The White Gull


The White Gull

.

By Pipkin Holister


Chapter 1

The world had recently emerged from the tribulation of the Great War that had cast its dark shadow across Europe. Peace and a feeling of confidence had once more sprung up across England. The twenties were a new era where hedonism seemed to have taken hold as the pendulum of social norms reached towards a more modern era. This all coincided with my own emergence from the chrysalis of childhood into a, some may say, precocious young adult of seventeen years. Too young to have been troubled directly by the war, I was born to indulgence as the swinging twenties gripped the spirit of the times. Not my real name, I was usually called Buntie. Legend has it that it was my sister Emma who had first coined the name 'Buntie' for me while I was still a babe in arms. Emma hotly denies the accusation but somehow the name stuck.

My father Lord James Fitzgerald was a viscount and had died when I was still very young; I'm sure our household would have been very different had he survived the atrocities of Ypres. To my elder sister Emma and myself, our father had been a rather distant man and I hardly retained any memory of him; it may be considered callous of me but his loss was seen by Emma and myself as an almost abstract sadness. We could appreciate the tragedy and futility which we expressed with our own tears but we could not quite feel his absence as a loss. It was merely the continuation of the status quo. My father was noted by his long absence from our lives and now that situation had simply become a permanence.

His younger cousin Ernest, also a Fitzgerald, lived with us and was involved in some business enterprise in the city. The details of his working life were a complete mystery to me. Ernest was twenty years younger than my father and only fifteen years older than myself. Throughout my life he had always been a presence of stability in the house. But in no way did he represent a father figure to Emma and myself. He roamed the household more in the guise of a mildly eccentric elder brother. I must confess that, in light of my 'situation', I rather had something of a childhood crush on Ernest; he was frightfully easy to tease and very forgiving of my often infantile sense of humour.
You may wonder what I mean by 'my situation'; I will come to that presently. In fact let me expose what I refer to with a discussion of a dinner party that was held in my honour on the event of my seventeenth birthday.

The servants had prepared a wonderful birthday feast for me and I had taken the opportunity to officially reveal to everyone a side of me that had hitherto been restricted to a shadowy existence. Emma and Ernest were already familiar with my situation as indeed were, I imagine, much of the household staff. Cajoling our young parlour maid Lizzy into being my unofficial 'ladies maid' meant that many of the 'below stairs' entourage would have suspected my secret. Only my mother and my grandfather were ostensibly in the dark. My grandfather was from my mother's side of the family. Now deep into his seventies he was sometimes apt to show a measure of bewilderment these days. Maude, my grandfather's second wife, had rather colluded with me in my little out-coming adventure. She was a gorgeously fun loving woman with a wicked sense of humour. She had apparently been a stunning beauty in her youth. Still in her mid forties, I took Maude to be an ally. She had seen the exotic during her years in India and nothing seemed to trouble her composure.

I had chosen to wear a rather disreputable, if decorously fashionable, outfit in which to make my announcement. I would make my grand entrance when my family were all at table. I chose to wear a tight fitting fringed flapper dress, very fashionable among the more scandalous girls at the time. I wore my hair in a newly cut 'bob' with a string of pearls around my notably elegant slender neck. Tall heels and dark silk stockings made my legs look divinely sexy, if rather immodest. But it was my special day and caution had been thrown to the wind. I wore smouldering dark eye make-up, crimson lips and my nails were lacquered in a matching shade of varnish. The finishing touch to my outfit was a rather ostentatiously long cigarette holder which was de-rigour among the fashionable floozies of the day. You may wonder if I had intended to shock my mother with this getup – Well naturally I did.

The family were all seated and my lovely elder sister Emma tapped the side of her glass with a fork.

"Buntie wishes to make a rather formal entrance this evening." A little nervous laugh tinkled from her throat. "As it is Buntie's birthday I think we should allow her this moment of indulgence no matter how shocking you may find it."

From the seclusion of the hallway I heard my mother groan; I suspect she had guessed what was to come. But I was undeterred; it had taken until the start of my 18th year for me to gather the courage for this and there was no going back now.

Emma wound up the gramophone and started playing a shellac recording of some fashionable dance band music. At this signal I made my entrance, smiling and dancing to the shockingly modern syncopated jazz.

"Good god what's this?" My grandfather said. He had been brought up to stand whenever a lady entered the room and with Ernest mirroring his chivalrous actions, he raised himself with some effort from his seat.

"Oh no Buntie." My mother sighed. By contrast Maude and Emma clapped with enthusiasm.
"Buntie this is absolutely no way for a seventeen year old to behave." Mother said. "Especially not a seventeen year old boy."

"Mother," I said "Do you really think I look like a boy?"

There was no answer other than a raise of exasperated eyes to the ceiling. I circled round the table and kissed my grandfather on his cheek. I'm not sure that he was at all certain who I was.

"Gentlemen please sit." I said and watched as the two men took their seats. I then moved across to my mother.

"Haven't you always know about this darling?" I said.

"Of course I knew; I thought you might grow out of it if I just ignored it."
"Have you grown out of being a woman?"

"That's entirely different Buntie."

"Let's just enjoy the party," I said "Now that it's in the open we can talk about it later."

The music was ended now and Emma shut down the player, she held her hands out to me and I sat beside her.

"Just who is she?" My grandfather asked Maude as the entrée was being served.

"It's Buntie darling, you remember, your youngest grandchild."

"Ah yes, pretty little thing." he said in what I took to be an attempt to disguise his capricious memory.

By the time dinner was over I was in high spirits. Possibly from having sneaked rather more sips of wine than a seventeen year old probably should. Despite my rather lively appearance, the evening had been resting rather worrisomely on my young shoulders; now that my official outing was over without quite unleashing the catastrophe that it might have done, a sense of relief and euphoria had gripped me.

"Lets all go dancing." I said suddenly seized by a desperation to not let the evening pass too quickly. "I believe there's a dance at the village hall tonight; Jack could drive us down."

Jack Chambers was our chauffeur. Still young he had the bearing of the 'strong silent' type, stoic and a little unapproachable.

"Oh yes." Maude clapped. "Let's go dancing."

"Darling do you really intend going dressed like that?" Mother said to me.

"Oh I know my get up is a rather tarty for a nice young woman but it's just a bit of fun for my birthday; I promise I'll dress like a good girl starting tomorrow."

"Oh Buntie you'll drive me to distraction; what will start tomorrow is a very serious discussion..." She looked across the room at the faces eager to go to the dance. "Very well, go if you must but I don't feel up to dancing; you young ones go." Mother turned her eyes to Ernest. "You must keep your eye on my... my girls Ernest, keep them safe."

"Have no fear Pamela; it's only a village dance."

I burst open the French windows with a little squeal of the hinges and we all tumbled out into the night air. How fresh and calm it felt, chill and sharp and pregnant with promise. It was just the four of us: Ernest, Maude, Emma and myself who were tucked into the Daimler by Jack. It was a frosty evening, already past nine, but sweet Jack treated us with gentle care wrapping us together in a cocoon of woollen blankets as we snuggled shoulder to shoulder in the back of the car.
"Don't spare the horses Jack." Emma giggled as our chauffeur pulled down the driveway that wound through our manicured grounds to the main road.

When we arrived at the dance, the Village Hall was buzzing with music and jostling dancers. There were coloured lights hung across the entrance and across the balustrade. With the bright starlit sky and a hint of frost in the air, the whole scene was magically romantic. I pulled Jack's arm "Come and dance with me." I said.

"I can't, its not my place... er."

"You can call me Miss Buntie." I said to my lovely shy chauffeur.

"Thank you Miss, but it's not really my place."

"It is if I order you." I insisted.

"Is it an order Miss?"

"Don't you want to dance with me? Is that it; do you find me offensive?"

"Oh no Miss, beg pardon, quite the opposite. With all due respect to Miss Emma you are the prettiest girl here."

I took the bashful man by his hand and dragged him onto the dance floor among the whirling young men and their laughing girls and we had a lovely time together before he begged my permission to withdraw. Ernest had been watching me and I walked over to him. He was drinking a glass of beer. I took it from him and sipped at the foamy brew; it was not really to my taste far too bitter. I screwed my nose and handed the glass back.

"Would you like something from the bar?" He asked.

"What have they got?" I asked.

It's mostly beer but there's what appears to be rather watery orangeade and some sort of devilish punch.

"I'll have some devilish punch please Ernest... If I may... and Ernest thank you so much."
"What ever for?"

"For being nice... and supporting me at dinner... and looking after us tonight."

Ernest just smiled at me and disappeared to the bar. I found an old wooden chair and took a seat away from the crowds. The streamers and lanterns and coloured lights that had been hung with gay abandon had transformed the village hall into a dreamscape. Stupidly I had not brought a wrap and as I cooled down from the dancing I felt a chill across my bare shoulders; there may have been a noticeable shiver as I watched Ernest easing his way back across the dance floor.

"Here take my jacket." Ernest said and in a graceful sweep slipped it off and drooped it over my shoulders. It felt warm and comforting, the worsted carried the scent of after shave and tobacco as I tucked myself into its embrace. Ernest gave me my drink; it was sweet and quite strong. I had already drunk far too much at dinner but sipped delicately at its sweetness anyway.

