"Take my shoes off and throw them in the lake
     And I'll be two steps on the water."
     - Kate Bush, "The Hounds of Love"

To be brutally honest, Bromley doesn't have a lot to recommend it. It's a dull little suburb, where people still vote Conservative, and not even as a protest. The closest thing to culture is a small theatre where they have pantomimes every Christmas. It feels like purgatory, but it has two things going for it: it's close to London, making it easy for me to commute, and it's a long way from both Dundee and Manchester. My ghosts don't seem to be quite as good at travelling as I am.

I let my life become safe after I moved down south. Age does this, I guess. I was like a stone that had been sitting in a stream for long enough to have all its sharp edges worn away. The thing is it had all happened before, and I promised myself I wouldn't let myself get old so quickly this time. Not everyone gets a chance to go through the best years of their life twice, but any sense of adventure seemed to have died along with the man I used to be.

It's just over ten years since I became Samantha Reynolds. If she'd lived, she'd be twenty-seven now. If I'd lived, I'd be forty-two. As it happened, she wanted to die and I didn't and through the wonders of modern medicine my brain was dropped in the body she abandoned. The procedure never caught on the way people assumed it would. With other transplants you don't end up looking at a stranger in the mirror every morning. The incidence of mental illness and suicide amongst the first wave of patients pretty much stopped any further progress. I have mixed feelings about this. If it hadn't happened to me, the cancer would have killed me in my early thirties. That's not much of a life. But the cure brought its own problems for me. The upside is that any problem is easier to overcome than death. This thought stopped me from being even more of a miserable bastard than I already was.

But, sometimes, life can be good. I'd almost forgotten this, but it's something I should never have let myself forget. My reminder came just under a year ago, in a somewhat unlikely form.

* * *

"I've been coming here for the best part of a year, and you still haven't asked me about my mother. I thought that was one of the first things you were supposed to do. Aren't you breaking some rule? I don't want you to get in any trouble." I was sitting in a big, overstuffed armchair that made me feel even smaller than usual. In a way it was comforting, like I was a child again. That was almost certainly why it was there.

Dr. Rowney smiled politely. Maybe it was a real smile and he was just too good at hiding his feelings. "I'm more interested in talking about you at the moment. If your mother has problems she can come and see me herself."

"That would be a good trick. She died about twelve years ago."


"Don't worry. At least she never got to see her only son become another daughter."

"Would that have upset her?"

"How could it not? No one I knew coped very well with it, and none of them were as protective of me as her. Most of my friends stopped coming round. My mother wouldn't have done that, but her politeness would've been deadly. I could never cope with it when she was polite to me."

"If she had been around and had actually coped with the idea, been supportive even, would that have made things any easier for you?"

"I don't know." I looked at the scattered papers on his desk, but couldn't read anything upside down. They probably didn't say anything about me, anyway. "Maybe."

Dr. Rowney sat and looked at me in silence for a while. I had learned to recognise this trick: it was his way of drawing me out, making me want to fill an uncomfortable gap in the conversation. Now I knew about it, I refused to play along. I don't like being manipulated, even if it's for my own good. Instead, I looked down and picked my nails.

"All right. Tell me, is there anything new in your life, anything of note happened since last time we met?"

I thought about this for a moment. "Not really. Nothing interesting has happened for a while, has it? Maybe I like it that way. I've probably had enough interesting things happen already for one lifetime, or two for that matter."

"And you don't worry that playing it safe isn't leading you anywhere? Every time we meet you complain that you don't feel like you're adapting. By hiding yourself away from the world you're not really giving yourself a chance to experience the kinds of events that shape us as people."

"I know. I turned forty a couple of years back, though. Don't you think by the time you reach that kind of age you're pretty set?"

"No. Not really. Anyway, you're an exceptional case. You've had to build a new life for yourself as a completely different person. That person has to develop beyond what you were. You're not letting her live that life."

"I wish it were that easy."

We played the silence game again, and I won, again.

"It's just about time to wrap up for today," said Dr. Rowney. "Before, you go, however, I have something I'd like to suggest." I sat up in the seat and tried to maintain eye contact. "It's a bit unorthodox, and maybe even slightly unprofessional. Are you open to a suggestion?"

"Probably, as long as it isn't an attempt to seduce me."

That earned a slightly more genuine looking smile. "I had something a bit less intrusive in mind. There's another one of my patients I think you might like to meet. She reminds me of you, in some ways at least. I believe that there are things you could teach each other. At the very least you might be able to offer each other some support."

"Maybe." I shifted awkwardly in the seat, uncomfortable at being put on the spot. "I mean, we could meet once and see how we get on. If you think it's important."

"I don't know about important, but it may be beneficial to you both. Anyway, from what you've told me you haven't made many friends down here yet. Maybe this is a chance to cultivate a new one. I'll get her to give you a call, if that's all right."

"Fine." I shrugged. "Whatever."

* * *

As I made my way back to the flat I thought about that last comment. I'd told myself that the decision to keep a distance from other people was deliberate, that I didn't have the time or inclination for socialising any more. Most of the time I didn't let myself feel the loneliness. Anyway, it wasn't as if there wasn't anyone else in my life: Natalie looked after me.

My sister's husband left her about five years ago. She still hasn't told me all the details, but it sounds like it was a simple case of erosion: they wore each other down until their nerves were exposed. When you get to that stage you don't need a reason for things to fall apart. Luckily, there weren't any children, which made things simpler. I had been living in a bedsit in Croydon for a while, and when Natalie told me she was looking for somewhere new it seemed logical to move in together. My situation has stopped being a novelty or a concern to her. I'm just her sister now.

She was already home by the time I got back, sitting in the living room and watching the tail end of the local news. I sat down on the settee and tucked my feet under myself. It's one of these habits I developed after my operation. Maybe there's still something of Samantha hardwired in my nervous system.

"How did it go today?" she asked, still staring at the screen. There was some story about customs seizing a tobacco shipment at Dover.

"Usual shit. Do I seem any saner yet?"

"Nope. Still barking."

"Cheers. Something weird happened, though. Dr. Rowney's introducing me to another one of his patients. Some kind of group therapy, I guess."

"That's nice. Maybe you can weave baskets together."

"Oh, fuck off. I'm not in the mood."

"Sorry." Natalie killed the sound on the TV. "Neil was asking after you again."

I rolled my eyes. "I take it you reminded him I'm not interested. Even if I was in the market for a man, which I don't need to remind you I am not, Neil would come somewhere down the list from Charlie Manson."

"Manson's dead."

"Quite." Neil was a colleague of Natalie's who had met me once when I joined one of her office outings to a local pub. He was in his early forties, balding and possessed of the worst breath I've ever smelled on a biped. Within ten minutes he had asked me out no less that three times. I found myself getting ruder and ruder to him as the evening went on, but it made no difference. I almost told him I was a man, just to get him to fuck off, but decided to play it safe and go home instead. Ever since then he still carried on chatting me up by proxy, passing messages on via Natalie. I have a feeling she might have tempered some of my replies a bit.

"I'll tell him the usual." The titles for Eastenders came up and Natalie hit the off switch. "Still, don't you ever feel like there's something missing in your life?"

"What, like a penis? Only my own. I'm not looking for a man or a woman or anything right now. Maybe someday, but I don't feel like I'm ready."

"You're not getting any younger, you know."

I glared at her. I imagine I looked a bit more wounded than I actually felt.

"Shit. Sorry, that wasn't deliberate. You know what I mean, though."

"Yeah. You mean well, and you're my sister and I love you, but I do wish you'd pack it in sometimes."

"All right." She switched the TV back on and we watched cheerfully mindless tripe for the rest of the evening.

