“Go in peace to love and service the lord,” Reverend Stubbs proclaims with a wide smile on his face.
“In the name of Christ, amen,” I- and the rest of the congregation- reply.
“And on a slightly more festive note,” the young priest says, “a very, very Merry Christmas to you all!”
“Merry Christmas!” The congregation replies with light-hearted chuckles. I take a deep breath as I raise from my pew and help my grandmother to her feet. As usual, we’re one of the last to leave, and as usual, grandma stops to talk to the young vicar before we head out of the small church.
“Thank you for coming as always, Mrs. Jones, Ian!” reverend Stubbs says with a wide grin. “I take it I’ll be seeing you tomorrow?”
“Of course,” grandma says while I remain silent, knowing better than to argue. “We can’t stop for long today, though, this young man needs to get to work!”
“We will be really busy today,” I explain. “People buying last minute presents…”
“Ah, yes,” Reverend Stubbs chuckles. “At least you’ll have tomorrow off work, while I, of course, will be hard at it…”
“One of the few professions obliged to work on Christmas Day?” I ask, making the young man- and, fortunately, grandma too- chuckle happily.
“Well, if we can’t celebrate his birthday, whose can we celebrate?” Reverend Stubbs says with a happy chuckle. “And speaking of, it’ll be yours in a few days, won’t it?”
“Yep, Saturday,” I say. “My eighteenth, actually.”
“Ah, the most important one of them all!” Reverend Stubbs chuckles. “You’ll finally be an adult…”
“Ian has a girlfriend, is taking driving lessons and has a job,” grandma says with a playful snort of laughter. “He’s practically an adult already.” I know another grandmother who’d disagree with that, I think to myself.
“I always wondered why eighteen was arbitrarily chosen as the ‘limit’,” Reverend Stubbs muses. “Hardly makes sense that you’re not mature enough at 17 years and 364 days, but mature enough the day later. But, I suppose they have to have the cut-off somewhere. And Ian IS a very mature young man.”
“Thanks,” I say, trying my hardest not to blush.
“And I will admit to a bit of jealousy,” Reverend Stubbs laughs. “Always having your birthday in the school holidays! Now go on, get to work, I don’t want you to be late and neither does he!”
“Thanks,” I say, shaking the vicar’s hand before following grandma out to her car. A short while later, the car pulls up outside the shopping mall that contains my place of work- but as I get out of the car, it’s clear that something is upsetting my grandmother.
“I will see you later, Ian,” grandma says in a clipped voice, almost like she’s choking back tears.
“Grandma… Are- are you alright?” I ask.
“I’m fine,” grandma says, pointedly looking away from me as she speaks. “Will your friends be picking you up again?”
“Umm, yeah,” I mumble. “Rob- Rob will be picking me up, I’ll be at his house for a, umm, bit…”
“Then I shall see you later tonight,” grandma says, before driving away, leaving me feel uneasy about the sudden downturn in her mood.
However, I don’t have any time to dwell on grandma’s mood, as the day goes as expected- so busy that I barely get the chance for any idle chit-chat with Dean or any of the customers who come in. However, it starts to ease off just after 3:30pm, allowing me some relief- and putting a wide smile on my face when a familiar petite girl with flame-coloured hair and a face full of freckles walks through the shop door.
“Hey!” Chloe giggles, leaning over the counter to give me a long kiss.
“Hey!” I reply, giggling nervously as I exchange another kiss with the painfully pretty girl.
“Been busy today?” Chloe asks.
“Ugh, it’s been unreal,” I reply.
“Speaking of, you going to buy anything?” Dean interjects, his tone of voice letting us know that he’s not being entirely serious.
“I’m browsing,” Chloe replies, earning a chuckle from my supervisor.
“There’s not much left to browse!” Dean retorts with another laugh. “You got all your presents already?”
“Yep!” Chloe says with a happy grin.
“Got plenty for me?” I ask teasingly.
“You’ll just have to wait until tomorrow, won’t you?” My girlfriend retorts with a smug grin. “But seriously, yes, I dropped them round to your grandma just now. And, yes, picked up yours for me, hehe! Your grandma got me a present too, which was an unexpected surprise!”
“She’s very generous,” I say. “Very Christian, but in a good way, if you know what I mean?”
“Oh- sure,” Chloe says, before biting her lip- a sure sign that she’s thinking something that she wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable saying out loud.
“…What’s up?” I ask. “You know I won’t be offended, it’s not likely to be anything I’ve not heard before…”
“I just- I just wonder if she, umm,” Chloe mumbles. “If she misses having a granddaughter, that’s all…”
“She- she has been a bit down lately,” I sigh. “Dunno if that’s it. Hope it isn’t, as she’s the only family I actually have, heh.”
“As long as you don’t let it affect YOUR Christmas,” Chloe says with a warm smile.
“Hell no!” I reply with a grin, though inside, I can’t help but wonder if Chloe is right. Grandma will never say it, of course, but I know she loved spoiling ‘Kayleigh-Ann’ at Christmas, especially with my birthday being only a handful of days afterward. But last Christmas- my first as ‘Ian’- was no different, with one important exception- it was my first living away from my parents, and as such, grandma’s first Christmas where she had to defend me against her own daughter, and she can’t be looking forward to doing THAT again.
I make a mental note to ask grandma about this worry, but I’m also determined to follow my girlfriend’s advice and not let it ruin my Christmas. Almost immediately after my shift ends and I’ve bid Dean a merry Christmas, I head with my girlfriend to the car park, where my lift is waiting. Both Chloe and I take a deep breath as Rob- with a wide grin on his face- tilts the driver’s seat forward to allow us to climb onto the back seat- which is always a source of entertainment for our friends.
“Just grab her bum and give her a push!” Lee- who’s sat on the passenger seat of the car- teases, laughing as Chloe gives him a slap on the back of the head en route to the middle of the back seat.
“God, why did I have to wear such a short skirt today?” Chloe moans, tugging the garment down to try to preserve her modesty as she gets settled and I sit down next to her.
“Because the last time you tried it in one of the longer skirts you usually wear, it was even funnier,” Neil- who’s sat on the other side of Chloe- says, laughing as my girlfriend ‘treats’ him to a slap of his own.
“If only they made trousers for women,” Lee muses.
“I have great legs, why hide them?” Chloe replies with a smug grin, which grows wider as I mime grabbing her thigh.
“Shorts, then?” Neil asks.
“Meh, I prefer skirts,” Chloe shrugs. “They’re just much more comfortable.”
“Which, before anyone- Lee- says anything, is definitely a matter of opinion,” I say, earning giggles from the rest of the car even as I stare down at the smart black trousers covering my legs- and how much I wished I could wear them when I was coerced to wear the clothes my girlfriend is wearing now. Mum, of course, argued that years of ballet, gymnastics and cheerleading gave me a great body, that it- especially my legs- warranted being shown off to the world. Objectively, she may have been right, but deep inside, I died a little every time I stretched a pair of tights over my legs, or slipped into a skirt, which the single most inconvenient item of clothing ever invented and not just for the reasons my girlfriend just demonstrated. Also, trousers are far warmer, even the comparatively loose-fitting ones I’m wearing now.
“BOY,” Chloe says with a cheeky grin that I return as I mime grabbing her nylon-covered thigh once again. “Oh, for god’s sake already…” I let out a surprised yelp as Chloe suddenly grabs my left hand and, before I can protest or pull it away, clamps it to her thigh, forcing me to give it a firm squeeze.
“Mmm,” I say with a playful laugh. “Warm! You know, I am going to take this as permission to grab your thigh whenever I want, right?”
“Good,” Chloe replies with a smug grin.
“Get a room!” Lee yells, making me and my girlfriend roll our eyes.
“Like you don’t sleep with that robot of yours,” Chloe retorts.