Across the dance floor I could see Emma being mercilessly twirled around by one of the village boys and Maude clutched in the embrace of Colonel Peters the master of the hounds. My eyes fell back to my sister; she was laughing and sparkling, I thought she felt almost as joyously alive and reborn as I did. When I had had enough of the rather sickly sweet punch, I took Ernest's hand and pulled him to his feet.

"Aren't you going to ask me to dance?" I said as I leaned up on my heels and kissed his cheek.

"Oh yes, yes of course. Would you care to dance Miss Buntie?" He said with an ostentatious bow and a devilish twinkle in his eye.

"I thought you'd never ask." I said with a rather mischievous giggle.

Ernest proved to be a divine dancer; light on his feet, he guided my inexperienced yet enthusiastic steps across the floor with masterful delicacy. I felt at ease with him in control; I felt I could just float along beside him with no care in the world being guided and protected by his strong arms. We swirled back to our seats out of breath and I pulled Ernest's jacket across my shoulders again, a swathe of warmth and safety.

"You should dance with Aunt Maude." I said.

"Not up for the Foxtrot?"

"I need to catch my breath darling. But Ernest, I'll definitely save the last waltz for you."

It was then that I saw Tom. He had recently come to work at the Fitzgerald Estate as a stable lad. I had spoken the odd word to him a few times when I was out wandering among the rhododendrons and found him to be surprisingly well spoken and well educated for someone in his rather lowly position. He seemed to me to be maybe a little reserved but very nice.

I fixed my eyes on him willing him to turn his head in my direction. Of course he eventually did and seizing the moment, I smiled across the room at him. Even across the distance I could see him blush as he returned my smile. I waved him over and I could sense a little reluctance as he made his way across the dance floor and stood before me.

"Tom, it's so nice to see you here, are you with anyone?"

"No... I..."

"You are shocked to see me dressed like this?"

"I am a little... I don't know what I should call you."

"Just call me Buntie... Miss Buntie if you feel the need to be more formal."

"Yes Miss Buntie then."

"Won't you ask me to dance?" I said.

"Well... yes Miss I would love to." He said.

As he took my hand we drifted across the floor together, both of us clumsy and ill practised at dancing. We laughed as we collided with a gyrating Maude and Ernest almost sending them crashing into a table piled with cakes and sandwiches. As our dance came to an end, I felt that Tom's discomfort with me was easing and I was reluctant to let Tom's hand go; there was something about the blueness of his eyes that seemed captivating. Nevertheless we inevitably drifted apart; I watched him walk across the room and then turn to look at me one more time. I'm not sure that he saw my lips mouth the 'thank you' that I sent to him across the dance floor.

It was after midnight before the band announced the final dance of the evening. I felt elated, accepted finally for who I was and mellow beyond belief as I melted into Ernest's arms for the last waltz. When all was done, the lights dimmed and the band fallen silent, we stood once more under the sky unwilling to let the magic of the night drift away too soon. In the large square there were loitering couples, dallying, embracing, shrunk up under the cover of the trees; so silent, so absorbed in each other, that I had to turn my eyes away as if I was intruding into some sacred and eternal ceremony that I longed to be a part of.

We found Jack back at the car shivering in the cold.

"Oh you poor man," I said "you should have stayed with us at the dance or at least got inside the car."

"I'm fine Miss Buntie." he said.

"Oh Jack, you are so much more than just fine." I lightly touched the sleeve of his jacket and watched as a whisper of colour returned to his cheeks. So thus, if you also count the young butcher's assistant who cheekily asked me to dance and got more than he expected, then I had flirted with four rather lovely men that evening. Of them all, it was just one who seemed to twine himself into the fabric of my mind so that I could not close my eyes without seeing his face,


Chapter 2

I was still bubbling with excitement as I woke and stretched my arms up to welcome the new day. Not for the first time I had slept in one of Emma's pretty night dresses and I slipped from the warmth of my bed expecting to be able to finally say farewell to William, the boy that I had once been. Emma and I had selected some things from her wardrobe for me to borrow. I hoped that I would soon be allowed to use Mother's accounts and buy my own wardrobe from the shops that she and Emma frequented on Bond Street. The thought sent a shiver of excitement down my back.

What I normally wore as I roamed around the Estate was a pair of riding jodhpurs and a baggy sweater. These were non gender specific and, I felt did not define me as either a boy or a girl. I did from time to time push the boundaries and added a little feminine touch such as a pretty silk scarf which usually went unnoticed and normally drew no comment from my family. What I had dared to wear for my party was a rather extreme demonstration of the girl that lived inside me. However what Emma and I had chosen for my first day as a declared woman was a far more demure outfit and showed the real me. I slid into a pair of silk stockings attaching them to my suspender belt as if it were second nature. Then a pair of silky panties and a long slip. I wore a slim fitting, calf length black skirt and a lacy full sleeve blouse buttoned up to the neck. With my hair brushed to a sheen, a trace of make-up and a long string of jade beads, I felt that I had hit the sort of balance that I wanted. Feminine but modest; maybe the look of a young librarian or an infant's school teacher. I slipped my feet into a pair of dear Emma's moderate heeled court shoes and emerged from my room happy but nervous.

Wishing that Emma might have come to my room to offer a little moral support, I walked down the stairway into the Great Hall to the swish of my silk stockings. Through the open doors of the Morning room, I could see my Grandfather sitting with his nose buried in 'The Times'. He was still dressed for outdoors, his ancient elm walking stick by his side. He had clearly recently returned from his morning walk in the grounds. Jasper our spaniel lay still panting and muddy pawed at his feet. As I approached, Jasper's tail started its involuntary beating against the floor. It was enough to alert Grandfather to my presence. He looked up over the top of his newspaper and with a flick of his fingers invited me to come over. As I walked towards him he patted the seat beside him on the sofa.

I sat next to him him and kissed his cheek snuggling up to him as I had done when I was little.

"How are you today Grandfather?" I said.

"I'm rather well today. Sometimes the old memory gets a little clouded but a bracing walk down to the lake sends those cobwebs scattering."

I pulled myself closer to him and lay my cheek against his shoulder.

"So Buntie... You've decided to become a girl eh?"

I adored my Grandfather and hoped that this would not trouble him.

"I've always been a girl Grandfather." I said "It's just my body that had different ideas."

He nodded and took my hand.

"Don't tell dear Emma I said so but you have always been the prettiest of my grandchildren. I always knew you were different."

"You don't mind?" I said.

"I've lived long enough to know, my dear child, that all that matters in this world is love. I will love you no matter what. The fact is you make a damn fine girl. I can't really imagine you ever growing into a man."

I felt the urge to burst into tears but my composure was saved by the appearance of Aunt Maude. I called her 'aunt' for want of a better term – just what do you call your grandfather's second wife who is the same age as your Mother? Grand-step-mother? – I hardly think so. Maude bent down and kissed her husband before straightening his errant tie. She turned to me with a smile.

"Now you look more demure today Buntie, very pretty."

"Thank you, last night's outfit was a little provocative I know."

"I suspect there was method in your madness; you probably want to present your mother with a less alarming prospect this morning."

"How well you know me Aunt Maude." I said.

"Actually there is news on that front: Lady Pamela is waiting for you in the breakfast room. I believe she has something important to say to you."

"Oh I'd better go and see what she wants."

"Buntie darling, don't expect too much from her just yet... Allow her some time."

Aunt Maude's words did nothing to ease my nervousness as I trotted along the hall. However my fingers were optimistically crossed in the hope that my Mother had at least opened the door a crack into accepting that I was a girl and she would help rather than hinder the struggle I was embarking upon to meet my destiny.

I opened the heavy oak door to the breakfast room and found my Mother alone. A half empty cup of coffee sat before her. There were still eggs and sausages being kept warm over the spirit burners. Still a mound of toast uneaten with butter and marmalade in little silver dishes.

As my mother lifted her eyes to me I could see the disappointment in her eyes. My appearance clearly did not meet with her approval and a cloud fell over me.

"Come in and get some breakfast; we need to talk."

I took a glass of orange juice and sat at the table opposite my mother feeling her gaze burn into me.

"Is that all you intend having?" She said.

"I'm not actually very hungry."

"No, I imagine not." She took another mouthful of coffee and pulled a face. "The damn stuff's gone cold waiting for you."

I didn't really feel I could be blamed for that and did not respond.

"William this freakish behaviour of yours simply has to stop. Do you hear me?"

The name 'William' stung me like slap in the face. I stared at her unable to form any words. It seemed suddenly and painfully apparent that the optimism in which I had woken was ill founded.

"I intend getting Ernest to take you into town to get you a hair cut in a style that is more suitable for a young gentleman. You can return those clothes to Emma and I shall be having stern words with her for encouraging this nonsense."

"It's not Emma's fault." I said "Don't you see I am just not a boy, not in any way that counts. Even Grandfather agrees."

"Does he indeed. William your grandfather is not the man he used to be, we all love him dearly but the years have left him with a tendency to confusion and his opinion can not be taken seriously."

"Why do you hate me so much Mother?" I could see that my accusation had hurt her and that little place where my heart lived felt sorrow for that but my disappointment and anger were the stronger of my emotions.