* * *

When I was a little boy I wanted to be a policeman when I grew up. I think I saw Hill Street Blues a few too many times, staying up past my bedtime, and was seduced by the authority and camaraderie. Anything deeper went over my head. After I outgrew that, I moved on to wanting to be an astronomer, entomologist and then, when I was old enough to understand what it meant, biochemist. The biochemistry thing was what stuck. In my first life I did a BSc. in it, but then moved on to a graduate trainee programme for a large building society and became a middle manager, doing nothing of any worth. After my death I couldn't really go back. Nothing was said, but if I had turned up at work as a teenage girl I doubted I would have been taken very seriously. I took the redundancy package offered and used the money to go back to university, with the idea of getting a doctorate and realising my dream of being a real scientist. Two things got in the way, though. I hadn't taken into account how much my brain had changed as I got older. The first time I went to university, my mind had been like a sponge, soaking up all the information that surrounded it effortlessly. The second time round, my now adult brain couldn't absorb what it needed to quite as quickly and I found myself working flat out, just to keep on top of things. It was painfully obvious to me that I was never going to make it. Then there was all the unpleasantness, which just made the decision easier, and I ran away.

Since then I've done temp work in offices, waitressed and generally found employment that requires as little thought as possible. Natalie tells me I'm wasting a good mind, but it doesn't really matter to me any more. I don't need a lot in the way of money and the idea of having to work and progress through a career all over again fills me with a sense of sick dread I can't really describe. It's like one of those dreams where you're back in school, facing being a child all over again, feeling out of place. I know I'm taking the easy way out, but it's my life and I'll screw it up any way I feel like.

I was at my latest job, doing a short-term contract as a filing clerk for a facilities management company, when one of my colleagues told me I had a personal phone call. I took it at a hotdesk.

"Hi, Natalie. What's up?"

"Who's Natalie?" The voice on the other end was deep and husky, almost like the speaker was short of breath.

"Oh, sorry. I thought you were my sister. No one else ever calls me here. Who is this?"

"My name's Tina Mallin. Dr. Rowney suggested I gave you a call."

"Oh right, yes, sorry. I'd forgotten all about that. Hi."


We both waited for the other one to say something.

"So what am I calling you about?" she asked.

"You mean you don't know either?" We both laughed, but it felt and sounded a bit forced. "Don't worry," I said. "If you want we can meet up for a drink."

"All right. Do you know The Moon Under Water?"

"I've passed it."

"How about seven? Is that OK?"

"Make it a bit later. I've got to pop home first."

"Fine. Eight, then. How will I recognise you?"

I described myself as best I could. It boiled down to small, dark and nondescript. "How about you?" I asked.

"Oh, you'll know me when you see me," she said, and laughed.

We said goodbye and I went back to work. I wondered if it would have been impolite if I'd said that, at first, I'd mistaken her for a man.

* * *

After work I went home and changed. The pub Tina had suggested was only twenty minutes' walk from the house, so I was in no hurry. It didn't take me long to pick out something to wear. My wardrobe is kind of limited. For work purposes I have a selection of suits, all in sober colours and all with trousers. My leisurewear mostly consists of jeans, t-shirts and sweaters. I've worn dresses a couple of times, on formal occasions, but they just feel wrong on me. There's too much vulnerability involved in a dress, and they don't really cover the way clothes should. I don't like the idea of anyone thinking of me the way they might if they saw me in a dress. Similarly, I have no real use for skirts. I own one smart one for job interviews, and that's it. My underwear is all cotton, with sports bras being my preference. My breasts aren't that large, but I'm still happiest when they're strapped up tightly. I've tried wearing more feminine underwear, at Natalie's suggestion, but it made me uncomfortable and almost guilty. She seemed to believe it would make me feel like a woman, but it just made me feel like I was in drag. I threw them out without telling her.

Finally, I settled for a dark blue sweatshirt and a pair of baggy jeans. It's almost a uniform for me, but it's what makes me comfortable. I can live with being predictable.

I was the first to arrive at the pub. I ordered a dry white wine and picked a table with a view of the door, so I could see my companion coming. The pub itself wasn't anything special. It was modern and fairly nicely furnished, with wood panelling and good lighting. It wasn't what I would choose for my local, but it seemed pleasant enough. I'd almost summoned up the courage to look at the jukebox and depress myself with how out of touch I'd become when Tina walked in.

Oh, God, no, I thought. Suddenly everything made sense. Of course she sounded like a man on the phone. That's because she was a man, or at least had been one at some point. As she walked in, what little conversation there was in the pub stopped. People turned to stare at her openly. She was about six foot two, not heavily built, but still undeniably masculine. She was dressed in a black cotton blouse, a shortish, puffy black skirt, black woollen tights and Doc Martens. Just to top things off, her fluffed-up hair was dyed blue-black. I wanted to crawl under the table and hide before she saw me, but knew there was no way out. Anyway, I'm not like that, or at least I don't want to be, which has to count for something.

She looked around and saw me. I waved half-heartedly. She smiled back and walked over. "Samantha?"

"Uh, yes."

"Cool! What are you drinking?" I looked down at my glass. Hemlock, I thought.
"White wine, thanks. Dry as they're got."

She went over to the bar and ordered a round. At least the landlord didn't ask her to leave, but his expression was than welcoming. Tina, to her credit, was completely oblivious. She came back with the drinks, put them down on the table, and dropped heavily onto the bench beside me.

"So," she said, picking up her pint of bitter, "You'll probably want to ask lots of questions. Everyone does, but most of the time they're too polite. I don't mind." She took a couple of big gulps and drained half of the pint. "Really."

"OK." I had a good, unashamed look at her. She was older than I had thought at first, certainly older than her dress would suggest. I put her down as late thirties, but it was difficult to tell. She had one of those faces that looked like it had been prematurely aged by pain. "Transsexual or transvestite?"

"Transsexual. Pre-op. That means I've still got a..."

"I know what it means. Don't worry."

"Oh. Aren't I your first tranny?" She grinned.

"It's not that. I, er, looked into the subject a few years back, but from the other point of view."

"I see. Well, that explains the butch get-up."

"Butch?" I looked down at my clothes and then shrugged. "Maybe. I tend to think of it as comfortable."

"So what happened?"

"I decided against it. I've been through enough changes in my. I couldn't face it all. I guess I just don't have the courage it takes."

"But you consider yourself to be a man rather than a woman?"

I pinched the bridge of my nose and laughed quietly. "Oh yes. Definitely."

"Did I say something funny?"

I clenched my mouth to stop myself from collapsing into giggles. "I take it," I said, once I had recovered, "that the good doctor didn't tell you much about me."

Tina shook her head and looked puzzled.

"Ah. It's a bit of a long story, I'm afraid." Over the course of another couple of rounds, I told it. Tina said very little, but just sat there and listened, wide-eyed.

"Jesus," she said, once I'd finished, "I thought I was fucked up."

I smiled at that. "I don't know you well enough to comment, I'm afraid."

"Well, compared to you, my life story is pretty normal. Normal for a transsexual, at least. I was just born with the wrong body. I didn't have it foisted on me."

"So how did you know?"

"I don't remember when exactly I realised, but I must have been about four."

"Four? You're joking."

"No. I think that's when I tried dressing up in my sister's clothes. I don't think I even knew why I was doing it. I certainly didn't know enough to hide it. My parents were upset, to say the least. Not as upset as, when a couple of years later, I asked them if any boys ever decided they wanted to be girls and spend all their time dressed up as them. That got me a lot of stern talks and a visit to a child psychologist."

"If you knew that early, why are you still in transition, or whatever you call it?"

Tina looked off into space for a moment. A number of wrinkles I hadn't noticed came into prominence. "You know how, when you're a teenager, you desperately want to fit in? I was like that, in spades. I guess it was being so different that made me want to be the same so much. The problem is it became a habit and I started to believe that's how I really was. It too years before I realised the whole gender identity thing wasn't a just phase I'd gone through. Unfortunately by then I'd got married to Susan, and we'd had the kids, and..." I thought I noticed her eyes getting slightly red round the rims. "Do you want another drink?" she asked.