“Hey!” Lee protests. “Leave Chwilen out of this. Besides, she needs to save herself for her big TV appearance!” The whole car laughs as Lee reminds us of our impending brush with fame, even myself, despite my earlier misgivings. Sure, it’ll get my face on TV, which is what mum always wanted (and what I always dreaded), but it’ll be on a very niche show, and I’ll only be one face in a larger team- and it’s extremely unlikely that mum would approve of the show I’ll be appearing on!
A short while later, the car arrives at Rob’s house, where we spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing, playing videogames and just generally hanging out, though I can’t get the look on grandma’s face out of my mind no matter how hard I try. Sure enough, when I get home- after giving Chloe her goodbye kiss, of course- grandma is sat in her chair with a look on her face that can best be described as ‘distant sadness’.
“Hi grandma,” I say, trying to sound as enthusiastic as I can. My enthusiasm, however, quickly vanishes when grandma looks at me, her facial expression unchanged.
“Hello Ian,” grandma replies in an almost cold tone of voice that makes me wither. “Did you enjoy playing with your friends?”
“Umm, yeah…” I reply cautiously. “Chloe said- she said she dropped round some presents, is that correct?”
“She did, yes,” grandma says, her voice showing slightly more emotion than it had previously. “She’s such a nice young girl. Reminds me a little of your mother at that age.”
“…Just what every boy wants to hear about his girlfriend?” I reply, frowning as my joke falls flat. “Grandma, are- what’s- what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, I’m fine,” grandma lies, rising from her chair. “What would you like for dinner, Ian?”
“Grandma,” I say softly. “Something IS wrong, isn’t it?”
“It’s nothing that you need to worry about, Ian,” grandma says.
“But it’s making you upset,” I retort. “Something’s making you upset, anyway. Is- is it something I’ve done?” I bite my lip as grandma suddenly stops dead in her tracks and lets out a long, pained sigh.
“…No, Ian,” grandma says, turning around with an obviously forced smile on her face. “It’s nothing you’ve done, and if you think I’m taking out some kind of frustration on you, then I apologise. You should have no reason to feel upset. Ever.”
“But- but you ARE upset,” I say. “It’s kinda obvious. Do- do you miss…” I take a deep breath as Chloe’s words from earlier in the day come back to mind. “Do- do you miss having- having a granddaughter?”
“Why on earth should I miss my granddaughter?” Grandma scoffs. “’She’ hasn’t gone anywhere, ‘she’ is now my grandson and is much happier than when he was a girl, isn’t that right?”
“Well- yes,” I reply. “Loads happier.”
“Which is why you shouldn’t ever feel any blame, or any guilt,” grandma says. “I do, however, miss my daughter.” I frown as the root cause of grandma’s unhappiness is revealed- and despite what she said, if it wasn’t for my actions 16 months ago, grandma wouldn’t need to miss her daughter…
“I’m sorry,” I mumble.
“What did I just say about not feeling guilty?” Grandma says.
“If I hadn’t become a boy, you’d probably be with mum right now, celebrating Christmas,” I say.
“I also wouldn’t have a grandson,” grandma retorts. “Instead I’d have a granddaughter who would be miserable, and might have more marks on her wrist.” I bite my lip as I’m forced to admit that what grandma says is almost certainly correct.
“Still, though…” I mumble.
“If anyone here is to blame, it’s your mother,” grandma says with a look of determination on her face. “Especially after what she said and did in summer!”
“You won’t get any argument from me,” I say. “But still, even last year, we exchanged presents.”
“Last year, your parents didn’t know about ‘Ian’,” grandma reminds me. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t get you anything this year.”
“I’m expecting not to get anything this year,” I say. “Which would be an improvement over last year.” I let out a small shudder as I remember the presents I received last year- especially the presents given by my other grandmother, which would be more appropriate for a 6 year old girl than a 16 year old regardless of gender.
“Nonetheless, they may have bought me presents,” grandma says stoically. “I know how vindictive your mother is, so I’m prepared to face the fact that she may not have done. And- and I have bought her presents too.” I grimace at what grandma is undoubtedly implying- especially as I have news that will undoubtedly surprise her…
“So have I,” I mumble, and as expected, grandma gasps in shock. “Just a small thing. A brooch, like I got her a few years ago… Didn’t imagine I’d actually give it to her, I’d probably have ended up giving it to you for your birthday instead…”
“She knows where we live,” grandma says coldly. “If she wishes to come and collect her presents, she is welcome to.”
“She probably doesn’t even know we bought them,” I sigh. “And there’s only one way to let her know…” Much to my surprise, grandma hesitates- she’s obviously as reluctant to speak to my mother over the phone as I am.
“…No,” grandma says in a quiet, emotional voice. “She is in the wrong. She can call us.”
“She won’t,” I scoff, which bring the sadness back to grandma’s face.
“This will be the first Christmas I won’t have spent at least partly with Angela,” grandma muses. “At least I will have SOME family with me.”
“Yeah,” I say, the guilt building inside me despite grandma’s insistence that I shouldn’t blame myself. “You- maybe you should go to London? Tomorrow, I mean?”
“I told you, Ian, she is to blame, she should seek us out,” grandma replies.
“Which will never happen,” I retort. “You know how stubborn she is.”
“But if I go, I leave you alone at Christmas,” grandma says. “Your girlfriend’s family wouldn’t be happy to see you if what you say about her sister is true.”
“It is,” I sigh. “But- but I’m an adult, or near enough. I’ll be fine. The only other alternative is- is if I go to London too…”
“Well that would be your choice, Ian,” grandma says. “If you want to go to London then I will happily drive you there tomorrow. Ian, do- do you want to go to London, to see your parents?” I pause as grandma asks me the question that I really didn’t want to hear, as I genuinely don’t know the answer to it.
Obviously, my first instinct is to say ‘hell no’ and forget that my parents ever lived. Growing up, they were nothing but a source of stress to me. Mum pushed me so hard in directions I didn’t want to go that in a way I’m lucky that I’m still alive, and dad could have been replaced by a cardboard cut-out and it would’ve been an improvement. On the other hand, though, they ARE my parents, and they are the only family I have apart from grandma, who, as much as I hate to admit it, won’t be around forever. And in her own warped way, I have to believe that mum genuinely does love me. She seemed almost prepared to accept me as her sun… But only when it looked like I’d be the next member of Stuart’s little ‘gang’. But then again, he and I have exchanged presents this year as well, so it’s not like I’m NOT a member of his group, I definitely consider him a friend, even if I haven’t seen him in almost five months. And as famous as she is, the same applies to his wife too. The more I think about it, the more I realise that Stuart and Jamie have been more like family to me than my ‘real’ family have. It’s just a pity that they’ll be too busy tomorrow (especially with a new baby in the household), otherwise I could’ve made the excuse of going to London to visit them.
However, these thoughts of my friends are distracting me from the real issue- whether I want to see my parents. Because as much as I can’t stand the sight of them, I have a lot I want to say to them, especially as I’m days away from becoming a legal adult. I want to tell them how I succeeded despite them, how I found who I truly am, started studying something I actually enjoy, found a girlfriend I really, really like, friends who are far closer than the gang my mother shoehorned me into, and even ‘fame’ on my own terms with Robot Wars. I’m particularly interested in my mother’s reaction to that last one- she’d probably stay ‘depressed’ for weeks. However, on the other hand, the guilt I’d no doubt feel would make ME feel miserable for weeks- and worst of all, there’s a very good chance that I might have a run-in with my other grandmother. All this means that I really only have one answer to grandma’s question.
“…I- I don’t know,” I sigh.
“Well you’ve got tonight to sleep on it,” grandma says. “And I’m sure you can speak to Reverend Stubbs about it tomorrow. But if it was up to me, I would go.”
“Really?” I reply.
“You’re the one who brought it up, Ian,” grandma reminds me.
“Only because I could see it was bothering you,” I retort.
“Well it was obviously bothering you too,” grandma says, sighing quietly as I nod. “Sleep on it. You can decide tomorrow. And as you shaved last night there’s no point in shaving tonight for church tomorrow, god won’t mind a little bit of growth.”