I ran from the room across the hall to the main entrance doors and heaving them open I raced down the ancient stone steps across the lawns until I was out of breath. I turned back and saw that Mother had followed me. She had stopped by the great Oak gathering her breath. I did not want another confrontation and headed along the lake edge and then up towards the stables. Persephone my chestnut pony was stabled there and I always found a sense of calmness when I spent time in her gentle company. The sweet smell of hay on her breath and the musk of her sweat had always been like a balm to my troubled soul. As I rounded the corner of the stable yard, a little unsteady in Emma's shoes, I ran headlong into Tom sending his wheelbarrow full of horse dung and straw across the freshly hosed cobbled yard.

"I'm sorry I'm sorry." I gasped and then, unable to help myself, collapsed into tears. Tom opened his arms for me saying nothing he just held me tight until my sobs had stopped.

"Do you think I'm a freak?" I gasped.

"A freak? No I don't think so... I find you pretty and likeable... I might even be attracted to you if you..."

"If I was not a boy." I said.

"I have no wish to offend you but I only like girls in that way."

"Of course you do Tom... The fact is, inside this body I am a girl."

I sniffed away my tears. I had discovered from Emma that Tom, second name Chatsworth, was 20 and had clearly had a decent education, he was strongly built and as handsome as I imagined Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights to be; as far as anyone knew he was still unattached. But more than that, he was filled with a natural kindness that flowed from every pore of his being. If only he could see the girl inside me.

"Don't I look like a girl?" I said.

"Yes you do, and a very pretty one. Even if you were a real girl, I still don't see us as social equals."

"And if I was a real girl and we were social equals?" I prodded.

"Well if you were a scullery maid then I'd probably ask you to Marry me in a second." His words were spoken with a soft self effacing laugh and I wished, just for a precious moment, that they had been spoken seriously. I wanted to open myself up to him, tell him of my troubles but somehow the words would not come. Instead I blurted out something off topic:

"So just what is an educated man like you doing working as a stable lad?"

"Well that's a long story but in essence, I simply need the money."

"Someday I'll get you to tell me the story... but I must not hold you up. Thank you for being kind to me Tom."

As I turned to go, he caught me by my arm.

"Before you go... I'm know it's not my place but... I saw something the other day and thought of you."

"Go on."

"Wait there a minute will you?" Tom disappeared into the tack room where the saddles and bridles were kept and emerged with a newspaper. It was not one we took at the house. "I saw this article, I don't want to speak out of turn but your situation is well known by the staff and, well most of us, have the greatest sympathy for you." He thrust the tabloid newspaper into my hands. It had been folded to highlight a brief account of an American soldier who had been medically transformed into a woman. There were before and after pictures. The soldier in question looked like any normal man but the woman he had become was quite beautiful. "I just wanted you to know that you are not lone in the world there are others like you and now, it seems, medical science has found a way to help.

"May I keep this?" I said.

"Yes, of course... I found it a few days ago and kept it for you but the opportunity didn't arise until now."

"That's so thoughtful of you Tom." I said and rested my hand on his arm.

"I must get on..." He said and I could sense his discomfort. Undeterred I took the opportunity to snatch a brief kiss of thanks on Tom's cheek and suddenly felt a little optimism creep back and start to brighten my sadness. I turned and ran back to the house. Mother was no where to be seen so I ran up to Emma's room. She was sitting on her window seat writing a letter.

"I heard that things didn't go well with Mother." She said as she placed her silver fountain pen down and held her arms out for me. I sank into her comforting embrace.

"Don't give up darling, I'm sure Mother will come round. Just give her a little time."

"I don't know, she wants Ernest to take me into town and get all my lovely hair shorn off."

"Oh Buntie, after we got it looking so pretty."

"She hates me, I know it."

"No I don't think so... She has spoken to me about you and she is so worried about what will become of you. What she's doing is because she loves you; it may be misguided but she doesn't hate you Buntie."

"She called me William." I said as if it were a crime to call your son by his given name. Emma hugged me and as she did Tom's folded newspaper that I had been clutching fell from my fingers onto the floor.

"What's this?" She said.

Brightening a little I picked up the paper and showed her the article.

"This is so interesting, you must show it to Ernest maybe he can find out more about this."
"Do you think he might?"

"Ernest adores you, of course he will do his best to help you." She stood up and took my hand. "I think Ernest is still in the drawing room, lets go and see him now."

We found him where Emma had left him, he was riffling through an avalanche of business papers with what appeared to be little enthusiasm.

"Ernest, read this." Emma called as she thrust the newspaper in front of his astonished face. It took him several minutes to fully digest what he had read.

"This is very interesting Buntie but you must accept that this particular rag is not known for its journalistic integrity. It might just be some sensationalist invention."

"Oh don't say that, is there any way you might find out if it's really possible to intervene medically in that way?"

"Well I was up at Oxford with a very clever chap who was studying medicine. He's actually built up quite a reputation as a top notch gynaecologist these days. If anyone knows about this sort of thing then he will."

"Will you speak to him Ernest?" I said.

"Yes I will, but I have to warn you that your mother has rather put her foot down on this issue. She's asked me to take you into town to get you a haircut and get you measured for a couple of decent suits."

"She told me." I said, then placing my hand on his arm: "Darling Ernest you won't do that will you?"

"We may have no choice Buntie but I'll try to delay things as long as possible."

"I made my best effort to look respectable and demure this morning and Mother was just horrified at how I looked; you might think she would have some sympathy for me."

"Buntie my dear child, you may ultimately have to come to terms that your future lies with you adapting to life as a boy again."

I could feel my eyes flooding with tears.

"I think I'd rather be dead." I said and ran to my room where I collapsed on my bed.


Chapter 3

I managed to avoid my Mother for the rest of the morning. Skipping lunch I slipped back outside into the calming tranquillity of the grounds, For some reason I found myself drawn back towards the stables. I found Mr Moffat the man in charge of our horses. He was a kindly man and must have been almost the age of my grandfather but was still capable of putting in a good days work. He had a natural affinity with the horses, his simple presence could take away the flared nostrils and trembling legs of the most nervous and highly strung thoroughbred. He had much the same effect on me. He looked up with his kindly eye as I approached.

"Hello Mr Moffat," I said as I kicked at a few loose strands of straw to avoid the interrogation of his all seeing eyes. "I was hoping to run into Tom."

"Ah... Were you now... the handsome Tom Chatsworth. Now don't you go breaking that lad's heart Miss Fitzgerald, he's been through a lot just lately." I adored the fact that he had called me 'miss' without my having to suggest it... if only my mother could be as understanding.

"I have no intention of breaking anyone's heart," I said indignantly. "I just find myself happy in Tom's company."
Mr Moffat smiled and then chuckled which made me giggle in embarrassment.

"Funny you should talk about young Tom... In fact he has been asking about you just lately, just in that quiet way the lad has."

"About me? What did he want to know?"

"Well I'm guessing he was interested to discover any romantic connections you might be involved in."

"There is absolutely no one... especially considering my situation which you are fully aware of."

"That's what I told him, he didn't seem to take the news badly."

"Really? So where may I find him?"

"He's taken Lady Pamela's grey mare Lucina down to the bottom meadow. She's due to foal in a day or so and a little peace and quiet will do her the world of good."

"I'll see if I can find him then. Thank you Mr Moffat..." I turned to leave but saw his eyes still resting on me. I braved another question: "Mr Moffat... do you think it would be wrong for someone like me... to form a romantic connection with a man."

"I've seen many things in my life that have churned my stomach... the way supposedly decent folk treat each other... All I know is young miss, that there can never be anything wrong with love as long as it's given truly. No matter what the Church or the outdated morals that them arrogant one eyed men in Parliament choose to saddle us with; to my thinking, if two people have love for each other then they'll get my blessing all day long... All day long I say."

His words nestled in my heart and made me smile. I headed down past the hollow where the massed willows were already turning to their green splendour. Climbing the gentle rise I reached the fence that edged the bottom meadow. I could see Tom; he seemed to be talking to my mother's mare and she nuzzled the palm of his hand as he fed her a carrot. I don't know why but my heart seemed to lurch in my chest as he turned, by some instinct, in my direction.

There was hard work in the job that Tom had taken, there can be no denying that, but there was also a simple contentment, a peaceful existence in living among these most generous of creatures. Tom patted the mare and then marched briskly up the gentle slope towards me with the mare following as if she too craved Tom's company.

"Hello Tom,' I said "I hope I'm not interrupting your work."

"No Miss... would it matter if you did?"
"My mother might think so." I said. Tom did not reply he simply nodded as if he, by some strange instinct, knew everything there was to know about me and even so still chose not to avoid my company.

"Mr Moffat warns me that I should not go breaking your heart." I said. There was still no reply just a quiet smile. "I don't want to make you uncomfortable Tom... just tell me to go away if you like... But I'd like to be your friend... if you could tolerate being friends with someone who dresses like a girl."

"After reading that newspaper article, I can understand that your your feelings are real. I know that you believe that you are a girl inside."

"So?"

"I like you as a person... If I'm honest I've already started to think of you as a girl. I don't really know what you want from me. My life has been shattered recently and I don't think I could stand to be hurt any more. Mr Moffat might be right... about my heart."

Tom was young and strong but beneath that veneer I saw a fragility that made me want to hold him tight in my arms.