"It's all right. I'll get them." Up at the bar, waiting for the drinks, I had time to think quietly. However much of a freak I felt at times, I could still blend in. Apart from a fading scar around my head, largely covered by my hair, there's nothing to suggest I'm anything other than a normal, if plain, young woman. Watching Tina, and the way people stared at her, with curiosity, pity or overt hostility, I realised that things could be a hell of a lot worse.

When I was at primary school, there was a boy in the year above me whose face had been disfigured by burns. His brother, who was a bit of a head case, had thought it would be funny to throw a pan of boiling water in his face. I don't think it occurred to him that there would be any real consequences. At least, I hope that was the case. Anyway, this lad went through his school years as a permanent outcast. No one wanted to be seen to be his friend. The other boys teased him mercilessly. On one occasion I did as well, but I felt sick with myself afterwards and went back to ignoring him as best I could. We went to different secondary schools, so I don't know how the rest of his life turned out, but I can't see any way it could have got better. Even in my adult life, I still thought about him every now and then. When I did, it was always with pity. One day I realised that I had never actually thought of him as a human being. He was always this face that everyone feared or despised and that I felt sorry for. I wish I'd got to know him, but childhood doesn't really work like that.

Back then, in The Moon Under Water, I looked at Tina and felt that same pang of emotion. I had overcome my initial shock on meeting her, but it had been replaced by pity. That, in a way, just felt worse. Not only was this a person, but it was one with whom I shared more than I might want to admit. She deserved a hell of a lot better than pity.

After I put the drinks down on the table, I asked, "How do you cope?"

Tina gave me a wry smile that creased her face. "In general, or with anything in particular?"

"I hope you don't mind me saying this, but I've watched the way people have been looking at you since you got here. I probably wasn't any better at first. Doesn't it get to you?"

"Only when I think about it." She looked around the room, and I followed her gaze. People looked away as her eyes met theirs. "I could be all assertive and self-confident and say it doesn't hurt. The truth is it does. It hurts like hell. The simple answer is, though, that it's still better than the alternative. If I'd carried on trying to be someone I wasn't I don't think I'd still be here today."

I raised an eyebrow. "Sorry, but that sounds a bit melodramatic."

"Guilty as charged. What can I say? I'm just that kind of girl."

We looked at each other and both started to laugh. It was the kind of laughter that builds from nothing and then feeds on itself. We started to recover, but then looked at each other and collapsed helplessly again. By the time it had worked its way out we both had tears pouring down our face, Tina's tears taking black trails of mascara with them.

The rest of the evening was uncomplicated and fun. We dispensed with the heavy sharing and moved onto general chat about life, music, films and clothes. Well, actually Tina talked about clothes and I sat and listened. It was exactly the kind of evening I'd missed without realising. Just what the doctor ordered.

It came around to last orders and we were both pretty drunk. We got up from the table and weaved to the door arm in arm, neither doing a desperately good job of steadying the other. As we passed by the bar a middle-aged man, some kind of manual labourer judging from his appearance, stepped in front of us. He looked up and down at Tina. "Excuse me, luv. Can you settle a bet with my friends? You are a man, aren't you?"

Tina's mouth opened, ready to issue some devastating reply, I imagine, but I beat her to it. "Sorry," I said, "I think you're a bit confused. I'm the man." Both of them turned to stare at me. I don't think they had even noticed me before. I shrugged and carried on walking to the door. As Tina caught me up I looked back and saw the man, still standing there, looking lost.

"'I'm the man,'" she said, shaking with silent laughter.

"Well, it's true." We looked at each other and giggled like schoolgirls.

Once we had ourselves back under control, Tina said, "We must do this again sometime."

"Yes. We must," I said, and meant it.

* * *

Despite wearing it all these years, I still get surprised at how badly alcohol affects this body of mine. The morning after I had a meaty hangover and, if I had been entitled to paid sick leave, would probably have called in ill. As it was, I struggled in and made a decent go of a day's work. Even once the nausea and headache began to lift, I still found it difficult to concentrate. I kept thinking back to the previous night and smiling. For too long I'd convinced myself that I could live without friends, that I was somehow immune to loneliness. Something had clicked the night before and I realised how wrong I had been. It was like the start of spring after a particularly grim and dark winter. There was someone who understood some of the same shit I'd been through and who could make me laugh about it. It felt like the best thing in the world.

* * *

"A transsexual? Really?" Natalie arched an eyebrow. She was leaning against the fridge as I did the washing up. "How did you get on?"

"Pretty well. It turns out we have a fair bit in common. She's a nice person, if a bit weird."

"Reminds me of someone I know. Are you meeting up again?"

"Yeah. We're having dinner together on Friday."

"Hmmm..." Natalie cocked her head and grinned at me. "Is this going anywhere?"

I stopped scrubbing the saucepan. "What do you mean?"

"What do you think?"

"Oh, don't be silly. I hadn't even thought about it." The truth was that I had, and it had scared me. My life was confused enough without trying to complicate things. And Tina, whatever else she was, was certainly a complication.

* * *

The dinner itself was pretty terrible, but the drink was cheap and the company was good. Neither Tina nor myself were earning much money, so we had settled for a branch of one of the big pizza chains. I took a couple of trips to the salad bar while Tina put away a pizza the size of a hubcap. I envied her, remembering the days when my metabolism and build would let me eat stuff like that without putting on weight. At least the salad made me feel better about all the beer we had with the meal. After about the third pitcher we decided we'd better go. There was a queue of people waiting for tables and I didn't think it would be a good idea for me to drink any more.

"How have your kids coped?" I asked as we hit the night air. "I hope you don't mind me asking, but it must be strange for them having their dad become another mum."

Tina looked into the darkness of an empty shop window. I couldn't quite make out her reflection in the glass. "I wish I knew," she said. "Susan doesn't want me seeing them."

I put a hand on Tina's arm and squeezed gently. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked."

She turned to face me. There were no tears in her eyes, but her expression made her look ten years older. "It's OK. It was a question that was bound to come up at some point. It's as good a time as any."

We stopped walking and stood just outside the protective halo of a streetlamp. I still held on to Tina's arm.

"I know I could see them. There's nothing legal stopping me doing so. It's just that she never coped very well with the idea of, well, my changing. She thinks I'm a freak and hers is the only point of view the kids have heard. I don't think I can face them. I'm afraid they wouldn't want to see me. Being their father was almost the only good thing about having been a man. Now I can't even offer them that."

I tried to hug Tina, but just felt lost in her arms. It's hard to comfort someone so much larger than yourself. At just over five foot I felt small enough to be one of her children myself. "It's OK," I said, my words muffled as I spoke into her chest.

Tina let me go and smiled down at me. "No. No, it's not, but thanks." She rubbed her eyes quickly.

We linked arms again and started walking. "Where are we going?" I asked.

"Just walking."

"In Bromley? Where is there to walk around here?"

"Nowhere. But that's fine." And we walked.

* * *

It was just before closing time when we headed towards my place. Tina insisted on walking me home, saying that I shouldn't be out on my own at that time of night. There's a pub a couple of streets down from my flat that I've never set foot in. Maybe I'm just irredeemably middle-class, but it's a bit too down-market for my tastes. The noise coming from it always sounds like it's thirty seconds away from a brawl, and the people I've seen coming and going look like knuckle draggers to me. When I think about it I feel a bit guilty about being so judgmental, but that's still never made me want to drink there.

We were passing by, happily chatting about nothing, when three drunken men came piling out. Tina stopped walking and looked at them. For a moment her face froze, then she carried on, trying to pretend nothing was wrong. The men just stood there and stared at her. They didn't seem to notice me at all.