“And it’ll make more of an impact if I show up in London tomorrow with stubble on my face?” I ask, barely suppressing a smirk as grandma nods.
“You said that, not me,” the elderly woman replies. “Come on, let’s get dinner made.” I nod as I follow my grandmother into the kitchen, where I help her make a filling dinner of pork chops and vegetables.
We while away the rest of the evening watching television before heading to bed, though I don’t get much sleep. This isn’t out of the ordinary- it is Christmas Eve night, after all- but the circumstances today are obviously very different. When I was younger, say about 4 or 5, I’d always get excited for Christmas- at that age, receiving any presents was a joy, even if they would be presents that’d ultimately disappoint me, like ballet leotards or Barbie dolls. As I got older, about 11 or 12, that excitement gradually turned into anxiety, as I knew that each present would bring with it responsibilities- I would be expected to dance a routine in my new leotard, etc. I was still excited to unwrap the presents, of course, but the presents themselves got more and more disappointing right up until my final Christmas as ‘Kayleigh-Ann’, when I was all but ready to tear my own skin off in frustration.
Last Christmas, my first Christmas as ‘Ian’, was easily my best one yet. Coming out to my parents as ‘Ian’- and the disaster that ensued- did nothing to dampen my enthusiasms for opening my presents and discovering shaving kits, Lynx deodorant sets and male clothing, and spending the rest of the Christmas break with my friends. This year won’t be nearly as bad- my parents already know about ‘Ian’ and I have an awesome girlfriend as well as my three great friends, and by the time I go back to college in January, I’ll legally be an adult. I have a lot more going for me this year than I did last year on all fronts- and yet I feel just as anxious as I did this time twelve months ago…
I wake up early the following morning, as I have done on every Christmas morning in the past, and despite my anxiety about my decision about London, I have a smile on my face as I shower, pull on one of my special ‘flattening’ vests followed by a pair of smart trousers and a freshly-ironed light blue shirt, before heading downstairs, where grandma is already awake and making a delicious-smelling breakfast of bacon sandwiches.
“Good morning Ian, merry Christmas!” Grandma says with a cheerful grin.
“Merry Christmas!” I reply as I make us both cups of coffee. “What time are we heading out?”
“…You’ve made your decision, then?” Grandma asks cautiously, causing me a moment of confusion.
“Oh- no, umm, I meant to- to church…” I mumble.
“Oh- oh!” Grandma says. “We’ll head out just after breakfast… Have you made your decision about London, though?”
“…Not yet,” I sigh.
“Well I have,” grandma says. “I will be heading to London after lunch. If you want to accompany me, then I would like that very much, but the choice is yours.”
“Okay,” I whisper, my stomach starting to churn even as I scoff down my sandwich.
On the one hand, I am the one who suggested that grandma goes to London to see her daughter, and I do want to see my parents for closure if nothing else, but on the other hand, I just want to have a happy, quiet Christmas here in Cardiff, surrounded by the people who love me- but then again, I don’t want to be on my own, especially today… And I don’t have a lot of time left to make my decision.
I do, however, have one source of comfort. I woke up this morning as a 17 year old boy. Tomorrow morning, I will wake up as a 17 year old boy. Even if I do confront my parents, even if they do try to persuade, coerce or bully me into turning back into ‘Kayleigh-Ann’, I know that it will never happen, as grandma would never allow it. If I go to London, I won’t be fighting with my parents, because there is no fight- I’ve already won, and I’ve spent essentially all of the last 16 months winning.
My ‘wins’ continue as I open my presents to discover the usual, but no less welcome contents- new clothes, men’s deodorant, shaving sets, videogames, war gaming supplies and digital art books. The presents I received in the post from my friends in London are almost as good, too- football memorabilia (even from my female London-based friends), more fashionable clothes and even a couple of bits of memorabilia from an American Football game the group attended earlier in the year. Grandma is slightly confused by the tin of baked beans Stuart sent me, but accepts my explanation that it’s part of an in-joke. Of course, Chloe’s presents are my favourites, even if they’re not quite as expensive as the others. Her burned CD mixtape (with a lot of Out of Heaven on it, naturally) and a home-made chocolate cake (which smells delicious) mean more to me than even I realise, and I waste no time in sending a video ‘thank you’ message to Chloe before following grandma out to her car, which quickly whisks us toward the church we attended less than 24 hours ago.
The church service goes as per usual- Reverend Stubbs delivers his Christmas sermon, we sing carols instead of hymns and a group of children from the local C. In W. school show off their cards and presents. Predictably, grandma and I are among the last to leave at the end of the service, and even more predictably, grandma immediately shares my dilemma with the young priest, who directs me to a nearby pew for a quiet talk.
“It’s not an easy decision, I’ll grant you that,” Reverend Stubbs sighs. “And I won’t quote you ‘honour thy mother and father’ as we’ve had that discussion plenty of times before, and it makes me sick the amount of times unfit parents have used that phrase to justify abusing their children.”
“Thanks,” I say quietly.
“You need to focus on what would make you happy, first and foremost,” Reverend Stubbs says. “Obviously, taking others’ feelings into account is important, but if you being male is incompatible with your parents being happy, then that’s their problem. But that is a big ‘if’.”
“It seemed pretty certain 12 months ago,” I snort.
“A year’s a long time,” Reverend Stubbs retorts. “Especially if you suddenly go from being a parent to not being a parent.”
“Doubt dad even noticed,” I scoff. “Mum… Ugh, I dunno. I mean, there are things I want to say to her, but how much of it would be repeating what was said in August at the football match?"
"That was said in anger,” Reverend Stubbs reminds me. “This is a chance to speak calmly. Okay, I accept it may not stay calm, but unlike August, it’ll at least be on your terms.”
“I guess,” I shrug.
“And there’s one piece of advice I heard a while ago that I’ve always kept close to my heart,” the priest says. “You only regret the things you DON’T do.” Now where have I heard that before? I think to myself as I involuntarily smirk.
“Yeah,” I chuckle.
“I’ll let you get off,” Reverend Stubbs says, standing up and escorting me to the church door. “You’ve no doubt got loads of presents to open, and my husband’s parents will be waiting for us at their house, so I don’t want to keep them waiting, heh!”
“Yeah,” I say quietly. “Umm, merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas!” Reverend Stubbs chuckles, bidding farewell to me and grandma with a firm handshake each.
“So, Ian,” grandma says as we climb into her car. “Did Reverend Stubbs help you make a decision?”
“Kinda,” I shrug. “He seems to think I should go, but, you know, he’s kinda being a bit over optimistic about how I’d be greeted…”
“You never know,” grandma says, making me think even harder about my decision as we head home.
With grandma definitely heading to London, we have our Christmas dinner early at lunchtime, meaning that I don’t have any time to think when I return home. Instead, I’m put to work peeling potatoes and washing vegetables while grandma prepares our turkey crown (with it being just the two of us, she didn’t get a full turkey). It’s almost 2pm by the time we’ve finished eating and all the dishes are washed, which means I barely have an hour to make my decision on whether or not to go to London.
While we’re watching Christmas television, and grandma is getting ready for her trip to London, I take the opportunity to switch on my tablet computer and log into Facebook, where- much to my relief and joy- Chloe is among the list of people showing as ‘online’. I start composing a message to her, but before I finish typing, I’m beaten to the punch.
‘Hey babe!’ Chloe types, followed by several ‘kissing’ emojis. ‘Merry Christmas!’
‘Merry Christmas!’ I reply with a ‘kissing’ emoji of my own. ‘You at home?’
‘Anywhere else I’d be?’ Chloe replies with a cheeky ‘sticking out tongue’ emoji. ‘Helping mum and Han get the turkey ready. You?’
‘Ate at lunch, just finished washing-up,’ I reply. ‘Don’t need to ask if you can save a seat, do I?’ I sigh as Chloe replies with a ‘sad’ emoji.