"Tell me about your past Tom, I want to know all about your troubles." I said. He seemed reluctant to speak of his past at first but after a little gentle probing he eventually started to open up to me.

"Well, my family owned a horse breeding property nestled above a beautiful valley near the Sussex coast. My father and his father before him were quite successful when the world was drawn by the brawn of horses. But things are changing fast, when did you last see a horse draw carriage in London?" He asked and of course I knew that he was right. The motor engine offered us a better cleaner world and soon the sight of horses in our towns and cities would be a rarity.

"Go on Tom... finish your tale."

"I had no other ambition than to walk in my father's footsteps... As the dark clouds of the Great War gathered, the War Department had an inexhaustible need of horses and almost our entire stock was requisitioned. There was supposed to be compensation but it never really materialised." Tom's words held the shadow of deep emotion as he continued. "My father borrowed heavily to keep the property going, we had a few foals and some yearlings that the military had no use of, but there was no income to be made from them in the short term and gradually, one by one, my father's creditors would no longer support us. The property was sold and I don't believe Father could tolerate the shame.

They found him mortally wounded up on the high point of our land where the view across the downs rolling to the coast is one of the finest in England. His treasured Purdey shotgun with both chambers spent, lay at his side. My mother went to live with her sister in France and I eventually found work here.

I found the story so moving that my eyes brimmed with emotion.

"That is so, so sad Tom." I whispered.

"Don't upset yourself Miss Buntie, I have found real happiness again here on the Fitzgerald Estate."

"I'm so glad to hear that Tom." Tom nodded and I felt that the tenuous bond that had drawn us together had somehow strengthened.

"I should be getting back to the stables." He said.

"Yes, of course... may I talk to you again sometime?"

"I would like that." He said as he took his leave.

"Oh Tom... can we drop the 'Miss'? Please just call me Buntie." He didn't reply but as he turned his head back to me I could see a smile shining from the deep blueness of his eyes.

I walked back towards the house lost in my thoughts unaware of the mortal danger that lurked behind the rhododendron bushes. The attack was swift and lethal:

"William, there you are. Come along to the drawing room at once, There are things that need to be settled."

"Yes Mother." I said as I accepted that any attempt at escape would be futile. Even so I was rather slow in making my appearance at the drawing room. My mother was seated in the heavy chair that had always been my Father's when he was home. It seemed too big for her; dwarfed by the folds of buttoned leather she seemed lost and I felt a pang of sorrow that my behaviour was causing her distress.

"Come and sit down." She said. "I am sure you are able to guess the gist of what I have to say to you... It is evident that you have not changed out of your sister's clothes yet but this really can not continue for a moment longer. When Ernest can find the time, he seems to be struggling to do so at the moment," She added with the trace of annoyance, "he will ensure that you will adopt the appearance of the young man that you are. William, as the eldest, the only son, you have inherited your father's title. You are not just William but are Lord William Fitzgerald. With such a title comes responsibility." She sighed and I had the impression that she was fighting back her emotions. "We have rather fallen short on your education..."

"I am perfectly literate in French as well as English, even my Latin is passable. I can read music and my piano has been praised by all who have heard it."

"Yes, yes but what do you know of the world of business and politics or mathematics and science?"

"I know all I care to know Mother."

"Never-the-less, I wish you undertake some formal study to pass the Oxford entrance examination and then you will take a degree, political history would be my choice but we can consider your course more carefully once you have had time to think about your options.

"This is not what I want Mother... You know me... you know who I am. Please don't force me to become someone that is totally alien to my very soul."

"You think you are a girl. You intend abdicating your title?"

"The title means nothing to me it is an unwanted burden... Let cousin Ernest be the viscount. Mother don't you want me to happy?"

"Of course I do... don't you see darling I'm trying to save you from a life of shame and isolation. Just what sort of role do you imagine you could take pretending to be a woman for the rest of your life."

"There is no pretending involved mother. Just being allowed to be a woman is all I want." I remembered what Tom had said to me in jest that he would marry me if I were a scullery maid. I let my emotions rule over my common sense and blurted out: "Forget me being a viscount, I would be happier being a scullery maid if I could just live as a woman."

Clearly I had now exhausted Mother's patience.

"You think so?... Very well." She rang the bell for Robinson our butler.

"Lady Fitzgerald, may I be of assistance?" He said a few moments later.

"Thank you Robinson, would you transmit my complements to Mrs Priestley and ask her to come to the drawing room."

"Very well your Ladyship."

Mrs Priestley was our cook and she had been so since before I was born. I found her to be a rather fearsome woman, lacking in kindness. After a brief time, when a frosty silence had settled over my mother and me, Mrs Priestley appeared at the doorway. She seemed somewhat flustered as if she had been dragged away from some arcane magic which she employed to make the delicious food which we were so lucky to enjoy.

"Was there something you wanted Lady Pamela?"

"Do you think..." My mother said. "That you could make use of this this 'exasperating indigent child' as a scullery maid."

"Lord William, a scullery maid?"

"As you have no doubt noticed, to my shame, my only son believes that he is a girl."

"It's not natural that ain't." Mrs Priestley muttered almost inaudibly.

"Well?" My mother pressed.

"If it's what your Ladyship wants then I'll do my best."

"Very well take her with you now... Are you able to find her some suitable clothing?"

"You mean maid's clothing?"

"I do."

"I'll see what I can find your Ladyship."

"Treat her as a new recruit, no special treatment and find her somewhere to sleep."

"She could share the attic room with Lizzy, if you think that would suitable."

"Two girls sharing the same room... I feel that no propriety would be challenged by that. Do you?"

"No Lady Pamela, if that is your wish."

The next few hours passed in a whirlwind of activity. I was taken up to the rather dismal attic room with bare boards and little by way of furniture. I was grateful to see that there were two single beds. I was unceremoniously stripped of Emma's clothing and told to put on something more appropriate to the duties of a lowly maid: a heavy weave dress made of boiled linen the colour of yesterday's porridge brightened by a little embroidery around the bodice. I was immediately put to work scrubbing pans until my hands were red. In a lull of activity before the afternoon rush to prepare dinner, Mrs Priestley took me to one side.

"I have been told to treat you as a maid and I'll do it, have no fear about that. It may be meant as some sort of punishment – I won't be bothered to know the details. God knows you need bringing to your senses... but know this boy, you were made to be a man by the almighty hand of God and it's the Devil's work that has turned you into this abomination."

I felt like shrinking down until I was invisible, for the first time I had encountered the venom that my mother was trying to protect me from. At last I understood. But the cook's evil words had only served to strengthen my resolve; the tears I should have shed were held back tight by an effort of will and I resolved in that moment to play my mothers game until the bitter end.

"Thank you for your wisdom Mrs Priestley." I said as confidently as I could but there was a tremor in my voice. "What shall I do next?"

"You can set to and peel them spuds and no wastage mind."

By the end of the day, I was exhausted. I was young and healthy but was not used to the physical work that had suddenly been dropped on my shoulders. I very quickly formed a new understanding of the demands that we as a family unthinkingly placed on our household staff. As we were released from our daily duties, I found Lizzy who was still my friend and she took my hand and led me up the creaking stairs to the attic.

"Don't take any notice of what cook says Miss." She said to me. The Ladyship will soon come to her senses and you'll be back with your family before you know it."

"I think you should call me Buntie,"I said "we are equals now."

Lizzy just laughed, she could see the truth. In this world, by an accident of birth, we would never be seen as equals. I had been born to privilege and had accepted it as normal. I even allowed myself to believe that I was somehow better than than those who served me. I now knew the truth.

"You can have this bed. There's a night dress for you." Lizzy sat on her bed pulling off her stockings.

"Thank you Lizzy, I'm not sure I could bear this without you as a friend."

She patted her bed inviting me to join her on it.

"So... are you sweet on Tom?" she said.

"What ever makes you think that Lizzy?" I said.

"Oh... nothing and we both set to giggling."


Chapter 4

The life of a scullery maid, I have to admit, was a shock to my system. I had almost no time for myself and as bedtime approached I was usually too exhausted to do anything other than fall asleep. I had to be up before the sun as the household had to be running at speed before, 'them upstairs' roused lazily from their slumber. I believe that I acquitted myself reasonably well, even Mrs Priestley could find nothing to criticise in my work though she continued to make it known that I would always be an abomination until I let God back into my heart. Mrs Priestley held one particular view of my nature and some of the others like Lizzy, dear Mr Moffat and a certain stable lad of his, held a rather kinder view. The rest, I came to understand, seemed to hold no strong opinion either way; I was just another of those eccentric aristocrats who had the luxury of being able to indulge their own particular peccadilloes. My life, beyond furnishing a little gossip, was of no interest to them and I could understand that, welcome it even.

Whenever I encountered any of my family, I was made to curtsey and lower my eyes. At first I found this funny but after a few weeks, Her Ladyship's insistence that I be fully treated as a maid, soon lost all its humour for me. I had no idea how long my mother intended my 'punishment' to continue but, despite my earlier resolve, found myself growing weary of this new life.