"What the fuck is that?" One of the men stepped out to block our path. He wasn't particularly tall, but his build was heavy and the look on his face suggested an easy brutality. He looked up at Tina. "Is it Halloween already?"

Tina tried to pretend he wasn't there, but when she attempted to walk around him he stepped back in front of her. "Something wrong with your hearing?" He shoved the flat of a hand into Tina's chest. She winced. "Fuck me," the man said, "They feel real."

"What's your problem?" Tina's voice sounded firm and more masculine than I had ever heard it.

"My problem is that I don't like fucking queers."

"Well, don't fuck them, then."

I put a hand over my eyes. I felt like I was going to vomit. It seemed there was going to be bloodshed soon and I didn't know how I was going to deal with it. Back in my last life, I had no real fear of violence. Now, maybe because of my smaller size, maybe because of what happened to me all those years ago, I'm terrified even by the thought of it. I knew I should just run, but I couldn't. I'd like to think at least part of it was because I didn't want to abandon Tina.

The man leaned in close. His friend watched carefully, waiting for him to make a move. "What did you say?"

"If you don't back off," Tina said quietly, "I'll tell your friends why it is you hate queers so much."

A look of confusion crossed the man's face. "What?"

Tina sighed. "Oh fuck it," she said and stamped down on the man's foot with her heel.

The reaction was spectacular and a joy to behold. The man literally howled in pain and collapsed to the ground. His friends looked on, puzzled, trying to work out what had just happened. Tina grabbed my arm and started running. "Quick, before they decide to follow." We ran until Tina was out of breath, which only took a few minutes. We overshot my flat in the panic. Luckily the men didn't follow us.

I put an arm around Tina's shoulder as she gasped and panted. "You were amazing," I said. "I could never have done that."

"It's just survival. When you look like I do you need to know how to look after yourself. There's a lot of nutters out there."

"No shit." I leaned back against the wall. "One thing I don't understand, though: what was all that stuff about telling his friends?"

"Oh, that. It's something I nicked from Quentin Crisp. You know, _The Naked Civil Servant_? It worked for him, though." Tina grinned at me, her face red with exertion and alcohol. "Maybe he just met brighter thugs."

I saw the mischief and amusement in Tina's eyes and my heart melted.

* * *

"It's not a date, OK? We're just going out to the cinema. People do this, you know."

Natalie shook her head. "Whatever you say, kid."

* * *

"That was terrible," I said as we left the cinema.

"Define terrible."

"There was no plot, no originality and nothing close to acting. All we got was buckets of blood and a body count."

Tina chuckled. "What do you expect from a film called 'Chainsaw Zombies From Hell'? You can't tell me you were surprised. Anyway, it was ironic bloodshed. And I caught you laughing at a couple of points."

"Did not," I pouted. We stopped on the pavement outside the cinema and looked around for a bus stop. "Well, maybe once."

Tina poked my in the arm and I squealed.

"Hi, Samantha." A familiar voice came from behind me. My heart sank. "I thought that was you I saw coming out."

Fuck off, Neil, I thought, just fuck right off. Please, fuck off. I turned around. "Hello, Neil."

Tina crossed her arms and leaned back against a lamp post, looking amused. I guess my face didn't hide my feelings very well.

"Great film, eh?" Neil was wearing a chequered sports jacket, with a brightly coloured open necked shirt underneath. There were food stains dotted down the front, which managed to clash with the pattern. I could smell his breath from four feet away, in the open air. Even if I was still a man, I would have felt uncomfortable about even being seen with him; the idea of him trying to chat me up filled me with horror and despair.

"No, Neil, it was shite."

"Oh." He looked hurt, as if he had taken my opinion about the film as a personal attack. Maybe it had been. He looked down at the ground and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with one finger. I wondered if he would have to do that as often if he washed his face more.

"Well, we really must be going if we're going to make our bus. Come along, Tina."

We made it about three steps before Neil spoke again. "Why don't you and your friend come and join me for a drink. There must be plenty of time before your last bus."

Shit. I looked at my watch: there was still over an hour and a half before closing time. I tried to think of a graceful excuse. I looked at Tina. She looked back with an impish grin. Shit.

I shrugged. "Normally, I'd love to, but I'm afraid we were heading home for a night of wild and unbridled sex. You know how it is."

Neil stood there with his mouth open. I think if I'd slapped him he wouldn't even have noticed. After a few moments, though, he broke into a silly smile. "That's my girl," he said, "Always the joker." He stepped towards me.

Double shit. I looked up at Tina and batted my eyelids. I think she understood immediately. I reached up and brought her head down toward me. Our lips brushed shyly at first and then pushed together with a bit more force. The roughness of stubble on Tina's cheek surprised me for a moment, but quickly became unimportant. I closed my eyes. What started as an act of desperation suddenly took on a life of its own. One of Tina's hands moved down my body and stroked my bum. The kiss kept going. There were tongues.

After a length of time that was probably a lot longer than it felt, we came up for air. Our eyes met for a moment and then I looked away quickly. How had that happened? I knew that I liked Tina, that maybe there was some attraction, but the sudden passion had come as a complete surprise. My heart was pounding so hard that I could feel it in my eyes.

"It's safe now. He's gone."

"Huh? Oh yes, Neil. Thanks."

"Any time."

Do you mean that? I thought. I didn't say it out loud as I was afraid where it would lead us. We stood in silence for a minute or two. Tina looked at me like she was waiting for something more to happen.

"Look, I suppose I'd better head off," I said. "Early morning tomorrow and all that shit. Sorry."

"That's OK." There were more lines than usual around Tina's eyes as she smiled.

By the time I got home my heart rate was almost back to normal.

* * *

Natalie banged on my bedroom door again. I lay on my bed, with the lights off. Every now and then I'd remind myself that I was in my forties now and that behaving like a sulking teenager wasn't fitting, but it didn't help. I just felt worse.

"She's on the phone again. Are you going to talk to her this time?"

I lifted my arm off my face. "Tell her I'll call her back later."

"I don't think she'll believe that one any more. I sure as hell don't. If you're going to dump her, do it yourself. I'm not doing it for you."

My eyes hurt with suppressed tears. It was all too complicated. "Please. Tell her I'll call her back."

There was silence from the other side of the door for a moment, and then the muffled sound of Natalie talking on the telephone. I couldn't make out what she was saying, which was probably a good thing.

It had been three days since I had last seen Tina, outside the cinema. She had called at least a dozen times. I knew I was going to have to speak to her soon, but I couldn't until I knew what I was going to say. I didn't trust myself otherwise.

My life, while not exactly perfect, had at least hit some kind of comfortable rut. I knew in time it would eat me from the inside out, but for now it was safe. Someone like Tina just didn't feature. No one else featured, really. It had been nine years since I had last let someone get a hold on my life and it had taken this long for me to get over the fallout. At least I had been open with Tina from the start, so there wouldn't be any unpleasant surprises. Still, giving yourself to someone is the same as giving them free license to hurt you as they please. Just the thought of it was scaring the shit out of me.

The idea of the attraction between myself and Tina, with what she was and what I had become just confused me further. My sexuality had never been that clear cut before my operation. Now it seemed impossible to untangle it all. I still found women attractive, but as an abstract I thought I should fancy men. I never could work it out properly. I wasn't sure if Tina was a solution to this problem or just another problem to get tangled with it.

I knew I had to work it out, if not for me, at least for Tina. She deserved better. We both did.

Natalie knocked at my door again, more softly this time. "Can I come in? Please?" I ignored her. "Please, Paul, let me in."

Hearing that name gave me a shock. It had been many years since someone had called me Paul. I felt sick and dizzy. Natalie must have been desperate, knowing what reaction that name would trigger. "All right."

The light from the hallway hurt my eyes as Natalie opened the door "Don't put the overhead light on," I said, reaching over to the sidelight.

"Well, that's an improvement. You look like shit, though, whatever light we use. When was the last time you washed?"