‘Not a good idea,’ Chloe types. ‘Especially not with my brother here too. And wouldn’t you be leaving your gran all by herself?’ I grin as Chloe presents me with an opportunity to ask what I need to ask almost before the conversation has started.
‘She’s actually going to London,’ I type. ‘Going to see my mum, who’s her daughter.’
‘Oh, so she’s leaving you alone?’ Chloe asks, and I bite my lip as I reply with a ‘winking’ emoji. ‘Lol nice try!’ Chloe’s ‘sticking out tongue’ emoji makes me roll my eyes, though it’s not unexpected- she and I have yet to be ‘physical’, though it’s more due to the fact that we’ve never been alone together than any lack of willingness on our part. At least, I hope Chloe isn’t ‘unwilling’…
‘I’m not going to be able to get away today,’ Chloe types, followed by a ‘sad’ emoji that earns a ‘hugging’ emoji from me. “Family’s all here and they’d only ask where I was going.’ This time, it’s my ‘sad’ emoji that earns a virtual hug from my girlfriend. ‘We’ll definitely have to get together before the end of the holiday!’
‘Definitely,’ I type with a ‘smiling’ emoji.
‘So you’re going to be on your own on Christmas evening, then?’ Chloe asks.
‘Unless I go with grandma to London,’ I type.
‘OMG why would you?’ Chloe- who obviously knows all about the situation with me and my parents- asks. ‘You know what they’ll say and you know how stressed you’ll be when you get back.’
‘They’re still my parents,’ I type. ‘You’ve told me how you and your brother don’t get along, but you’d be upset if you didn’t see him for months, right?’
‘One, we can at least be friendly to each other, you’ve told me that your relationship with your parents is utterly toxic,’ Chloe retorts. ‘Two, you ARE happy in Cardiff, you’ve made that clear loads of times. And your parents haven’t made any effort to come and see you since you last saw your mum, did they?’
‘Well no,’ I’m forced to concede. ‘Am I supposed to accept the fact that after my grandma dies I’ll have no more family?’
‘Better no family than a shitty family,’ Chloe types.
‘Easy to say when you have three brothers and sisters,’ I type, instantly regretting the message the second I send it. ‘Sorry, sorry.’
‘Nah, you’re right,’ Chloe types. ‘I don’t want to know what it’s like to have a family like yours, but I suppose they are still your family. You’re obviously looking for an excuse to go, so you should just go, Ian.’
‘Trying to convince myself that that’s the best thing, heh,’ I type. ‘Keep thinking about all the worst case scenarios, like if my parents kidnap me and force me to be a girl or something.’
‘You’ve taken boxing lessons for a year, I’d like to see them try,’ Chloe types, which I reply to with a ‘laughing’ emoji.
‘You know I actually know Laura White?’ I type. ‘The girl who was kidnapped by her dad a few years ago? Used to go to the same ballet class as her.’
‘Yeah, I know about Laura,’ Chloe types. ‘Though I’d have thought you’d say you know her from that photoshoot you did earlier in the year than going to ballet together.’
‘Ugh, that,’ I type.
‘Don’t be so down on it, I think it’s cool,’ Chloe types. ‘How many girls can claim that their boyfriend’s been interviewed by a newspaper magazine?’
‘Lol,’ I type with a ‘smiling’ emoji.
‘And if your parents do try anything,’ Chloe types, ‘then I’ll just have to come to London and rescue you, won’t I?’ Chloe’s ‘smug’ emoji makes me giggle and roll my eyes.
‘My hero,’ I type with a ‘sticking out tongue’ emoji that earns a ‘grinning’ one from my girlfriend in response.
‘G2G now, Han’s looking at me, think she’s noticed I’m not helping with dinner,’ Chloe types. ‘Good luck in London. xxxxxxxx’
‘Thanks xxxxxxxxxx,’ I reply, before letting out a long, loud sigh as Chloe signs out of Facebook.
“Were you talking to your young woman, Ian?” Grandma asks, having obviously noticed how quiet I’d become.
“Umm, yeah,” I reply. “She- I was, umm, telling her about London…”
“And have you made your decision?” Grandma asks. I take a deep breath to compose myself, before replying.
“…Yes,” I say.
“Are you sure?” Grandma asks. “Because once we’re on the road, there won’t be any turning back.”
“I’m sure,” I say confidently.
My confidence, however, wanes with every second that follows. My nerves jangle as I climb into grandma’s car and fasten my seatbelt, they fray as we cross the Second Severn Crossing into England, and by the time we arrive in the English capital, I’m practically peeing myself with fright. Grandma does her best to distract me en route with stories about Christmases when she was a girl, or when my mother was a girl, but these tales do nothing to set my mind at ease. I try to focus on what I want to say to my parents when I see them, but the closer I get to London, the more the words scramble inside my brain.
Before I know what’s happening, grandma and I are stood outside the house I lived in for over a decade of my life, and when grandma pushes the doorbell, I feel my knees start to buckle.
“Smile, Ian,” grandma says.
“Seriously?” I ask.
“If you smile,” grandma explains, “it shows that you’re not here to start a fight. If there has to be an argument, let them start it.” I nod, before forcing an undoubtedly unconvincing, terrified smile on my face as the door opens to reveal my mother’s shocked face.
“Merry Christmas, Angela!” Grandma says with a warm, motherly smile.
“What- what are you doing here?” Mum replies. “And what is HE doing here?” A male pronoun already? I think to myself. This might be easier than I thought…
“Who is it, Angela?” The unmistakable voice of my paternal grandmother calls from the living room, instantly causing my entire body to tense up.
“It’s Pauline, Pauline Jones,” grandma replies. “Angela’s mother. I’m here with our grandson!” So much for not starting a fight, I think to myself. Sure enough, seconds later, the old woman storms up to the front door with a look of utter fury on her wrinkled face.
“What is that disgusting thing doing on my son’s doorstep?” Grandma Walker spits.
“Is that any way to speak about your grandson?” Grandma Jones replies, her own voice seething with rage.
“Here we go again,” I whisper to myself.
“I have no grandson!” Grandma Walker growls. “Just a stupid granddaughter who thinks it’s funny to prance around pretending to be a boy and who obviously needs some sense beating into her! I have half a mind to take her over my knee right now!”
“Try,” I growl, causing the older woman’s face to turn bright red- but oddly, bringing a smirk to the face of my mother, who has been strangely silent since the old woman emerged from the living room…
“How dare you speak to me like that, you wicked child!” Grandma Walker hisses. “Craig! Craig! Come here right now and show your daughter some discipline!” A few seconds later, dad dutifully scurries out of the living room to the front door with a look on his face that can best be described as a mixture of anger and fear.
“Kayleigh-Ann,” dad says. “You-“
“Ian,” I interrupt. “My name is NOT Kayleigh-Ann. My name IS Ian. Start using it.”
“How dare you speak to your father like that!” Grandma Walker screeches. “You will do as he says, you awful little child!”
“You use the word ‘child’ a lot,” Grandma Jones says. “Ian will be 18 in five days, you know? A legal adult?”
“Which means that SHE is seventeen now,” Grandma Walker retorts. “And that’s a child, and children should do as they are told!”
“If I did everything I was told to do I’d probably be in a mental hospital by now,” I say. “Or worse.”
“Well then obviously your parents needed to beat some more sense into you when you were younger!” Grandma Walker spits- and much to my surprise, my mother actually sneers in disgust at this suggestion. And I will have to credit her with something- as much as she shouted at me, as much as she pressured me when I was younger, as much as she psychologically and emotionally tortured me… She never laid a finger on me physically.
“Any parent who beats their child doesn’t deserve to call themselves a parent at all!” Grandma Jones spits.
“Well it’s obvious YOU’d think like that,” Grandma Walker sneers. “Look at you, encouraging this disgusting, deviant behaviour! You’d probably encourage her to make friends with queers and blacks too! I bet you voted Labour in the election!”