Emma, who's company I craved, refused to treat me any differently. She constantly sought the opportunity to meet with me. Sometimes, in the evening, I took her to my shared attic room. The setting sun drawing a golden square of sunshine across Lizzie's bed. There all three of us would sit talking and conspiring. Emma would sometimes bring a little treat, maybe some chocolate or a bunch of flowers, that she had liberated from the Great Hall to brighten our little room. Lizzy and Emma both helped me survive my expulsion, but the one who made it tolerable was Tom. As often as we were able, we ate our meals together. Sometimes we stole a few moments in the evening to walk in the grounds and when I was with Tom, I not longer felt ostracised. He gave me the most precious gift of all; the gift of acceptance. I even dared to believe that he not only saw me as a girl but was slowly coming to accept that I really was a girl.

After a little negotiation Tom occasionally managed to arrange for our days off to coincide. I remember it was the day that Lucina dropped her pretty little foal, when Tom first asked me to go to the cinema with him. I was beyond excited at the prospect and got Lizzy, when she was upstairs, to ask Emma if I could borrow something nice to wear. Emma was delighted and sneaking down the back stairs, carefully avoiding Mrs Priestley, she brought me her fur collared camel coat with a matching small cloche hat, the lovely cream satin dress that Aunt Maude had bought her as a birthday gift, some sheer stockings and her favourite pair of high heeled shoes. She washed my hair with some sweet smelling shampoo and brushed it until it shone again like it used to. Before leaving me, she gave me a dab of her perfume and with a little powder and lipstick, I felt transformed from a dowdy maid into a lady.

I met Tom by the main gate, it was twilight and as he saw me standing waiting I heard a sudden intake of breath. I turned to him.

"It is you... I wasn't sure... you look so... "

"Pretty?" I offered.

"No, far beyond that." He stood looking at me in my finery without speaking until I grew embarrassed.

"Shall we go?" I said.

He took out his pocket watch, one of the few heirlooms that had survived his family's bankruptcy. "Yes we'd better get a move on." he said and we walked briskly down the lane and took the motor omnibus into town. I had rarely been to the cinema it was seen by my mother, who was so old fashioned in many ways, as a little beneath our dignity. It was perfectly acceptable to go to the opera or the ballet or even to a West End play. But never to the music halls or the cinema which she assumed to be the exclusive domain of the lewd and boorish, those mythical 'great unwashed masses'.

I held a different opinion. We went to see 'The thief of Baghdad' staring the dashing Douglas Fairbanks. I thoroughly enjoyed the film but other aspects of my evening were even nicer. When Tom, rather diffidently took my hand, I felt that I really was his girlfriend. I rested my cheek on his shoulder and Tom leaned into me with gentle affection. On the silver screen, we watched the hero flying across the exotic skies of Baghdad on a magic carpet; I felt to have found my own magic carpet that evening.

When the film was over, we emerged hand in hand into the fresh night air. We walked a little way to where we could catch the last omnibus and Tom drew me into a little shadowed alcove and very tenderly, he brushed his lips against mine and I pulled him towards me, unable to stop myself, I returned his kiss. This was the first real kiss I had ever known and it lifted me up from my trivial sorrows giving me a glimpse of Nirvana.

The next day, my life retuned to the drudgery that I was slowly becoming accustomed to. While I was elbow deep in hot soapy water scrubbing the breakfast pans. Mr Robinson, our very straight laced butler, entered the scullery. He looked at me with the usual inscrutable expression that he had reserved for me since my fall from grace. I am certain that he did not know what to make of me.

"Lord William." he said rather taking me by surprise. "Mr Ernest has requested that you join him in the library."

"Oh... should I go straight away?" I said as I towelled my soapy hands on my pinafore.

"I believe that is what Mr Ernest desires."

I knocked on the library door and entered. Maintaining the status of a maid I curtsied and stood with my hands demurely clasped in front of me.

"You wanted to speak to me Sir." I said.

"For God's sake Buntie stop all this nonsense; come and sit down I've got some news."
He told me that his gynaecologist friend has written to him about his enquiries. Ernest quoted from the letter:

"Bartholomew says your condition which he calls 'gender dysphoria' is 'more common than is generally known.' I find that rather encouraging news... He goes on to suggest that the outcomes for such people may be unfortunate."

"What does he mean by that?'' I said.

"Well, the opportunities for such people to lead a normal life are rather limiting and they often have to face physical abuse..." Ernest stopped, I knew that this was embarrassing for him. I stood up and took his hand.

"Is there any good news?"

"Ah yes, indeed there is." He skimmed through the letter until he found what the section wanted.

"Yes, here it is... 'Recent developments in endocrinology and surgical techniques have opened the door to offering real hope to these troubled individuals."

"So it is possible." I said.

"He says that if I wish, he will delve deeper into the issue and have discussions with colleagues from different specialist fields who may know more."

"Tell him to find out all he can, will you?"

"Dearest Buntie, a letter will be dispatched this very day."

"Thank you so much Ernest, this has given me real hope."

"I thought it might," he said "now when are you going to come back upstairs and join the family again; life is so dull without you rattling about the place and disturbing everyone's composure."

"That's entirely up to Lady Pamela." I said. "It was she who placed me in this position."

"You, young lady, are as stubborn as your mother. I feel I should crack your skulls together."

"I wonder who's would break first." I said but Ernest did not rise to the provocation.

"I'll tell you what I'll do... You know that Maude is on your side in this little family spat?" I nodded "Well if she and I work together, nibbling at your mother's sharp corners from different directions, maybe we can make her foundations crumble and she may finally regain her senses."
I laughed at the imagery. "I wish you would Ernest... I'm still angry with Mother but I love her and miss her so much..." I suddenly burst into tears. I had held back my feelings for so long that it was inevitable that eventually I would crumple in a soggy heap.

Ernest held me tight.

"Listen Buntie... I promise that everything will work out for you. I will make it my life's work if necessary."

I was able to utter a small laugh, Ernest had cheered me up as he always did. I wiped my eyes.

"So," he said "what's the gossip from the kitchen... do they really spend all day plotting our overthrow?"

"You have no idea darling." I said "Just don't take any of the rhubarb pie this evening."

"Is there rhubarb pie? Haven't had that since I was boy."

"Actually no, sorry to get your hopes up."

"Can you stand life below stairs?"

"It's not too bad, most of them are kind to me... I've found a friend..."

"Yes Emma said something... Lizzy is it?"

"Lizzy is a friend yes... I meant someone special."

"Well tell all dear heart."

"His name is Tom. Tom Chatsworth and he works with Mr Moffat in the stables."

"Do I detect a touch of romance in your young life?"

"I'm not sure Tom is quite comfortable with that..." I said.

"How could anyone resist you Buntie?"

I gave Ernest a punch on the arm for his trouble and he laughed at my feeble attempt at assault.

"Now that name 'Tom Chatsworth' rings a bell... he's not a Sussex Chatsworth? – Father treated disgracefully by the War Department?"

"You've heard of him?"

"Of the Father certainly; wasn't he called Matthew? I seem to remember it all ended rather tragically. Good God I had no idea his son was working for us. I should talk to your mother and see if there's something we can do for him."

The library door swung open and Emma marched in. She had no idea that I was in the library and shrieked with pleasure as she saw me.

"Buntie, are you back with us?"

I made an exaggerated curtsey, delivered with maximum irony.

"No Miss, I was summoned up to polish Mr Ernest's shoes." I said.

"One of there days you sense of humour will get you into deep trouble." Ernest said.

Emma, still laughing, grabbed me by the hand.

"Have you two finished because I desperately need to interrogate my sister concerning a certain trip to the cinema."

Ernest waved us away.

"Off you go I have an important letter to write."

Emma dragged me off to her room. We closed the door on the world and she looked at me in my dowdy little dress and pinafore.

"It's such a shame you looked so pretty in my cream satin, and now..."

"I look like a scullery maid."

"Well darling, yes." We both laughed.

"So how did you make your escape?"

"It's just a temporary reprieve, Ernest had some news and sent Robinson for me. The man called me 'Lord William' when I was up to my elbows in dirty pans."

"Our butler is of a different age, I don't think he knows how to deal with you."

"No it's all my fault, as usual."

"Now no sulking... tell me about the date."

"It was wonderful... I really enjoyed the film."

"Yes, yes I don't give a fig about the film... how was the adorable Tom?"

"Tom is such a gentleman, he was the perfect escort."

"Did he kiss you?"

I was silent for a moment.

"He didn't then." Emma said.

"Emma... I think I'm falling in love with him."

"Well of course, ever since the village dance you've been besotted by him."

"I have not." I insisted.

"Did he kiss you?" Emma pressed.

I twirled round with my arms held out until I collapsed on Emma's bed.

"Yes, yes he did and it was absolutely divine."


Chapter 5

The drudgery of my life below stairs continued. I could tolerate the drudgery but not Mrs Priestley's persistent sniping comments. One instance which I will never forget was very hurtful as it held reference to Tom whom I cared deeply about. She had heard about my trip to the cinema and chose to enlighten me on her view of my spiralling 'heathen ways'.

"Not only do you go around defiling the very nature that our Lord has made sacrosanct, but now you are setting about seducing our innocent men folk with you wicked ways. I can't imagine what young Tom sees in you. He suffered a lot what with his family misfortune and now you..." She prodded me in the ribs with a sharp finger, "you with your devil's ways have got your hooks into him." I was determined to maintain my dignity even in the face of such an onslaught and stood in silence while the woman continued her barrage: "The Devil has no power over me even though I can smell the stench of Satan on your breath... No, no fear at all while I wear this round my neck." She fingered the silver cross that she always wore round her neck and lifting it to her lips kissed the cold metal with her cold lips. "I've had words with Tom... With the Lord's grace he is still not beyond redemption; I think you will find him harder to seduce in the future."