"I don't know. It's not important."

"I take it from that comment you can't smell yourself." Natalie sat down on the end of the bed. "Do you want to tell me what happened?"

"Would you go away if I said 'no'?"

"What do you think?"

"Nothing happened. Not really. It's a bit of a long story, but we kissed and I came home."

"You kissed? That's it? All this post-adolescent bullshit is over a kiss?"

I pushed myself back up the bed so I could sit up a bit and look at Natalie. "Well, it's a bit more than that."

She crossed her arms and waited expectantly.

"I'm afraid," I said. "That's all it boils down to. There's this solid core of fear inside and I've let it paralyse me. The longer I leave doing anything, talking to Tina or facing up to what's happening, the harder it seems to get. I just want to lie here and let time roll over me. If I do it for long enough, it feels like nothing will ever matter again."

"Well, leaving aside how stupid most of that sounds, why are you so afraid? From the way I've heard you talking about Tina it sounds like there's some kind of spark there. I assume from the fact that she's been calling up almost hourly that there's some feelings on her side as well. Do you know what I'd give to have a relationship start off that well? Actually, do you know what I'd give to have one start at all?" Natalie's expression was still tinged with concern, but her words stung me.

"I know that, believe me. If I step back from the whole situation I can see that I'm damned lucky. The problem is I can't really step back. I'm a part of it and I'm shit scared of the whole thing. It's not her, not really. I must admit I was a bit taken aback by her at first. You'd know why if you saw her. There's still a part of me that's a frightened conformist teenager afraid of having a moose for a girlfriend. But in the end, that's not it. I find her attractive, funny, kind and exactly the kind of person I could fall in love with. I don't give a fuck what anyone else says about her, at least not in the long term. She and I are too much alike for me not to know what she's going through.

"The problem is me." My voice had been breaking and it finally gave up. Hot tears poured down my cheeks and I began to sob. "I just can't do this," I said, gasping.

Natalie shuffled up the bed and took hold of me. I sat there shaking, glad of the warmth of her arms around me. I told myself to snap out of it, but it seemed I just didn't want to listen. I carried on crying until it felt like I'd drained myself. When I had stopped sobbing, Natalie loosened her arms and I sat up to look at her. "Sorry," I said.

"I think I can forgive you."

We smiled at each other. A sense of peace and calm filled me. It was one of those moments you could never force, that only come about of their own volition. There was a feeling of love in the room that felt almost tangible. I knew, whatever dark hole I fell into, my sister would always be there to pull me out, armed with a light, a rope and a sarcastic comment. I nearly started crying again.

"Are you up to telling me why you're a problem? I mean, apart from the obvious."

"Well, it probably is the obvious. Since, you know, I haven't had a boyfriend, girlfriend or anything like that. I haven't been laid this millennium. Sometimes I feel the loneliness inside me, like some small animal eating away at my innards. You'd think that would make me ready for any kind of relationship. The problem is this." I ran my hands down my torso. "After ten years I've stopped waking up every morning, shocked at what I've become. It still feels all wrong, though. This isn't me - this is some girl who killed herself for her own stupid reasons. I'm lying under six feet of soil in Manchester. How can I share my life, or even my body, with anyone else when they're not even mine in the first place. How can I be someone's lover when I don't know if I'm a man, a woman or just a corpse that never knew when to lie down."

"You're a person."

I probably snorted. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means that the whole man/woman thing is a question of plumbing. What you are is a person. It doesn't matter what you started out as and what you are now. You're alive, which is a big improvement on what, by rights, you should be. Don't you think it's time you stopped acting like you'd died ten years ago?"

"That's easy for you to say. You haven't had someone change your plumbing." I thought of a few other bitter retorts, but my heart wasn't in it. I knew she was right, intellectually at least. Whether or not I'd ever feel it was another story. "Anyway, I did almost overcome this, once, a long time ago. You remember what happened?"

Natalie bit her lip and looked down at the bedspread. "Not everyone's like that. You were unlucky. Anyway, Tina knows what you are."

"I know. And that helps, believe me. Still, it's made it even harder for me to trust anyone enough to open myself up. Maybe in time, but..."

"Until then, are you going to call her? I'm going to take that sodding phone of the hook if you don't."

"Tomorrow, I promise."

"You'd better," Natalie said. "I'll break your legs if you don't."

* * *

I can only remember two nights in my adult life that passed more slowly and painfully: one involved a tab of bad acid and the other a mild case of food poisoning. At least in each of those I knew that it would all pass by the morning.

The worst part came with one of the fevered dreams that filled the occasional snatches of sleep. Most of the dreams had just involved a low level of stress and dread, but this one started out with Tina, standing before me, holding out a hand. As I reached out to take it, she started to change. By the time she had a firm hold of me, I could see she was really Alasdair, the young man I nearly fell for in Dundee all those years ago. He pulled me towards him hard. Just before I woke up, I saw his other hand raised above me in a fist. I didn't dare go back to sleep after that.

Why did you have to do it? Maybe I could have adjusted in time, or at least learned not to hate what I had become. Would it have been too much to ask for you just to have treated me like a human being? I knew though, whatever Alasdair had thought of me, that had driven him to that moment of madness, I had probably thought worse of myself. I was tired of it all, tired of all the self-loathing. In a moment of insight I saw how much effort it all took, the constant tension of muscles and internal dialogue of hatred. Could I ever just let it go? I wanted to, desperately.

I got out of bed and turned the overhead light on. There was a full-length mirror on the side of my wardrobe, that I only tended to use for sorting my hair out, making sure it covered the scar. Without really knowing why, I took off the flannel pyjamas I was wearing and looked at my reflection. It wasn't something I had done very often. Even when bathing, I tended to go for quick showers rather than long soaks in the bath. The sight of myself naked was still disturbing to me. When I had first learned that my donor was to be a woman, I had vague fantasies of being my own voyeur, or my own playmate. The reality had turned out to be far less titillating, or even comfortable.

In the mirror I saw a young woman, in her late twenties. She had an unremarkable face, with an untidy shock of dark hair. Her build was slight, but made more curvaceous than it used to be by lack of exercise and the gentle decline of age. Gravity was beginning to win the battle over her breasts and her backside was beginning to spread in a way that would become less appealing in time. It was a face and body I knew well, but felt no attachment to. I stepped up to the mirror and looked into my eyes. That's you in there, I thought. It's the you that you always were and always will be. It doesn't matter whose flesh you wear. If I had lived, if I were forty-two year old Paul, I would have been a very different person to the Paul who had gone under the neurosurgeon's knife. Would he have seen himself as a stranger in the mirror? We all change, moulded by the hands of time. It's just a question of degree.

I ran a finger along the surface of the mirror, tracing the outline of my face. You could do worse, I decided. You could be dead. Maybe the person I had become was all right. So I was neither man nor woman - other people put up with far worse burdens or uncertainties without being destroyed by them. The person I had become couldn't be all bad; Tina had found something in me that was worth holding on to. Maybe I was someone she deserved after all.

When I checked the clock it was about four in the morning. I supposed it would be another day of calling in sick. Something told me they weren't going to renew my contract. I lay back on the bed and sighed. Well, at least it gave me a day to try to put things right with Tina.

* * *

It was gone noon by the time I hauled my weary body out of bed. I showered and washed my hair, before making myself some beans on toast. The afternoon was swallowed by television. I knew that I would go and see Tina that evening, to try to apologise for being such an arsehole. Until then I just needed to try to get some strength back.

As I watched the usual array of cookery programmes, quiz shows and Australian soaps my mind was ticking over. It didn't seem enough just to turn up on Tina's doorstep and tell her that, while I hadn't exactly sorted my head out, I had got a grip enough to try to make a go of things. Some kind of gesture seemed necessary. The more I thought about it, the more I realised only one thing felt right.

I waited for Natalie to come home.