“Who I voted for is none of your business,” Grandma Jones scoffs.
“And as for hanging out with those words you just said,” I say, smirking as mum’s eyes suddenly go wide, “you didn’t have any complaints when mum arranged for me to take ballet classes from a bisexual teacher and a woman who’s currently engaged to a bigendered person? A class that actually had transgendered students, and students from all ethnicities, including the girl that mum encouraged me to try to be best friends with- and where was she originally from again? Jamaica, wasn’t it?” Unfortunately, despite the giveaway look of terror that’s creeping across my mother’s face, Grandma Walker just laughs in my face.
“Don’t lie,” the wrinkled old hag scoffs. “You’ve already shown that you can’t be trusted by showing up here looking like that! Why should I believe anything that comes out of your mouth?”
“This was a waste of time,” I moan.
“The first truthful thing you’ve ever said!” Grandma Walker spits. “If I ever see you again you will be sorry that you were ever born!”
“We came to give you our presents to you,” Grandma Jones says, reasserting control over the situation. “Mine AND Ian’s. If you don’t want them, we will take them back to Wales with us.”
“Of course your presents aren’t welcome here!” Grandma Walker spits, and this is apparently all that my mother- who has never liked her mother-in-law- can take.
“Now wait,” mum says, earning a look of pure fury from Grandma Walker. “She’s driven all this way, it wouldn’t be just to have an argument-“
“How dare you tell ME to ‘wait’!” My paternal grandmother bellows in my mother’s face. “In my son’s house!”
“My house as well!” Mum says, before recoiling in shock as Grandma Walker suddenly slaps her across the face. Time seems to freeze as mum stands clutching her cheek in a state of shock. Almost in slow motion, her look of shock changes to one of utter fury, and she winds up her hand, striking the older woman back with a slap that I imagine I would’ve been able to hear all the way from my home in Cardiff.
“You- you-“ Grandma Walker stammers. “CRAIG! ARE YOU GOING TO LET THIS WOMAN DO THAT TO YOUR OWN MOTHER!?” Both Grandma Jones and I watch in horror as dad- with more emotion than I have ever seen him display- roughly grabs my mum by the arm and pulls her back into the house, closely followed by Grandma Walker. Naturally, both Grandma Jones and I follow, fearing for the woman’s safety, only for dad to suddenly turn around and shove Grandma Jones in the chest, sending her stumbling backward.
I feel myself shaking with rage as I see my grandmother, the woman who has raised me for the last year and a half, the woman who has supported me my whole life, the only member of my family I truly love, almost fall to the ground, which is only prevented by her grabbing for the door frame at the last second. I turn around to see dad lunging toward me to shove me in the same way, and at that point my instinct- and my 15 months of boxing training- take over and I feel my left hand ball into a fist, which I swing toward my ‘father’s face as hard as I can. It connects with his jaw, and I actually feel dizzy myself as I watch the middle-aged man collapse to the ground in a dazed heap as the three women in the room stare at me in shock. With her earlier righteous indignation gone and replaced by a look that’s a cross between fear and shock, Grandma Walker drags my father to his feet and marches him out of the house, stopping only to glare at the three of us with pure hatred in her eyes. What feels like an eternity passes as the three of us stand in the cold hallway, my hand still clenched into a fist and my blood still boiling from the confrontation.
“I- Ian,” Grandma Jones whispers. “Are- are you okay?”
“Mmph,” I moan, my extreme emotions causing my head to spin so much that when I take a step forward, my legs buckle and I collapse to the floor in a heap on exactly the same spot my father did.
I can only assume that the stress of the situation caused me to lose consciousness, as the next thing I know, I’m waking up in my bedroom- or rather, Kayleigh-Ann’s bedroom, the room I grew up in and came to despise over the last ten years. Much to my surprise, it’s barely changed since I last slept here. The furniture and decorations are the same, right down to the Angels posters on the wall and the make-up brushes and bottles of nail polish on the dressing table. A quick glance inside my drawers confirms that virtually all of my clothes are still present, too- even my old school uniform, which I thought I’d discarded almost two years ago.
I sigh as I reach into my underwear drawer and run my fingers across the pairs of black tights that have gone untouched over the last year and a half. They feel just as soft and as smooth as they did the last time I touched them almost two years ago, the last time I slid them up and down my legs… Or just as smooth as they felt yesterday afternoon when I felt an identical pair clinging to Chloe’s legs. I slowly withdraw one of the pairs from the drawer and hold it up to the light, watching as they glisten in the light from my lamp. I briefly wonder what it would be like to put the tights on again, to feel them stretch over my legs now that they’re more muscly and the skin is former and hairier, but then I realise I have genuinely forgotten how to put on a pair of tights. The same applies for the skirts and dresses in my wardrobes, and definitely applies to the bras and ballet leotards in my drawers. It’s been so long since I last wore any of these clothes that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to even put them on- and that’s knowledge I’ll never have any need for ever again. To all intent and purposes, my name was NEVER Kayleigh-Ann, and I was NEVER a girl.
I carefully put the tights away in my drawer and sit down on my bed when my bedroom door opens to reveal grandma stood there with a hot mug of tea in her hands and a concerned look on her face.
“Oh- oh thank god, you’re awake,” grandma says, immediately rushing over and placing her palm on my forehead.
“Umm, yeah,” I mumble. “What- what happened?”
“You blacked out after you hit your father,” grandma explains. “Which I do NOT approve of, but under the circumstances, as it was obviously self-defence, I won’t say anything more about it.”
“Yeah, I-“ I say, before remembering who I was defending from dad. “Oh my god, are- are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” grandma says with a light-hearted chuckle. “I’ve dealt with far scarier men than your father in the past, believe you me! It’s good to see those boxing lessons of yours are time well spent, though!”
“Yeah,” I chuckle. “How long was I out?”
“The length of time it takes me and your mum to carry you upstairs and make a cup of tea,” grandma replies. “Not long. You were more dazed than actually unconscious, anyway.”
“Yeah,” I whisper. “First time I’ve been in this room in over a year.”
“I imagine it must be,” grandma muses. “Do you miss it, Ian?”
“Absolutely not,” I reply. “This is just four walls. My bedroom in Cardiff is my REAL home.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” grandma says. “Though I’m not sure your mother would be.” My stomach starts to churn as I realise that the confrontation I came to London for is far from over.
“Is- is she still downstairs?” I feebly ask.
“This is her home, where else would she be?” Grandma retorts. “She’s very upset by what happened with your father. And what happened with you, too.”
“Ugh,” I groan. “I’ve spent the last eighteen years upsetting her, don’t see why that should stop now…”
“There’s no need for self-pity, Ian,” grandma chastises me. “That’s something you inherited from your mother that you DON’T need.”
“…Sorry,” I mumble.
“You came to London to speak to her, to get things off your chest,” Grandma reminds me. “Your father and that terrible woman obviously won’t listen. But your mother will, I’ll see to that.”
“Can- can I have a few minutes, please?” I mumble as I sip my tea.
“Come down when you’re ready,” grandma whispers, leaving me alone in my room to let out a long, quiet moan of frustration.
Any hope of this Christmas going better than last year have gone straight out of the window. I should’ve listened to my first instincts and not come to London in the first place. Sure, I’d be alone if I was still in Cardiff, but that’d be a vast improvement from my current situation- especially as with grandma downstairs talking to mum, I am all alone. I switch on my phone and log onto Facebook to see if anyone’s online, but none of my Cardiff friends are available- they’re all presumably spending time with their family, but probably in a more productive way than I’m doing right now.
However, as grandma would inevitably point out, if I ran back to Cardiff without saying what I wanted to say, I’d inevitably regret it until the next time I found myself in this house. And as has been repeatedly pointed out to me, you only regret the things you DON’T do. Why, then, am I seriously regretting the decision TO come here?
Mum and grandma are deep in conversation when I open the living room door and step through, frowning as mum very obviously bristles at my appearance.