I was astonished. The sad woman had excelled herself this time; I should have been angry as well as hurt but it was mostly pity that I felt for her.

"I'm very sorry if my behaviour has upset you Mrs Priestley." I said. She turned away from me contemptuously.

"Go out to the kitchen garden and pluck a bunch of mint..." She said as if her vile accusations had never been made. "Oh yes, and basket of rhubarb... there's been a special request for a pie from upstairs... They always was partial to my rhubarb pie back before the War."

I went out into the garden, happy to feel the sun warm against my shoulders. I drew a little comfort from the stillness of the garden as I plucked the stems of the mint, its fragrance filling my nostrils. Further down the kitchen garden where the dark soil had be enriched with regular diggings of compost was the rhubarb patch. Taking my time, in no hurry to return to the scullery, I wandered down past the runner beans and spring cabbages. I found the rhubarb growing in succulent profusion; unharvested for many a day there was more than enough for my needs. With my kitchen knife, I sliced off some of the better stems and placed them in my basket along with the fragrant mint. As I turned my head there, joy of joys, was Tom. He had just been collecting some misshapen carrots for the horses from the kitchen and was making his way back to the stables.

He smiled as soon as he saw me and my spirits lifted.

"Mrs Priestley tells me she has warned you to steer clear of me." I said.

"She did. Has she been having another go at you?"

"I'm afraid so." I wiped away the single tear that had escaped to run down my cheek.

"My mother seems to be stubbornly playing out her game. She wants me to go up to Oxford and become a politician or something equally ghastly."

"And you are content to continue playing this charade until she gives in?"

"I was at first, when I thought that I could win this battle of wills. I imagined it would be just a few days but Mother has left me down here for seven weeks now and there's no sign that she's about to crumble... Frankly Tom, I'm not sure I have the fortitude for much more, I can see myself crumbling first. The horror of that is that I'll have to pretend to be a boy again... not just for a while but forever... I just couldn't bear that. I'm coming to see that if I have a future at all then it will have to be far from my family home."

"I hope that's not true Buntie, I can see how much you love your family, it would be a tragedy if you were forced to abandon them."

"I know but, Tom, which ever way I turn, I find my path blocked. I know that if I had you by my side, I'd would find happiness again."

"I wish I could take you way from all this, I sometimes dream of being able to raise my own horses again... and in my imaginings you are by my side." Tom said as he gently held my fingers.

"I would love that," I said. "You know I love horses as much as you do."

Tom looked at me, there was an intensity in his eyes that I had never seen before.

"Buntie, I need to tell you something..."

I had the sudden dread that he was going to tell me that he regretted how close we had become, that Mrs Priestly was right about me.

I was wrong.

"Since I first met you," Tom said "I've grown to like you, to finally understand you... with that understanding has grown an affection... I guess I showed that from the kiss I stole the other night. Try as I might Buntie, I can no longer see you as a boy. To me you are a young woman and my feelings for you have become the feelings for a woman."

"Tom," I said "I think I love you... are you saying your feelings are the same?"

"Yes." He said.

We stared into each other's eyes but the passionate moment was cut short by the sound of a voice squawking at me like an angry rook on a bitter winter's morning."

"Where are you, you damned girl?... where's that mint got to?"

And then before Tom's emotions took complete control of him he turned away and ran for the stables.

"I'm coming Mrs Priestley." I called and quickly gathered my things and ran up to meet her before she chanced to see Tom's disappearing shape. I turned back for an instant hoping to catch another glimpse but my dear Tom had already vanished like a capricious apparition.

~o~

The next time that Emma managed to creep up to the attic room, I told her of how I was feeling; that I was on the verge of crumbling to Mother's will.

"I don't know how you've stood it so long darling. I'm sure I would have caved in the minute I set foot in the kitchen."

"You don't know how close I've come over the weeks; it's only my stubbornness that has kept me on my path."

"What are you going to do Buntie?"

I sighed, none of my options held any real appeal for me.

"I think I'll have to run away." I said.

"Oh no Buntie, don't think of that. How will you manage? You have no money, nowhere to go and you're still so young to be on your own."

"There are situations advertised for companions for elderly ladies, maybe I could find such a position."

"I really don't think you've thought this through Buntie. I can see so many pitfalls, you would need references before you would even be considered for such a position."

"You could write me a reference... One from Lady Emma Fitzgerald would be sure to carry some weight."

"Yes... as long as they did not know who I was. And what about Tom? I thought the tapestry of your lives was woven together now."

"I want that so much... I will save money and eventually we will be reunited."

Emma sighed. I could see that she was unconvinced by my idea's; I was hardly convinced myself.

"Buntie, I cannot help you to run away like this, ask anything else and I'll do it, but not this darling. In any case I would miss you so much."

The tipping point for my decision came shortly later. It was another venomous attack from Mrs Priestley. I was intending having my lunch sandwich with Tom up at the stables and wanting to be pretty for him, I dashed up to the attic and put on a little pink lipstick. As I crept back through the kitchen Mrs Priestley noticed me, her eagle eye falling on the pinkness of my lips.

"And now the devil's whore has a painted face." She spat as she grabbed me by my arm and swung me against the wall. The wind was knocked from my lungs as she slapped me across my face and then taking a scouring pad, she scrubbed painfully at my face. I struggled helplessly to free myself from her iron grip but then I heard a voice coming from the doorway:

"Stop that you viscous old witch." I turned my eyes, but I had no need to identify the speaker. I knew the voice as well as I knew my own.

Tom pulled Mrs Priestley off me and put himself between us.

"If you ever raise your hand to her again, I will snap your evil neck." He said in a voice so filled with quiet menace that Mrs Priestley fell back white faced and shocked to the core.

"I'm in charge in the kitchen, you... you have no business here Tom Chatsworth. I'll see to it that you are dismissed for this attack on me, a poor defenceless woman."

Tom ignored her words and taking my trembling hand led me out into the warm midday sunshine. We walked across to the meadow where the new foal stood balanced on legs that look far too long. It frolicked in the meadow with a mix of curiosity and timidity never moving far from its mother. We stood in silence for a while both of us needing to gain our equilibrium.

"I expect I've overstepped the boundaries, I am usually less easily angered." Tom said as he contemplated the absolute certainty of his imminent dismissal.

"Tom, you saved me from that manic woman; in my eyes you are a hero."

"She's just a mad woman... I shouldn't have threatened her... So where to from here?" He said. I could see the despair in his eyes.

"Did you mean it when you said that you loved me?" I said quietly.

"My head tells me that I should run from you but my heart knows the truth... Of course I love you Buntie... I don't think I could bear to be parted from you."

"Then we no longer have any option Tom... we'll have to leave The Estate and make our own way in life."

"I can hardly look after myself let alone take care of a beautiful young lady."

"We'll take care of each other Tom. Listen, something came to me last night while I lay tossing and turning in my bed... You said that your mother lives in France... would she welcome us for a visit?"

Tom seemed to brighten at the idea.

"I'm sure she would; my mother would adore you. But I have no money to pay our fare."

"I have a little money and I'm sure Emma will help us."

"This is foolhardy Buntie, but... shall we?"

"Yes, yes." I said and wrapped my arms round him. I was suddenly excited; the future was far from certain but staying a while with Tom's mother would give us a respite, a little time, when I just knew that more opportunities would arise.

I ran up to Emma's room and found her reading as I burst in.

"What is it?" She said suddenly alarmed. "What have you done to your face?"

"Mrs Priestley took exception to my wearing lipstick... she took to me with a scouring pad."

"That's appalling Buntie, Mother will need to know about this... Has she attacked you before?"

"Not physically but I've had to put up with a constant stream of verbal abuse."

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"Emma what Mrs Priestley did or didn't do is not important any more. Tom and I are leaving." I said.
"When? Where are you going?"

"We're leaving now... but darling sister, I need your help."

"I can't sanction any hare-brained scheme Buntie; I think I should call Mother." She rose from her chair and I clutched at her arm.

"Listen Emma, this is a sensible plan, we are going to stay with Tom's mother in France. We'll be fine. Don't tell Mother until we are long gone."

"Tom's mother? Well that makes some sense I suppose."

"The trouble is we have so little money."

Emma paced up and down her room wringing her hands.

"Emma..." I said desperate for her support.

"Very well, I'll do what I can. I have just a few pounds which you can have and I'll pack you a bag with some clothes and things."

"You won't tell Mother?"

"I'll give you 24 hours but I won't see Mother worried unnecessarily."

"Make it 48."

"Very well darling, but you must write as soon as you are able."

"I will, of course I will. My family are all so precious to me." We held each other, both of us letting the tears flow without constraint.

"When you tell Mother where I've gone, give her my love and say that I hope we will soon be reconciled." I said

"I will... You are my beloved sister, you have always been my sister. I knew you were a girl as soon as you were born despite what Mother said."

"I'll miss you so much Emma."

Me too... God's speed my darling angel."

