afforded a prank this elaborate.
Edward offered him his arm. Feeling rather overwhelmed by everything Ash took it gratefully.
“So, where shall we try first?”
Ash recognised the streets, but only from their shape. The building looked different. Perhaps they were, or maybe it was just that they were newer and lacking in much decoration like adverts. Of course the shop fronts were different but above ground level, from the first floor and up, there was some similarity to the streets Ash knew.
Near the top end of Deensgate, a middle-aged woman in a shawl stepped out in front of them.
“Lucky heather for the lady?” she asked.
Edward tried to brush past her but the woman caught Ash’s eye. She was tall with silver hair and a strong jaw line.
“What’s your name?” Ash asked at a loss for something to say.
“Jennet ma’am,” Jennet gave a little curtsy then turned to Edward again. “Are you interested in the latest broadside sir?”
“No,” Edward said sternly, “we are not interested in drinking songs.” He began to push past her.
When they were nearly past her Jennet reached out and grasped Ash’s arm. Ash tried to pull away but the woman’s grip was too firm. Edward hadn’t noticed and was already a few paces ahead of Ash. The woman pulled him close and whispered in his ear.
“I see the mark on you,” she hissed, “Be careful miss, they will be looking for you.”
Before Ash could ask a question, the woman had disappeared into the crowd and Edward was beside him. The rest of the afternoon passed in an embarrassed daze. Edward insisted on dragging him around several dressmakers, each of which prodded and poked him as they took his measurements.
The girls in the shops scurried around Ash, trying different things. While they were doing that, Edward spoke to the men, explaining what he wanted. Ash felt like a child, his opinion ignored as irrelevant.
Despite the thickness of his coat, Jack could feel Isaac’s arm rubbing against his as they walked. Every step was a mix of pleasure and befuddlement. Did she want Isaac to put his arm around her? It seemed so twee but she couldn’t shake off a sense of annoyance at the lack of touching. She wanted her skin against his. She loved the contrasts, his dark skin, hers pale, his hard muscles, her soft body
Her head came out of the fuzziness suddenly when she realised Isaac had been saying something.
“Do you want me to come in with you?”
Jack looked around. “Shit,” she thought. They were there. She shook her head taking his hand, kissing it through the thick woollen gloves. She went to reach for her notebook but Isaac waved his hand, gesturing her not to bother.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said, “I’ll wait here.” Then he gently kissed her on the forehead. From someone else she might have considered the kiss condescending, but she felt pleased he could understand her without the need for her to speak.
She let go of his hand and made her way to the front door. She couldn’t help turning to see what Isaac was doing. Something in her just needed to know he hadn’t gone away.
The doorbell rang and Jack could see the ghostly shape of her mother coming up the corridor towards her. She thought of how her mother had died when she was a boy, and how ‘he’ would have done anything to see her again. Had there been something about her being a girl that had saved her mum?
“Hello dear, how was the party,” Jenny looked around Jack seeing Isaac standing there looking sheepish, “Did you have fun?”
Jack nodded and got out her notebook.
‘Yes, can we talk inside?’
Jenny looked back at Isaac and silently nodded in agreement.
She sat down on the sofa, only too aware of how short her skirt was. She could feel her mum watching her adjust the hemline.
“I suspect you could do with some clean clothes?” Jenny said shrewdly. Jack took out her notebook.
‘Yes. Mum, I need to tell you something.’
Jack had the notebook out, flat on the coffee table. Jenny watched her as she wrote.
‘I want to go stay with Isaac for a bit.’ Jack stopped as she could feel Jenny reading over her shoulder, ‘Is that OK?’
Her mum put her hand over hers, “If that’s what you need dear,” there was a long pause, Jack felt Jenny’s hand tightening on her own, “There’s something else isn’t there?” Her voice was low and quiet, as if they were trying to have a private conversation in a public place. Again Jack nodded.
‘In the time before I went missing,’ he tried to write ‘I was a boy,’ but wasn’t surprised when his hand wouldn’t let him, ‘I remember you dying.’
Jenny let out a little gasp of shock, pulling her hand away from her daughters.
“You poor thing. What happened? No, don’t tell me. Being here must bring it all back.”
‘Yes, it does,’ Jack wrote, ‘You are taking this very well?’
“I knew you were from a different dimension from the moment I saw you in that bed.”
Jack just looked at her.
“Oh a mother knows,” she placed her hand back over Jack’s, “Just little things. You are so similar to my little girl, but also different…” her voice trailed off.
They invited Isaac into the house and he sat politely on the sofa drinking hot sweet tea while Jenny helped Jack pack upstairs.
“You might need these,” Jenny placed a yellow cagoule and green woolly hat on the bed. Jack smiled in agreement. She didn’t plan spending much time outside of Jack’s flat, but she knew to let her mother fuss over her.
“Yellow suits you,” Jenny brushed Jack’s cheek, “My golden child.” Jack looked away embarrassed. She already felt close to tears.