“Are you feeling better, Ian?” Grandma asks, causing mum to bristle again at the mention of my real name.
“Yeah, thanks,” I say, leading to an awkward silence as my mother can’t even look at me. I take a deep breath, before reaching into the large carrier bag we brought from Cardiff and withdrawing a small, carefully wrapped package. “Umm, this is for you… Mum. Merry Christmas.”
“Thanks,” my mother whispers, taking the package from me and setting it down next to her, unopened.
“Angela,” grandma growls in a voice that makes both me and my mother wince.
With her frown not wavering, mum unwraps the gift, revealing a framed photo of me from the photoshoot I went to earlier in the year. It’s the sort of thing she SHOULD love- a reminder of the time I embraced the fame mum always encouraged me to love, but at the same time, a reminder that I am now unquestionably her son. Much to my dismay, though, mum simply puts the photo down next to her and pointedly looks away from it, making me frown and grandma scowl.
“Angela!” Grandma snaps. “Aren’t you going to thank your son for his present?”
“Why should I be grateful for a reminder of why my marriage ended?” Mum retorts, dramatically raising her hand to her forehead only to be stopped by a stern stare from grandma.
“How- how dare you,” I spit. “I can’t help being who I am. That pathetic excuse for a man and his witch of a mother can help being bigots!” I start to shrink into my chair as grandma gives me a stern stare and opens her mouth to chastise me, but much to my surprise, she remains silent- obviously she agrees with what I have to say.
“I’m not saying I approve of what they think,” mum says after a long pause. “You know I have no problem with you associating with people who are black, gay or transgendered.”
“Just as long as they’re rich and famous, right?” I retort.
“Ian!” Grandma snaps, instantly silencing me.
“Well there’s your problem, Kayleigh-Ann,” mum says, making my blood boil at the use of my dead name. “You never knew what was best for you. You ALWAYS acted out, disobeyed me and played up when I tried to help you reach your potential!”
“By making me do things you knew I hated?” I ask.
“There’s nothing wrong with being taken out of your comfort zone,” mum retorts, making me snort with laughter.
“’Comfort Zone’?” I say with a howl of laughter. “What ‘comfort zone’? When am I supposed to have ever been comfortable living here and being your pet project?”
“You’d have been comfortable when you were a millionaire superstar,” mum retorts.
“The same way Amy Winehouse was?” I ask. “Or Heath Ledger? Or Kurt Cobain?”
“You’d never have killed yourself,” mum scoffs. “You were never REALLY depressed, not like me, and you certainly aren’t transgendered either! All of- all of THIS is just an attempt to spite me, to make me feel bad for doing the right thing for you growing up, because you can’t stand the fact that I know what’s best for you!”
“If I’m not really transgendered,” I ask, “then how come I have a WRITTEN diagnosis of gender identity dysphoria, how come I’ve been taking hormones for over a year that will in all likelihood sterilise me, and- huh. Funnily enough, I came here to get things off my chest. Within the next twelve months, I intend to have an operation to LITERALLY get things off my chest.”
“No you won’t,” mum scoffs. “You’ll miss being a girl too much, and you’ll come crawling back to me.”
“Keep dreaming,” I snort. “I’ll never be famous, I’ll never be an actor, I’ll never be on TV, and I will never. Ever. Be a girl again!”
“Then what the hell is the point of you!?” Mum screeches.
“ANGELA!” Grandma yells, immediately defusing my mother’s anger. “Is that any way to speak to your offspring? How would you have felt if I spoke to you in the same way?”
“How would you feel if I spoke to you the way Kayleigh-Ann is speaking to me?” Mum retorts. “Or behaved the way she did when I was growing up?”
“You are and you did,” grandma says, silencing my mother. “Every Christmas and birthday, as I recall, a tantrum every time you didn’t get that expensive present you wanted, and on those years when you did get it, you were bored of it within days. What was it when you were eight, My Little Pony I believe?”
“…It wasn’t what I expected,” mum mumbles.
“And those ballet lessons you insisted on when you were younger?” Grandma asks. “Only to drop them like a bad habit AFTER I shell out over £50 for those special shoes of yours!”
“Well- well that’s why I made Kayleigh-Ann go to hers!” Mum insists. “So that she wouldn’t be wasting our money!”
“Did I ever ask for those lessons in the first place?” I ask. “Or acting lessons, or singing lessons, or private dance coaching?”
“You should’ve been grateful!” Mum hisses. “I would’ve given anything to have had the opportunities you did!”
“But did you ever once ask Ian if that was what he wanted?” Grandma asks.
“I shouldn’t have to,” mum says. “I’m HER parent, that means I know what SHE wants!”
“This was a total waste of time,” I sigh. “There’s no reasoning with her!”
“I’m not the one being unreasonable!” Mum retorts.
“So doing everything you say without question is your idea of reasonable?” I ask.
“Yes!” Mum yells.
“You never did when you were growing up,” grandma says, and for once, this silences my mother.
“Everything would be so much easier if you’d just stayed a girl,” mum finally says, unsurprisingly using her first words to criticise and blame me.
“For you, maybe,” I retort.
“Even if you did decide that you would rather play videogames than go dancing,” mum continues, surprising me slightly. “At least then you wouldn’t have alienated your father and his mother.”
“I’m not doing anything illegal,” I retort. “I am who I need to be. And what I need- I NEED to be, is male.”
“Then why do I look at you any only see a girl?” Mum asks.
“Because that’s the mask I was forced to wear for the last sixteen years,” I reply. “I’m not wearing a mask anymore. I’m not hiding who I am. You can accept me for who I am or never have anything to do with me again.”
“Your choice, Angela,” grandma says, silencing my mother again, though this time, she genuinely seems to be considering her decision. “If it helps, I know what I would have done if you’d given me the same ultimatum when you were eighteen. The fact that I’m here, now, should prove that.”
“I’m going to need some time,” mum says in a voice barely louder than a mumble. “I need to think things through, talk to Craig…”
“Take all the time you need,” grandma says softly.
“This isn’t something I can decide overnight,” mum says, making my heart sink- is it THAT hard a decision? “I have to think of Craig…”
“Very well,” grandma says. “We should get going and leave you to it.”
“Oh- but it’s late, and it’s a long drive,” mum says, which surprises both me and grandma. “Will- will you stay overnight? I can have the couch, you can sleep in my bed and Ka- eh, um, you can sleep in your old bed if you’d like?”
“I- I’d rather take the sofa,” I reply.
“I see,” mum whispers, clearly trying not to have another attack of ‘depression’.
“I’ll go and get some sheets down ready,” I say quietly. “Are they in the same place as usual?”
“Yes,” mum replies in a small, quiet voice as I get off the sofa and head upstairs. “Oh, Ian?”
“Yes?” I reply, before my jaw drops as I realise that for probably the first time ever, mum has addressed me by my real name.
“What- umm,” mum mumbles. “Do you have any plans for your 18th?”
“Not really,” I reply. “Umm… Probably- probably staying in Cardiff, with my friends and, umm, girlfriend…”
“Okay,” mum says, before smiling genuinely at me for the first time in many, many years.
None of us stay up for much longer after the ‘discussion’, opting for early nights instead, though despite this, and how exhausting the day’s been, I still struggle to sleep in the house that was once a home, but is now totally alien to me. I’m just thankful I’m not sleeping in ‘my’ room- it would’ve been impossible for me to sleep in there.
My mother is wrong in what she says, about me only pretending to be male to spite her. It’s who I am, and who I’ve always been on the inside. The last 24 hours have proved that, as have the 24 months before that. She never saw how I interacted with Ollie, or with my friends in Cardiff, or even with Stuart and his friends. And she certainly never saw me with my razor blade in my bedroom. My need to be male would be the same regardless of who my parents are. The difference is that it wouldn’t be as ‘urgent’ if I didn’t have a mother as domineering as her.