Early the next morning under the cover of darkness Tom and I walked across the fields, past the old stone Lodge and on to the main road. We took an omnibus to the railway station and we were filled with sadness and excitement in equal measure. We needed to get to Southampton and then take the steamer to the Port of Cherbourg. Tom's mother lived with her new husband on a small farm near the pretty village of Val de Valognes. It was only ten miles or so from the Port so the last part of our journey should be easy.

At the railway station I was shocked by how much the tickets to Southampton cost. It would take almost all of our money.

"It seems we have fallen at the first hurdle." Tom said.

"No we can't give up now... we could stow away on the steamer, it's only a short crossing."
Tom, my sensible Tom, looked unconvinced.

"Please, Tom it's worth a try; it may be our only chance to find happiness." I said as my eyes flooded with tears.

"Don't cry Buntie; you know I can't argue against your tears... very well, if you want to take the risk, we'll buy the rail tickets and just hope that the future will take care of itself."

The rail journey was uneventful as we sped across the summer landscape towards the sea. But we found on arriving that the last steamer had already sailed. It meant having to wait until the morning. We had enough money for some dinner but a room was beyond our means so we strolled the streets until late and then huddled together on a park bench until the morning.

Boarding the steamer was easier than I had imagined. We waited until a group of passengers were ready to climb the gang plank and we merged with them, While they showed their boarding passes we just casually strolled on deck and found seats on the other side of the ship away from the deck officer's eyes. When the ship started to move we held hands and finally took a sigh of relief. We must have been half way across the Channel when the officer who had been checking the boarding passes earlier wandered up onto deck. His eyes fell on us and Tom and I suddenly panicked and briskly moved away. Possibly if we had stayed seated nothing would have happened. But he called out to us:

"Excuse me... You two... Miss... I need to check your boarding passes and passports."

I turned to Tom.

"Passports!" I said, "What a fool I've been. I'm sorry Tom I should have thought. Whenever we went to the continent Mother would always take care of all that stuff."

The officer had caught up to us now and he took my arm. I felt suddenly overwhelmed by panic and pulling free I ran towards the stern of the ship. The deck was wet from the salt spray and my shoes had little grip... I heard Tom call out to me: "Darling be careful..." But it was simply too late, in my panic I slithered into the rail. My momentum carrying me up and over. For an instant I could not believe what had happened. It was as if I was suspended in mid air, not moving, not believing that I could have let this happen. Then I fell, the angry sea churning below me. When I hit the water, it was like a concussion and nothing felt real any more. I was suddenly deep down beneath the waves sinking into the darkness. But there was no panic, I felt a strange calmness fall over me. My only thoughts were for poor Tom left alone as I stared into the hollow eyes of death.


Chapter 6

It was like waking from a deep deep sleep. I saw hazy light and then the blurry image of a face as my eyelids fluttered. Then the sound of a familiar voice.

"Mother Mother... her eyes have opened."

The voice was Emma's and I struggled through an almost impenetrable fog to focus on her face. Slowly my sister's features revealed themselves to me. I tried to sit up but there was pain in my neck.

"Lie still darling." A voice said. It was Mother and I felt her hand take mine, felt her tears against my fingers. I tried to speak but the words would not come. "Hush darling." She said "You're perfectly safe now."

Then I slept again.

They later told me it was another two days before I properly woke and they explained to me what had happened. I was propped up on pillows, the smell of antiseptic strong in my nostrils. By my bedside were my mother and sister. Eventually, after my constant questions, they told me what had happened.

"When the ship had slowed and turned they found you in the water only half alive... If not for the heroic efforts of ship's surgeon you would not have survived. You were left in a coma darling and you were eventually sent here to St Bartholomew's."

I nodded my mouth was dry and I beckoned for some water.

"Here not too much darling, just a sip." Mother said. It felt good to be comforted by her again.
"I love you." I said through the croak of my hoarse voice.

"I love you two Buntie, you have no idea how much. Can you ever forgive me for what I did to you... Emma told me the way Mrs Priestley treated you... I had no idea." Mother pulled a handkerchief from her bag and swabbed at her eyes.

"She's been dismissed." Emma said.

I was pleased that I would never have to see her again but I took no pleasure in hearing that she had lost her job.

"Buntie I need to tell you that I was wrong... wrong about insisting that you were a boy. I don't really understand but Ernest has tried to explain to me what the doctors told him; he has convinced me that your feelings are real. You really are a girl lost in a boy's body. I accept that now and we will do everything we can to help you."

I think I was in tears, but I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. Suddenly energized I asked about Tom:

"Where is Tom?" I said "I thought he might have come to see me."

Emma seemed suddenly overcome with emotion and she stood and moved to the window so that I could not see her tears.

"What is it?" I said. My mother held me in her arms as if I was her baby again.

"Darling you have to be strong... We heard the story from the deck officer; he saw everything... watched helpless as you slipped over the railing. Tom was frantic he reached the railing calling for help; someone threw a life belt overboard... But Tom was so desperate to save you that he put aside his own safety and dived into the sea after you calling your name. The passengers saw him disappear into the foaming churn of the propellers. By the time the ship had slowed and turned there was only one body to be seen."

"No no... We must send boats out there, a search party..." I called trying to struggle from the bed.

"Darling this all happened more than a week ago... there can be no hope now."

"A week... no it can't be..."

It took me a while to fully grasp that I would never see Tom again, that he had died because of my stupid foolishness. When the reality finally struck home I sobbed until there were no more tears and the doctor came and gave me a sedative.

I can't remember much for a while. It seems that I suffered a relapse. But my constitution was strong and in two more weeks I was sent home to convalesce. Slowly my health improved but a dark depression had settled over me. Even my mother's final acceptance of me as a young woman was not enough to lift my spirits.

They took me to Brighton to get some sea air and clutching Emma's arm she and I walked across the shifting shingle down to the waves. Despite the numbing wind I was suddenly overcome again with grief, which rose in me like the moon seen across the water, ghostly yet beautiful with precious memories. I was more unhappy than I had ever been as I looked to the horizon. Out there, lost somewhere in that vast body of water was my darling Tom. In a moment of uncontrolled anguish I screamed out his name into the surf and wind.

"Tom, Tom I'm here... there's no need to search for me any more... darling come home to me... come home." As I called a white gull swooped down towards me as if to acknowledge my sadness. "Find him, find my Tom." I called to the bird and it dipped its wings and headed out to sea as if it understood my desolation. Then I collapsed to my knees in the surf, my coat and skirt soaked. Emma held me as the wind snatched at us and the leaden sky rained its own heavy tears down on us.

Slowly as the days passed, I regained some composure and there was even some good news. Ernest had received a letter from his gynaecologist friend saying that he had the name of an endocrinologist and a surgeon who had agreed to work together to transform my body into that of a woman. It was all I had ever wanted, but now, without Tom to share my joy, the news felt rather hollow. There were medicines to take, ones I would need to take for the rest of my life and several operations. The first of which was a relatively minor one to remove a part of my unwanted male anatomy. This I was told would help the medicines to achieve a successful feminisation of my body. Further surgery to form female genitalia would involve more complex procedures.

The first procedure now completed there was a rest period for my recovery before more surgery could be contemplated. Mother was fully accepting of all this now, somehow she seemed happy to have another daughter. We talked about my future, my transformation. I told her that I wanted a new name now that my status as a woman was accepted. We talked of my lost dreams of a life with Tom, our shared desire to raise horses together. The dreams seemed bitter now that they had been snatched away so tragically. After the surgery I rested and took slow walks in the grounds with Emma. I was careful to avoid the stables as the memories associated with them were still too raw to bear. However I already felt closer to becoming a woman as I imagined the subtle changes my body was already undergoing. Emma, and indeed all my family, had been such a support that I would not have been able to survive this time without them.

To cheer me up Mother took Emma and me into London to finally find some clothes of my own. We walked the length of Bond street and Oxford street calling in at the shops that Mother knew and trusted. She ordered skirts and blouses, stockings and pretty delicate underwear, some lovely shoes and a beautiful slim dove-grey dress that I adored. Pausing for a moment at the window of a glove shop, Mother told me that a lady is known by her shoes and her gloves and we went inside and chose several pairs of delicately hand stitched gloves. Then we took tea in the pretty little tea-shop in Stratford Place. Among the tables and the chattering waiters we had steaming cups of lovely Earl Grey tea and dainty slices of Victoria Sponge. It was a day that lifted my spirits but despite all the kindness that I was shown, there was still an emptiness in my heart when my mind drifted back to thoughts of Tom.

One day as Emma and I walked down by the lake, I saw a bird high in the sky cavorting and circling above us, as it dropped lower, wheeling and flirting with the winding air currents, I thought for a moment that it was my white gull from Brighton. I know it must only have been a coincidence but something about it's sudden appearance gave me a spark of hope that one day, maybe even in another lifetime, Tom and I would be reunited.

~o~

The letter came just two days later. It was addressed to Ernest. Here is a copy:

To Ernest Fitzgerald

Sir,
I must write to you regarding Miss Fitzgerald's disappearance. I have addressed the letter to you as I feel it would be better for you to break the news to her mother and sister. I am certain that Miss Emma will have told you by now that we left the Estate under a cloud. It was desperation that drove Miss Fitzgerald but I take full responsibility for what happened. It was my duty to protect her and I am sad to say that I was derelict in my duty.