I took just over half an hour in total. When Jack came down the stairs, she was wearing the cagoule and hat Jenny had given her. She also carried a large rucksack that seemed comically too big for her slender frame.
“Let me help with…” Isaac began before Jack waved him silent. She didn’t want to be though of as the victim anymore.
Jenny placed a hand on Isaac’s arm, “Isaac dear, would you mind giving us a moment.”
“Of course,” Isaac looked at Jack. She was unsure but she nodded in agreement.
After he had left the room Jenny came close and hugged her close. A hard thing to do with the huge rucksack on her back.
“Just one bit of advice,” Jenny looked towards the door where Isaac had just exited. Jack waited a moment before Jenny leaned in close, “Beware of the shaman.”
Jenny released Jack and shooed her towards the door. Jack was in shock, what did that mean? Was ‘the shaman’ some weird old person’s racism she didn’t know about? She remembered her mother scolding her Nan for being racist back when she was little, but that was the mum from a different dimension.
They hugged on the doorstep, Jack feeling awkward. Then she was alone with Isaac, the snow beginning to fall again.
“So, fancy something spicy and hot?” Isaac smiled. Jack hugged him realising she was laughing and crying at the same time.
Jenny didn’t need to turn around, “You can come out now. I know you’re watching everything.”
“You just let her go with him?” said the first Brownie.
“She’ll be back,” Jenny let out a sigh.
“She better had be, old woman,” spat the second.
“I told you I’m not that old,” Jenny still didn’t turn around. She didn’t have the strength, “I am barely 414.”
“But when she comes back you’ll do it,” the first one said. Jenny thought it was strange to hear such coldness and calculation in the voice that, otherwise, sounded like a little girl. She could remember leaving Jack at primary school when she was little. She remembered the feeling of panic as she scanned the faces of the little girls, wondering who had it in them to be cruel to her precious daughter.
“Before I say yes will you answer me two questions?”
“She already said she would do it, why is she asking us more questions,” the second Brownie sounded annoyed.
“Just ask your questions,” The first one interrupted.
“Firstly, is it true. Is my Jackie somewhere else, somewhere safe?” Jenny took a deep breath and clenched her fists.
“And if I do this thing for you, you’ll bring her back to me?”
Jenny let all the air out of her lungs, she had to hold on to a chair to stop herself from toppling over.
“But don’t try and double cross us,” piped up the second brownie, “We know you of old Jennet Device.”
It was late. Ben was asleep on the sofa after hours of playing some game called Grand Theft Auto with Isaac. Jack had found a blanket and placed it over the boy. She was aware she was only playing house with Isaac and Ben, and that the game couldn’t last forever. Still, it was hard not to feel a little maternal towards Ben.
How old was Ben? Jack caught sight of something crumpled on the floor. She picked it up realising it was a worn photo with three people in it, a man, a woman and a small child. It was easy to see the child was Ben, that wide grin was unmistakable. The man and woman she guessed were his parents, the poor mite.
Something caught her eye, as she recognised the woman’s face. It took a moment for all the pieces to fit back in to place. They had been at school together, back in the day. She was in the year above, used to go out with a sixth former and used to be really into Pulp and Blur. Why couldn’t she remember her name?
For a moment she wanted to wake Ben and tell him about their connection, but she stopped herself. How was she going to explain to Ben that she, who looked about twenty, had been to school with his mum. She placed the photo carefully back in his hand. She would find a way to explain tomorrow. Perhaps she even had photos back at her mum’s?
“Hey, what are you up to?”
She turned around to see Isaac framed in the doorway. Jack just shrugged not wanting to explain. Isaac came over and pulled her up, taking her over to the arm chair. He sat down and she sat on his lap. As he held her the radio played quietly in the back ground. There was some band she had never heard of playing live. It reminded her of staying up late and listening to John Peel and the others under her bed covers. She wondered if that was still a thing that had happened now that she was a girl.
“I wanted to ask you something,” Isaac’s voice brought her back to the present. Jack nodded.
“How are you handling my whole ‘transgender’ thing?” he asked, his voice soft and low.
She wanted to say that it was perfect for her, that she knew what it was like. She wanted to explain that it was strange to her, but that she wanted to understand. She wanted to say and ask many things, but she didn’t have her notebook close at hand, and she didn’t want to move from where she was. What she did do was run her finger along his cheek feeling the day’s worth of stubble growing there. She leaned in and kissed him.
Slowly Isaac stood up holding her in his arms. Jack kicked her legs playing at struggling against him as he carried her from the room. As she ran her fingers through his hair, she wondered what her mother had meant when she had said ‘beware the shaman’? Had she meant Isaac? When she got her notebook back, she would have to ask Isaac if he knew what she could have meant.
Isaac half tossed, half placed Jack on the bed. Questions would have to wait till later. Much later.
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