The fact that she feels she needs time to decide whether or not to accept me as her son is simply insulting. Then again, her love has always been conditional- conditional on me being a success at my acting or dancing, conditional on me making the right friends, conditional on me becoming famous… My grandmother’s love is unconditional. Hell, my friends’ acceptance is unconditional- my friends in Cardiff AND London- and so is Chloe’s, and their love is far more important to me. Love that has to be earned from jumping through hoops is worthless. And the kind of love ‘dad’ and ‘grandma’ Walker would give would be worse than worthless, it’d be toxic. I’m much better off without them in my life, and the same almost certainly applies to my mum as well.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder if there is SOMETHING I can do to show her, not to ‘earn’ her love but to prove to her that I am worth loving, unconditionally, as her son…
Despite my lack of sleep, I decide to get up early on Boxing Day morning and make myself breakfast. As I open the fridge, I can’t help but let out a loud groan as I see, almost in pride of place, half a dozen eggs and a small block of extra-mature Cheddar cheese.
“’Food plan’, eh?” I snort, remembering the years spent in this house eating vegan crap that made me feel sick and kept my weight at near-anorexic levels- which was undoubtedly my mother’s intention the whole time. With a smirk, I crack two eggs into a bowl and mix them together, before pouring them (and some grated cheese) into a frying pan and brewing a hot pot of coffee. It isn’t long before my cooking causes the other occupants of the house to wake up.
“…Kay- umm, Ian?” Mum asks hesitantly.
“Morning!” I say with forced cheerfulness. “Got some coffee going, do you want an omelette? I found some eggs in the fridge.”
“Umm… I’ll make my own,” my mother mumbles, leading to an awkward silence that’s mercifully broken seconds later by the arrival of my grandmother.
“Good morning, you two!” Grandma says as cheerfully as I had, though it’s hard to tell whether or not her cheerfulness is as fake as mine.
“Umm, what- what time will you be heading back to Cardiff?” Mum asks.
“That depends on Ian,” grandma replies. “We can stay around for a while, or get off immediately after breakfast?” I briefly glance at grandma, which is all the answer she needs to her question. “…We won’t be under your feet for much longer. Though, of course, you’re more than welcome to visit us in Cardiff any time you want.”
“Thanks,” mum mumbles.
“I, umm, need to get back anyway,” I say. “Promised the guys that we’d do some practice for Robot Wars today.”
“Ooh,” mum says, immediately perking up and causing me to squirm. “Are you going to be on Robot Wars, Ian? The television series?”
“…Me and a few friends,” I mumble. “I’m- I’m part of a larger team…”
“Still, though, that’s a great opportunity,” mum continues. “The woman who hosts it does adverts for Garnier, maybe you could-“
“Some things never change,” I sigh, bringing a look of shame to my mother’s face and a scowl to my grandmother’s- though I can’t tell whether that scowl is directed at me or at my mum. “I’m, umm, I’m going on that show to fight with robots. Nothing more.”
“But still, it wouldn’t hurt to ask-“ mum insists.
“Angela,” grandma says sternly, thankfully silencing my mother.
Naturally, this causes breakfast to be eaten in silence, and when grandma and I leave the house a few minutes afterward, we exchange the briefest of farewells- not even any hugs- before getting in grandma’s car and heading back towards home.
“…I’m sorry,” I mumble once we’re on the road. “I know you wanted that to go better…”
“Well it couldn’t have gone any worse, could it?” Grandma sighs, increasing my feeling of guilty. “And you have no need to apologise, Ian. What happened was not your fault. Your mother’s words and actions over breakfast prove that.”
“Thanks,” I whisper. “I’m definitely staying in Cardiff for my birthday, though. Noticed they didn’t have any presents for me yesterday…”
“They actually-“ grandma says, before taking a deep breath. “They bought a present, but it was only for ‘Kayleigh-Ann’. Your mother told me last night while you were getting the sheets for the sofa. It was a dress, an expensive one, and they’d hoped that you would wear it and they’d accept you as their daughter again.”
“I hope they understand now how and why that’ll never happen,” I retort.
“I don’t see that they have any choice,” grandma says. “And your mother WILL learn to accept you as her son, Ian. I will make sure of it.”
“And dad?” I ask.
“That man never deserved to call himself your father,” grandma spits. “I still maintain that you are the only good thing to come out of that marriage. I do hope that this time, he and your mother are separated for good.”
“’This time’,” I say. “I wouldn’t count on it, there have been more ‘this time’s than I can count.”
“This time will be different,” grandma says confidently.
“I hope so,” I sigh, before getting my phone out of my pocket and letting out a sigh. “Forgot to charge this last night, only a few per cent left…”
“Good,” grandma says, “Maybe that means you’ll actually talk to me on the way home?”
“Or play ‘I Spy’,” I retort.
“Don’t you dare!” Grandma replies with a chuckle as I put my phone back in my pocket and stare at the many street signs passing by, wincing when one of the first few points toward the ground of Acton Rovers FC.
“Ugh,” I spit. “Just what I needed to see…”
“What?” Grandma asks. “What is it, Ian?”
“Directions to the football ground where I had that massive argument with mum,” I groan. “Reason enough to get out of this city as fast as possible.”
“I remember when you were seeing that Australian girl,” grandma reminds me. “Sometimes I thought you were actually going to move back to London, heh. And what was the name of that young man who took you under his wing, Steven, wasn’t it?”
“Stuart,” I reply. “Yeah, he’s cool, I guess.”
“I would’ve liked to meet him,” grandma says, causing an idea to spring to mind.
The argument with my mum in the car park may have been one of the worst experiences of my life, but one of the things that I mustn’t forget are the people who stepped forward to defend me. Charlotte Hartley and Jamie-Lee Milton, two nationally famous women who had no stake in what was happening, put themselves forward and offered me their support without expecting anything in return. And Stuart, the guy who drove me to the station and waited with me until the train come, making sure I was alright before my long journey home. None of these people had to do these things for me- they did so out of the goodness of their own heart. And yet mum can’t even find it in herself to say ‘yes, I accept you as my son’, which are the only words I want to hear from her. It’s ironic- mum would be delighted to know that I’d made friends with these people, even though the friendships only formed in spite of her.
“I can see if he’s available, if you’d like?” I reply, a sly smile spreading across my face. “Boxing Day… Got an idea where he’s likely to be this afternoon.”
A couple of hours later, after a quick sightseeing tour (grandma’s only been to London a few times so we thought we’d make the most of it), the two of us step into a small, independent coffee shop and quickly locate the person we’re there to see- helped by the fact that he’s wearing a bright, royal blue football shirt.
“Hi Ian!” Stuart says, standing up and giving me a firm, masculine handshake. “Great to see you again. You must be Ian’s grandmother, right?”
“Yes,” grandma replies. “I’m Pauline Jones, it’s nice to meet you.”
“Stuart Milton,” the brown-haired man replies, before gesturing to the other football-shirt clad figures at the table. “This is my friend Keith and wearing the wrong shirt today is our friend Jacinta.”
“Oh, we’ll see later on today,” Jacinta- who’s wearing the striped shirt of her home team, Brighton & Hove Albion- replies, before giggling and giving my grandmother a loose, feminine handshake.
“It’s nice to meet you all,” grandma says as she exchanges a handshake with Keith. “Are you all friends of Ian, then?”
“Yep!” Jacinta replies. "Don't get to see him nearly as often as we'd like, but seeing as he lives three hours away, it's kinda understandable."
"You could always come to Cardiff," I shrug, chuckling as both grandma and Jacinta give me a playful whack on each shoulder!
"Well, either way, I'm glad we caught up this Christmas," Stuart says. "Oh, that reminds me- I got you your drink." I let out a long sigh as Stuart places a bottle of red-coloured Fanta down in front of me.
"...Another in-joke," I say to grandma, who just smiles and nods as I sip the extremely sweet-tasting soda.