We were crossing the channel on the way to stay with my mother and for reasons which there is no need to go into at the moment, my dear companion fell overboard. I can hardly bring myself to write these words but I know you must be desperate for news of her. I fear that Miss Fitzgerald must have drowned on that tragic day in the English Channel. I jumped into the waves after her frantic to try and save her but got dragged deep beneath the ship. I fought my way to the surface, the sea was choppy and a wind had picked up which pulled me away from the ship. I saw in the distance as the steamer turned and started a search. Despite my best efforts I was unable to attract its attention.

I hope even now that they found Miss Fitzgerald but sadly I believe that not to be the case. It soon grew dark and I spent the night bobbing in the waves struggling to keep my head above the water. The coldness was on the point of finally draining my last resources when in the early morning light, a trawler out of Portsmouth steamed up and by a miracle discovered me. They nursed me back to health and although I begged the Captain to put me ashore, he was determined to stay at sea until his trawl of the cod-rich northern waters was complete. I was able to work as a deck hand over the next weeks until we finally turned for Grimsby. We are expected to dock today.

I am certain that there will be no welcome for me back at the Fitzgerald Estate and I can fully understand that. I will not therefore make any attempt to visit you in person. With the pay that I received from the captain I have enough to stay in Grimsby for a while where I will search for work, the crew have recommended a room at the 'White Gull Inn' as temporary accommodation.

Please express my heartfelt sorrow to Lady Pamela.

I will post this letter today as soon as we make landfall, please do not trouble to reply. I do not feel worthy of that consideration after the tragedy that I have brought to your family.

Yours Sincerely,

Tom Chatsworth.

~o~

"I must go to him." I said as tears of joy wet my face. But my kind dear Ernest had already made arrangements for us to take the train to Grimsby that very afternoon.

The next few hours were a blur of intensity. I was overjoyed by Tom's letter but so anxious that we should not arrive at the Inn to find that Tom had already left. Losing him again now was unimaginable.

It was evening when the Express pulled into the station at Grimsby. We took a cab at once to the White Gull and Ernest made enquiries of the landlord.

"Yessir we do 'ave a Tom Chatsworth staying with us. He should be back soon enough... there was the sniff of a job for 'im out Croxby way."

"Then we'll wait on his return... An interesting name for your pub." Ernest said making small talk.

"Aye, there's a legend of a white gull that is supposed to lead lost sailors back to land. Makes no sense to me but there's many round 'ere who swear to the truth of it..."

"Fascinating." Ernest said but the landlord's words resonated with me in a way that they never could for Ernest...

"Now can I get you and your young lady a drink while you wait Sir?"

"Yes, good idea... I'll have, let me see, half a bitter and..." Ernest turned to me "A lemonade?" he suggested. I really needed something to ease my nerves and felt a lemonade was hardly sufficient.

"May I have a port and lemon?"

"And a port and lemon... do you have sandwiches?"

"Yessir we certainly do, cheese or ham."

"A round of ham each then Landlord."

"Take a seat over in snug, you'll be more comfortable in there. I'll bring yer order though in a minute."

"You will tell Tom that we are here the moment he arrives won't you?" I said.

"Yes Miss, I'll be sure to do that."

We took seats at a small polished dark wood table and I removed my gloves and hat. There was a window over looking the street but most of it was frosted over to give privacy, there was just a small lozenge shaped area of clear glass and my eyes kept peering through in the hope that I might see a familiar and dear face emerge along the footpath. My finger's were trembling as I took my glass from the landlord. I don't remember ever being as nervous before in my life and after a single bite I gave the remains of my sandwich to Ernest to finish.

"Do you want another drink?" He said

"Actually I just might." I said.

"I'm sure Tom will be along any minute now, try and relax."

Ernest went back into the bar and really just as a way to distract myself I delved into my handbag and took out my compact and powdered my nose. After touching up my lipstick, the face that stared back at me from the small mirror had lost all trace of the boyishness that had once been there. My face had become softer, rounded, more feminine and I hoped that Tom would find me attractive.

The bar was starting to fill up now with voices raised in animated conversation and good humoured banter as Ernest queued waiting for more drinks. My eyes slipped back to little peep hole in the window and in the distance, maybe 25 yards away, my heart leapt in my breast as I saw the unmistakable shape of the man that I loved. I knew him instantly from the sturdy way in which he walked. His shoulders looked slumped and I could tell that his search for work had not born fruit; but that was no longer important.

In a second, I was out on the street. I stood silent watching his determined footsteps draw him closer. It was as if the world had stopped turning, my lungs caught between two suspended breaths. Suddenly Tom saw me and I could see the sharp intake of his breath as he recognised me. Neither of us could move for the longest time, the emotion was so overwhelming. Then as I held my arms out to him Tom started running, running to me.

I'm probably imagining it in the retelling but I'm sure hovering in Tom's, wake was a white gull that wheeled in the air with a cry of farewell... I buried my face in Tom's chest, there was so much to tell him, so much to ask. But all I could say at that precious moment was: 'I love you, I love you.'

We found Ernest and he grasped Tom in a powerful hug as if they were long lost brothers. Finally we were reunited and I would take Tom home to Fitzgerald Hall. Mother had a proposal for Tom and I hoped that it might answer all our prayers. We took the night train home and eventually arrived back at the Estate as the first light of the new day shimmered across the horizon. They were all waiting for us Emma, Mother, Grandfather and Maude. Even dear Lizzy and a handful of the staff had come up for our return. After the hugs and the excitement had died down, Mother, as she was wont to do on such occasions, called for quiet and made a speech.

"I would like to take the opportunity, while we are all gathered together. To welcome Tom into our family." She turned her eyes to Tom. "I know Tom that you feel some guilt at what happened to my youngest daughter. But there is no need at all, we know the truth and you bear no responsibility for what happened. After your valiant attempt to save my daughter, we all see you as nothing short of a hero." There was a general 'here, here' of agreement.

"Firstly I have an announcement to make. My youngest daughter has expressed, following the start of her journey to womanhood, the desire for a new name. Although 'Buntie' might be suitable for a child, it is less so for a woman. She has proposed that we call her Jane, a name that I may well have chosen myself if I had been aware at the time of my second child's true gender."

"Here's to Jane..." Maude called out to another round of clapping. My mother turned her eyes back to Tom.

"Tom, you come from a good family that has fallen on hard times through no fault of its own. I know that it is my Jane's dearest wish that you might make a life together. Having seen a glimpse of your character, that is a decision which I am very happy to support. It may not be possible for you to marry legally, but should you wish to propose to my daughter, then I will arrange for a ceremony to be held in our intimate little Estate Chapel. I envisage a simple ceremony where you may make your vows to each other in the sight of God and your loved ones."

My family applauded wildly at the suggestion and although I already knew what Mother had in mind, my eyes filled with tears of joy as I turned to Tom and felt him take my hand and kiss my fingers.

"Wait... there's more to say..." Mother shouted as she called for quiet. "We must consider what life Tom and Jane might have together... We have quite a few acres of fine pastoral land that lie adjacent to the Old Lodge. The land was, I understand, historically called 'Waterfield' before it was absorbed into the Estate back in the eighteenth century. I propose that the Lodge, currently as you all know unoccupied, would make a comfortable home for two young lovers who might wish to raise horses on the Waterfield property. The property will be gifted to Tom and Jane by Ernest who, will inherit the viscountcy now that, as a woman, Jane has renounced the title... One last thing... there will be a party tomorrow to celebrate Tom's return and it may double as an engagement party depending on Tom and Jane's decision."

"Engagement party... no question." Maud called out.

It was still far far too early in the day for Champagne so naturally Aunt Maude took the opportunity to pop the corks of several bottles and distribute brimmed glasses to everyone. I found Lizzy and gave her a powerful hug promising her that she would be generously rewarded for her unwavering friendship.

As a boisterous merriment took hold of my family, I slipped my fingers into Tom's hand and we walked out into the grounds. An early morning mist hung in the hollows making the high ground seem to float on a sea of cloud. The trees with the fog winding off them and the plaintive cry of the larks rising held a precious stillness that can only be found at this time of day.

"I can't believe this." Tom said. "Yesterday I hardly cared if I lived or died knowing that I had lost you."

"You will never lose me darling, something will always draw us together. I knew when our eyes met at the village hall that we were destined to grow old together." We stood together in silence for a while lost in our thoughts.

"This is your home now Tom." I said.

"It already feels so; the way that your family has opened their hearts to me is overwhelming. I will work tirelessly to make them proud of me."

"They are already proud of you Tom."

He put his arm across my shoulder and I could feel the warmth of his body against me. As he spoke the distant larks fell suddenly silent.

"Jane I need to ask you this... now that your mother has made it possible, will you be my wife?"

Holding him I could feel the surge of the sea, that had almost taken him, rising in in chest; I could almost hear the call of a white gull on his breath and feel our future stretching on though the coming seasons. Staring through the autumn mist of that sacred morning, I could see the coming summer with the Waterfield meadows flush with emerald grass and wild flowers and the air filled with the song of blackbirds.

"You know Tom." I said. "I think I just might be persuaded."


The End



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