* * *

"No, too tarty."

Natalie was holding up one of her dresses for inspection. It had quite a low cut front and not much in the way of a skirt. It wasn't that bad, really, but it was still further than I wanted to go.

"Fair enough. Are you sure this is what you want to do, though?"

I stopped to think about it. "No, I'm not sure. It just seems like the time, though. Maybe it'll help me feel more like a woman. At the very least it might help Tina think of me as one."

"Well, it's weirding me out a bit. Still, I think it's a great idea."

I nodded absently. "How about that long skirt of yours? You know, the flowery one."

"Yeah. We'll have to see if you're tall enough to make it work. Maybe if you borrow some heels."

"No chance. I want to be able to walk tonight."

I tried the skirt and a plain cotton blouse to go with it. They fitted, even if they were a bit large for me. Natalie is a good three inches taller than me, and a bit more curvy. I was going to have that problem whatever I borrowed. Still, they looked good on me. It was a surprise when I looked at myself in the mirror. I still wasn't exactly pretty, but I realised I could be attractive if I wanted to be. And for the first time in years I did want to be.

Natalie was patient with me when it came to the makeup. I fidgeted and fiddled as she applied lipstick and eyeliner and stuff. I was going to try to do all this stuff myself, but Natalie talked me out of it, saying that this wasn't really the best time to learn.

The final effect, while not stunning, was good. I decided, seeing my reflection dressed like this and made up so well, that if I were a man I might have asked me out, although probably not as a first choice. It was strange, as I'd never really thought of myself like that. It made me feel uncomfortable, but a bit excited at the same time.

I turned away from the mirror and faced Natalie. "Thanks."

"That's OK. If it'll stop that bloody girlfriend of your calling at all hours, it's worth it."

I smiled and turned to go.

"Should I expect you back tonight, or are you expecting to get lucky?" Natalie asked as I opened her bedroom door.

"You never know," I said and headed out.

* * *

It was dusk, so I took the bus. I was feeling vulnerable enough, dressed as I was, without worrying about walking around in the dark. I found an empty bank of seats and made myself comfortable. There wasn't really anything to see out the window, but I looked all the same. People and places passed by in a meaningless blur. I saw couples walking arm in arm, sharing smiles and conversations. Had I really shut myself off from this for so long? How had I survived? I had clothed myself in armour so effective I had forgotten I was wearing it. I let it become my skin. Now it was time to try to shed it and it terrified me.

Slowly, I became aware of someone looking at me, their gaze reflected in the glass of the window. I looked back and saw a young man, maybe twenty. He was sitting on his own, dressed in an old pair of jeans and an unfashionable waterproof jacket. His face was unlovely, but kindly, topped with a mop of greasy blonde hair. The expression in his eyes reminded me of a hungry dog, waiting for a tin to be opened. With a start I realised the expression was for me. As I met his eyes, he looked away, embarrassed. As the journey went on, I noticed him sneaking glances, but always quickly, afraid of being caught again. Is this all it takes? I thought. Just a skirt and a bit of makeup? My discomfort passed and I felt a quiet urge to talk to him, to tell him a bit about myself. The bus was approaching my stop, though, and there was no time. As I started to leave I paused in front of him. I leaned over and ran my hand across his cheek lightly. "Don't give up," I said. "You'll meet her someday." I turned to go. He was still staring at me in open-mouthed amazement when the bus pulled out.

* * *

I stood on the doorstep of the building that held Tina's bedsit for almost five minutes, trying to find the courage to push the buzzer. What if I'd judged it all wrong? Maybe I'd imagined the spark from her. Maybe she was just concerned when she'd called all those times. I forced myself to press the button in the end, simply tired of all the agonising.

I heard heavy footsteps coming down the stairs and then the door opened. Tina froze when she saw me, her expression shifting from surprise to delight. "Samantha? Wow! Look at you!"

I blushed and shuffled my feet.

"Come in," she said. I stepped into the hallway.

Tina was dressed in a loose knit black sweater and black jeans. Her hair was unbrushed and she wore no makeup. If it hadn't have been for the swell of her small breasts under the sweater she might have looked completely masculine. "Do you want to come upstairs?" she asked.

I grinned at her. "Do you think I came all this way to stand on your doorstep?"

She indicated the stairs with a flick of her head. "Let's go." I followed her up to her room.

Tina's room was small, furnished with only a bed, a chair, and a small table. Despite this, it still managed to be incredibly untidy. There were clothes strewn all over the place, forming small, black piles, like molehills on the carpet. A few dirty plates sat on the floor, baked bean juice on them hardened to scabs. Tina looked embarrassed by the mess, but I couldn't help grinning at her. It showed a weakness made my heart twinge with affection.

"Hang on," she said, "I'll clear a seat for you."

"Don't worry. I sat most of the way over here."

"I'll get us some tea at least. I don't have any coffee."

"Tea's great." I looked out the window at the view of a little garden, overgrown with brambles and bindweed, picked out by the light coming from a downstairs window.

Tina picked up a couple of cups from the floor and sniffed them suspiciously. "I'd better go and wash these. Put some music on, if you want. There's not much there, but Susan let me keep all the CDs she didn't like."

I started to pick through the precarious stack of CDs balanced on one of the speakers of the little black midi system. There was lots of goth-type stuff I remembered from my youth - The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Cure, Fields of the Nephilm. I guessed we were probably around the same age, or at least I wasn't much older than her. One case stood out from the others, as it was a double, with a white cover. I picked it up and felt a thrill of recognition. New Order's Substance. I used to have a copy, many years back. At some point I played it until I got sick of every track, even the B-sides, but enough time had passed for me to want to hear it again. I put the first disc on and flipped through to track three. _Temptation_ started up, with its ludicrously simple vocal hook and boppy baseline. I stood there with my eyes closed, listening, feeling a warm chill running down my spine. How had I ever forgotten this? The words came back to me and I started singing along with the chorus. "Up, down, turn around, please don't let me hit the ground."

"Nice one." I almost jumped as Tina spoke. "Hey, you were somewhere else, weren't you?"

"Sorry." I took the mug she offered and held it up to my mouth, letting the steam caress my face.

"I prefer _Bizarre Love Triangle_, but this one's nice and catchy too."

"I haven't listened to this for years. It never really made sense before, but now I feel like it could have been written for me. All that stuff about trying to break the circle placed around me. I know just how that feels."

"What circle's that supposed to be?"

"Oh, shit, I don't think I can explain it. It's why I'm here tonight. It's what all this is about." I plucked my skirt for emphasis.

Tina stood in the middle of the room and just looked at me. Her face looked like it was on the verge of an expression that she was afraid to commit to. I don't think she knew what to say.

"Look," I said, "We've both been around long enough to get beyond playing games. I know I feel something towards you, even if I'm not sure what. I think you feel something too. Are we ever going to do anything about it?"

I waited for Tina to say something. She didn't. She took the mug out of my hand and placed it on the window ledge. Taking the two steps towards me, she bent down and kissed me softly. I was ready for the stubble this time. I put my arms around her neck and held on as I returned the kiss with interest. Our lips locked and we lost ourselves in the twilight between affection and foreplay.

We broke off eventually. "Is that what you meant?"

"Well, it's a start."

* * *

Looking back on it now, it seems strange that I'd never had sex as a woman until that night. When the idea that my gender had changed had first sunk in, all those years ago, the novelty of it all carried an almost illicit thrill. The problem was that once I was out of the hospital and trying to slip back into my life that everything had started feeling terribly wrong. I tried masturbating, but orgasms were intermittent and largely elusive. I simply couldn't relax into enjoying it and I kept snapping back to the reality of fumbling with this alien anatomy. The idea of jumping into bed with a man appealed to me no more than it had when I was a man myself. The prospect of sex with a woman felt a bit better, but even then I couldn't get past the feeling of wrongness in myself. How could I be intimate with someone else when I could hardly stand being in bed with myself?