"I'm guessing if you're in London at this time of year, you were here to see your parents?" Stuart asks.
"Eesh, this sounds like a sensitive topic," Keith says with a grimace. "We can give you some privacy if you'd prefer?"
"You're a friend," I say. "I don't mind. And yes, I was here to see family."
"I guessed from the tone of your text," Stuart sighs. "Didn't go well, then?"
"Put it this way- I kept expecting to hear the Eastenders theme tune," I sigh, which earns a snort of laughter followed by a playful hug from Jacinta.
"Aww," the transgendered girl sighs as I (and grandma) recap the events of the last 24 hours.
"...So, yeah," I say, taking a deep breath and finishing off my drink. "Not my best ever Christmas. Then again, can't say I've ever had a GOOD one."
"Mate," Stuart sighs. "Wish there was more I could do. Just hope getting it off your chest has helped."
"A little," I shrug. "Thanks for the 'getting off your chest' pun by the way."
"Hey, if anyone's allowed to make that joke, it's me," Stuart laughs. "And if you ever need to talk, I'm only ever a Facebook message away, don't forget that. I might not be the fountain of wisdom my wife is but I can always lend an ear."
"Same applies for me," Jacinta says, giving me another gentle hug.
"Me too, mate," Keith says. "'Course, with kids 2 and 3 on the way, my free time's gonna go out the window, but that's what friends are for."
"And I'm sure you know my wife's catchphrase by now," Stuart chuckles.
"What catchphrase is that?" Grandma asks.
"You can never have too many friends," the four of us- and, much to my surprise, a few people from surrounding tables- say simultaneously.
"Well I would've thought that was obvious!" Grandma says with a snort of laughter. "We should let you go, your match is about to start."
"Actually, I- I kinda need to use the toilet first," I say.
"Me too," Stuart says as we both get up and head to the coffee's shop's facilities.
"Huh," Jacinta remarks. "I thought it was only women who go to the toilet in groups?" Stuart and I both roll our eyes, before looking at each other and nodding.
"GIRL," we respond simultaneously, before sharing a fist bump and heading to the toilet.
When we enter the restroom, I pause briefly as Stuart steps up to a urinal, unzips his fly and proceeds to pee in a way that obviously comes naturally to him, but I know for a fact wasn't an option as recently as two years ago.
"Problem?" Stuart asks. "Kinda crossing some boundaries here, mate."
"Huh?" I ask, before grimacing as I realise what Stuart's saying. "Oh, umm, sorry, just- just need to use a cubicle, you know... And not, umm, not because I need a crap-"
"You don't need to tell me," Stuart shrugs. "Betting you've got a thousand questions, and I am happy to answer them, but maybe in private, eh?"
"Umm, sure," I say as I sit down in my cubicle and wince at the very feminine sound of my urine tinkling against the bowl. "Do you have any operations left at all?"
"Nope," Stuart replies. "All done now. You haven't even started yet, have you?"
"Apart from T, I'm completely 'unaltered'," I reply. "Not even eighteen yet, heh."
"Ooh, of course," Stuart says. "Your birthday on the 30th, isn't it?"
"Yep," I say as I leave the cubicle and wash my hands. "Two days earlier than it should be, if you believe my mum, heh."
"Mate, your eighteenth falls on a Saturday," Stuart retorts. "Sounds like you were born on exactly the right day to me!"
"I guess," I laugh.
"Mine was a Sunday," Stuart says as we reenter the main area of the coffee shop. "Trust me, I know. Doing anything special?"
"Probably just hanging out with friends," I reply, which prompts a pause from my older friend. "...Stu?"
"Hmm?" Stuart replies. "Oh, umm, nothing. Gotta get to the match now, don't want to miss the best team in London batter the best- well, only- team from Brighton, heh!"
"You and Jacinta got a bet going?" I ask, making Stuart wince as a familiar glamorous woman approaches us pushing a stroller containing a tiny baby girl, who is, naturally, wearing a tiny Chelsea shirt.
"He doesn't," Jamie says, "because he actually wants to come home tonight."
"...And Jacinta wouldn't take the bet because it's obvious Chelsea are going to win," Stuart says smugly.
"And she has infinitely more sense than you, BOY," Jamie says. "I would say 'no offence, Ian', but offence is kinda intended, heh!"
"Offence taken," I say, before sharing a quick hug with the blonde transwoman.
"Ah, and you must be Ian's grandmother!" Jamie chuckles. "I'm Jamie, Jamie-Lee Milton."
"Oh, even I know who you are!" Grandma chuckles as she shares a handshake with the young mother.
"I hope Stuart wasn't being a nuisance and they didn't spend the whole time talking about football?" Jamie asks.
"Actually he is a very mature and kind young man," grandma says. "I'm glad Ian has a good male role model to look up to." The subtext of grandma's compliment is obvious- that she wishes that my biological family could be even a fraction as supportive and loving as my 'adopted' family.
"Aww, that's so kind of you to say!" Jamie coos, cuddling her blushing husband. "Just hope it isn't another five months before we see you again in London. I mean, okay, you're not going out with Ella anymore, but you can always come to see us, all you have to do is ask."
"For my birthday at the start of February, if nothing else," Jacinta says.
"...I'll think about it," I say. "Okay, I'll almost certainly come."
"Yay!" Jacinta giggles. "Always wanted a little brother, heh!"
"We'll let you head back to Cardiff," Jamie says. "Think Olivia's starting to get a little restless in the noise, heh. And no, I am NOT taking her into the stadium!"
"A little treasure like that?" Grandma asks. "I should hope not!"
"Aww, thanks!" Jamie giggles. "Oh, and send my love to your friends and your girlfriend in Cardiff, okay Ian?"
"Will do," I say, before an idea pops into my head. "Actually, before I go, can I ask just one tiny favour, please?"
The following morning, I'm back in my home- my HOME- in Cardiff, relaxing on my sofa with my girlfriend snuggled up next to me, watching a video on my phone.
"Hi Chloe!" The image of Jamie calls out from my phone. "Hope you had a great Christmas, that you're not working TOO hard, and that this awesome young man isn't being too much of a pain! If he is, give me a call and I'll sort him out, hehe!"
"Oh my god, that is SO cool," Chloe gushes as we play the video a dozen times back-to-back.
"Better than any of my other presents?" I ask.
"Well, duh!" Chloe giggles. "I just wish I could give you something that could make up for the Christmas you had at your parents'..."
"Well, it IS my birthday in three days," I say.
"Oh don't worry," Chloe chuckles. "I'm gonna be spoiling you rotten on your birthday! But that's then, and this is now..." I smile as Chloe once again grabs my hand and positions it on her thigh, and as I discovered on Christmas Day, I much prefer the feel of tights when they have her legs inside them.
"I'm- I'm going to go to the shops," grandma suddenly announces from the kitchen, startling me and Chloe. "Do you two want anything?"
"Umm, no, I'm fine, thank you Mrs. Jones," Chloe replies.
"Do- do you want me to come with you?" I ask.
"And leave your guest all alone? Don't be silly," grandma says with a sly smile. "I'll be back in about an hour. You two have fun!"
"Will do," I say.
Naturally, within seconds of grandma leaving the house, Chloe has practically jumped on me and forced her tongue down my throat, and moved my hand to a position MUCH higher on her thigh.
"Do- do you want-" I stammer, before being silenced by another kiss and led upstairs to my bedroom by my suddenly VERY excited girlfriend...
So, another Christmas has come and gone, as has another confrontation with my 'family', but I don't feel nearly as stressed as I did this time last year, as I have far more in my life than I did before. I have an amazing girlfriend, friends who are stronger than ever, and a support network in London who have shown that you don't need to be related by blood to be a real family.
My parents can take a running jump for all I care. I don't need them. I'm almost certainly better off without them. And with or without them, my life is mine to live the way I see fit. I'm male, I'm nerdy, and I love every second of being those two things.
My name has always been Ian. I have always been a boy. And my life has only just begun!
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