With Tina, though, the barriers were already falling down. Without meaning to, I'd let her in. In comparison to what I'd already been through to get there that night, the sex almost seemed trivial.

We took our time. Neither of us was exactly young, and while there was passion it fell into place behind a simple sharing of closeness. We fondled and sucked and rolled around in awkward permutations of elbows and knees. We laughed a lot and I may have cried quietly in the first quiet post-coital interlude. We even managed a kind of penetration. I was a bit shocked when I saw Tina's penis for the first time, not because it was there, but simply because it was so small. I mean, I wasn't exactly well hung myself, before, but this was almost negligible. She explained that it was an effect of the hormones. I didn't really complain. If she'd whipped out a throbbing eight-inch trouser snake I think I would have bolted.

Her erection came with difficulty and a lot of effort on both of our parts. I didn't take it personally. Even with the diminished size, it was still a shock when she slid into me. I'd tried a vibrator on myself a few times before and had certainly explored my vagina with my fingers, but it felt so different when it was someone else doing it and it was all outside my control. I won't pretend I collapsed into raptures of sexual ecstasy, but it was a lot better than I thought it would be. Tina even managed to come inside me, although only after a lot of false starts. I don't know why, but it felt important that she should. Orgasm eluded me, but I didn't mind. It was enough that I was there at all.

* * *

We spent most of the next day in bed together. There wasn't much sex, but it was nice just to lie there and be held. I'd forgotten the simple animal comfort of curling around a warm body. The bed was too small for both of us, but that just made things better. If we'd had more room we probably would have felt like less of a unit.

After a long, comfortable silence in which I may have started to drift off, Tina blew in my ear. "Sam?"

I flinched, involuntarily. "Please don't call me that."

"Uh, sorry. What's wrong with it?"

"Nothing I suppose. It's just that it's the one concession I made to reminding myself who I'd become. If I let people call me Sam, it would be too easy to pretend. Also, Samantha's what she called herself. It only seemed fair."

"OK. Samantha's a pretty good name." Tina tightened her grip around me in a way that made me feel safe and weak at the same time.

"Sorry. You were going to say something. I interrupted."

"Oh yeah. Silly question: do you ever think about what kind of story your life would be if you wrote it down? I think mine would be a farce, except for all the horrific bits. Overall it would probably be pretty funny. Ridiculous, at least."

I nuzzled her belly button. "I'm not sure about a farce. Comedy, maybe."

"No. Technically, a comedy is anything with a happy ending. I don't think I qualify for that."

"How do you know? You're not anywhere near the end yet. Maybe we all get a happy ending. I don't know about you, but I think I've earned one."

"Maybe. I'd like to think that's true."

"I guess that's halfway to making it true. It gives us something to work on, at least."

"Yeah. Maybe it does."

* * *

I don't know if I expected my last defences to crumble of their own accord. Suddenly I had opened myself to feelings that terrified and delighted me, but keeping the way clear for them was a lot more difficult than I had thought. As soon as I had time to pause, fear came stealing back.

Whatever intimacy Tina and I had reached during that first twenty-four hours of sharing our bodies felt fragile. What had been so natural at the time now felt like, if not an aberration, at least an unplanned detour on the path of my life.

For the couple of weeks that followed, we at least spoke to each other on the phone every day, even if we couldn't actually meet. The phone calls felt easier, as it gave our bodies the distance I needed to feel comfortable. A few nights we ended up in bed together, usually after we'd been drinking, but the old feelings of wrongness kept creeping up and dragging me back into my own head. Still, it wasn't exactly unpleasant, and waking up cocooned in Tina's arms made me feel safe and warm and less alone than I had for years.

Tina didn't need to be told something was wrong, but she never brought it up. I think it was wisdom rather than fear on her part, knowing that whatever was going on was something I needed to sort out for myself.

I wanted desperately to take off my armour, to break that circle I had once tried to explain to Tina. The problem is I had no idea how. Just wanting something isn't enough, particularly when it's you getting in the way. My mind is even more of a mystery to myself than my body.

I still don't know what would have happened to us if events hadn't intervened. It felt like a disaster at the time, which just shows how much I know.

* * *

Being a woman does have its advantages. People are generally nicer to you, at least in casual contact. Men, particularly the older ones, love an excuse to behave like gentlemen. Women talk to you freely, sharing confidences that would make men crawl away and hide with embarrassment.

The downside is larger, though, at least from my perspective. And out of all the things I don't like about my womanhood, periods come pretty high up the list. That didn't mean I was happy when the next one didn't turn up on time.

I didn't even notice it was late for the first couple of days. I don't tend to keep track of my cycle. I know well enough when it happens. Luckily I don't suffer from PMS, so apart from the bleeding, water retention and general ickiness I could almost pretend the whole thing didn't exist.

After a week I knew I couldn't just wait for it to start. The sensible thing to do would have been to slip quietly down to the chemist and pick up a home testing kit. The stupid thing I ended up doing was asking Natalie for advice.

"You think you're what?" Natalie's voice didn't quite reach a shout, but the tone of it made my fillings hurt.

"Pregnant," I said quietly. "You heard me fine." I sat still on the sofa with a cushion on my lap, as if for protection.

"How the fuck can you be pregnant?"

I looked at her for a moment, trying to manage a withering stare. The burning in my cheeks undermined it, though, and I ended up looking down at the carpet. "You know," I said. "The usual way."

"But you don't do the usual way. There are nuns who give it away more than you do."

"It doesn't take that many times if you're unlucky." I think I pouted. I hope I didn't, but a pout would have been in character. "Anyway, I came to you because I wanted support, not a bollocking."

Natalie sighed dramatically. "I'll do the support bit in a moment. Let me get this out of my system first."

"OK. Just do it quickly."

"What about condoms? I'm sure you've never even thought about the pill, but surely condoms wouldn't have been out of the question? They had been invented last time you got laid, right?"

I just nodded, too weary to try to think of a snappy comeback.

Natalie sat there and looked at me for what felt like a very log time. "So what do you want to do about it?" she asked eventually.

"What do you mean?" I already knew the answer, but I needed to hear someone else say it.

"Have you thought about an abortion?"

"I don't even know for sure that I'm pregnant yet and you're already trying to talk me into an abortion?"

Natalie closed her eyes tightly and spoke very slowly and deliberately. "I'm not trying to talk you into anything. I'm just asking a question. I don't know why, because you must have thought about it. I know I would."

I nodded slightly. "I really don't know. I mean, I'm never going to be a father. Maybe I'd make a good mother. Maybe this is my one chance. Besides, I've had enough death in my life without this. The idea of abortion always made me feel uncomfortable, and even more so under the circumstances. If I'm carrying something alive inside me," I said, running a hand across my belly, "I don't think I can really dispose of it like that."

"There's always adoption."

"Yeah. That might work better. It's not something I have to decide now, though, is it? Assuming my period's not just deciding to play silly buggers with me."

"True. There's something else you haven't mentioned. You're not having this baby all by yourself. You had help."



"Tina," I said.

* * *

The testing kit almost felt like a waste of money. I knew what the result would be even before I took it, and it did nothing to surprise me. It did give me the push I needed to talk to Tina, though.

I turned up unannounced at her bedsit. My visits had become pretty frequent, and it wasn't as if I hadn't just dropped by before, but Tina knew there was something wrong before I even got a chance to speak. "Is that a breaking up face?" she asked while I was still taking my coat off.


"Your expression. It's all frowny and serious. It's the expression of someone who wants to bail out."

"Don't be stupid," I said as affectionately as I could.

Tina busied herself making tea and tried to act unconcerned. She didn't fool me, though. "Look," I said as waited for my tea to cool enough to sip, "You're right about one thing. I am in a serious kind of mood."

I waited for Tina to say something, but she just watched me expectantly.

"I've tried to think of a clever or witty way to say this, to cushion it a bit, but it's the kind of thing which only really works in blunt words." I took a breath, but it didn't help. "I'm pregnant."

It took a few moments for Tina to react. I don't know exactly what I expected. I suppose most people would swear or panic, maybe retreat inside themselves. Tina isn't most people.

"That's wonderful," she said at last.

"It is?" I tested my emotions to see if I could find any trace of the same enthusiasm, but if it was there it was well hidden.

"Of course it is."

I nodded absently and looked out the window. The sky was grey and dull and made me feel nothing.

Tina snatched me back from my thoughts. "Is it mine?" She tried to keep a straight face. I failed. Whatever tension there was shattered as we both collapsed into helpless giggles. It took a few minutes for us to get our composure back.

"Well, it's hard to keep track, you know, with all the casual flings, but I'd say there's a good chance." The last few words came out as a sputter and we were lost again. Tina's eyeliner smudged beautifully.

When things calmed down a bit we just sat there, grinning soppy grins at each other.

"I fucking love you, you know that?" And though I did know it, the words still came as a shock. I guess I didn't really expect to hear them out loud. There was a slight twinge of sickness in my stomach, but it felt good.

"I know." I nodded slightly. Somewhere inside I knew the thing to do was kiss her, but I didn't want to interrupt the moment. I just looked into her eyes, seeing what I needed to see. She seemed to understand.

"And you?"

"Yeah. Me too."

"Good." A wicked little gleam crept into Tina's eye. "Want to bear my children, then?"

How could I say no?

* * *

It was inevitable that Tina and I would move in together, so we did so without too much farting around. I don't think she wanted to miss a minute of my pregnancy. She's never said as much, but I get a strong feeling that she's jealous. It's an expression of femininity that she can never manage herself. If I could, I'd trade places with her without reservation, but we've managed fine with the way things are.

And, for the next few months, things went pretty well. We found a two bedroom flat in Penge that we could just about afford. We kitted the second bedroom out as a nursery as we got the money to buy the bits we needed. We had discussed things and arrived at the rational decision that we weren't going to spoil the baby, but both of us knew we were going to anyway.

I'd never really lived with anyone before, at least not in a relationship, and I was surprised at how easily we both fell into it. Having someone else around, in my life and in my bed, gave me a feeling of security I didn't even know I was missing. I was glad it was Tina. She felt like a part of my life that had always been there.

Still, there was something missing. As my pregnancy developed my sleep got worse, mainly due to having to get up to pee, and in those quiet moments around three in the morning when thoughts come more honestly than in the day I knew that I was still sleepwalking. There doesn't seem to be a better way to explain things. I was in the middle of a stretch of happiness, the likes of which I had never known before, and I still didn't feel like I was really _there_.

I knew there was something else required. I talked through it with Doctor Rowney during one of our ever more infrequent sessions and he gave me a suggestion. At first it sounded silly and flippant, but the more I thought about it the more I realised that there may be some value to it after all.

One rainy Saturday morning we took the train to Manchester.

* * *

"So this is it, then?"

"Yep. This is it." The cemetery had a bland, modern feel to it. Most of the headstones were plain oblongs of polished black or grey stone. There was an anonymous, corporate look to the regular arrangement of the graves and the neatly trimmed greenery. Graveyards are supposed to be wild and overgrown, with the sense of time that worn and cracked tombstones and ivy-choked mausoleums lend. Still, it was home.

Tina held a bunch of lilies we could ill afford, but there had been no talking her out of it. My hands felt almost guilty in their emptiness, so I just cupped the swell of my belly. At seven months I was really beginning to balloon out. It didn't offend my vanity, but it still felt alien.

"Hi, Paul." Tina knelt down on the grassy surface of my grave and placed the flowers gently in front of the headstone. "Good to meet you at last."

I watched a magpie jumping around between the graves, waiting for a tasty morsel to find its way out of the earth. How did it go? One for sorrow, two for joy... I unfocussed my eyes until I saw double. It would have to do. Today would be hard enough without worrying about childhood superstitions.

Tina squeezed my hand and I started slightly. "Well?" she said.

"Hmmm..." I ran a hand over the smooth surface of the headstone, tracing the letters that spelled out a name that was once mine. "I don't know. I thought it would all come naturally. Now that we're here I just feel awkward."

"That's OK. We can leave any time you want."

"No. We've come all this way. It felt important."


I closed my eyes and took a breath. "Hey, Paul. It's me." Tina put a hand on my shoulder and gave me a reassuring squeeze. "I just wanted to say... I mean, you, or me, or..." I turned away, losing Tina's hand in the process. "Fuck it. This just isn't working. It feels stupid. I thought this would be some big cathartic moment for me, the moment where I put my old life behind me and go on with what I have now. It doesn't work like that though, does it? You can't just walk away from yourself like that. Nothing's ever that simple."

Disillusioned and empty, I went back to watching the magpie. Three for a girl, four for a boy... Maybe there were some more around, but how many would be the right number? Did it really matter any more? I looked down at my swollen breasts and protruding belly. They gave me as much of an answer as anything else could. Why was this important? I wasn't Paul any more than I was a seventeen-year-old girl who hadn't managed to find a reason to go on living. I was someone else, someone who owed a debt to both of them, but had her own life to live. It's a sin to sleepwalk through one lifetime; two would just be unforgivable.

Tina smiled at me and all I could do was blink back tears. Natalie had been right, all those months back. I'm just a person. Everything else is window dressing. That's the problem with real truths: when you hear them told to you, they're just words. If they're great truths, they probably sound like cliches. Words on their own don't mean anything. Until you're ready to understand something for yourself, you might as well be talking about the weather.

Something happened then. The words stopped being just words. I guess the time was right, that I'd decided to understand what I already knew. It would be poetic to give some metaphysical spin to the whole thing, but it wouldn't be true. A sudden flood of emotion rose up within me and my knees almost buckled under me. I looked up at Tina and I could feel the love between us as much as the cold breeze that whipped around us. My eyes blurred and I grabbed for her blindly. She knew exactly what to do and held me tight. It wasn't meant as comfort, just as two halves of a whole coming together. We stood that way for a long time, with the light drizzle landing unnoticed on our shivering bodies.

I think I was the one who let go first. I didn't really want to, but I knew it was time to leave. The magpie had flown off and the rain was getting heavier. I patted the top of the gravestone and said a silent goodbye.

We walked back to the station, holding hands the whole time. The rain followed us all the way.

* * *

It's only been weeks since then, but it feels like a lot of living has gone on in that little time. That's a good feeling. After years of flatlined emotions, the peaks and troughs of real life are intoxicating. I still have no more idea of what our future holds, but at least I have the feeling that it's a future I want to be a part of.

Life still holds as many annoyances and much stupidity as ever, but I'm more likely to laugh at them now than be upset. It's been a hard lesson, but I know now that life is too important to be taken seriously.

Not that either of us are in any hurry, or even believe in the institution much, but we've discovered something funny about our chances of getting married. If we stay in the UK, we'll never be allowed to, because we're both men. My birth certificate is Paul's, not Samantha's, and Tina's will always show her as being male. Neither of us could really get upset over it, however. The absurdity was just too much.

Tina still hasn't had her final op, but we've talked it over and I'm happy with the idea. It's just who she is. How can I of all people take issue with that? I'm sure our son will love both of his mothers.

Our sex life still won't start any fires, but we've found a degree of intimacy and comfort between us that I thought would be denied me for the rest of my days.

I have no idea what kind of mother I'll make. Not as good a one as Tina, I think, but I'll try to muddle along. It's not really a role I'd ever prepared for. Our son is going to have a weird time of things, but I'm determined that whatever baggage I still have I'm going to give him all the love I can find. How could I do anything else? Even though I've only seen him through a sonogram I can tell he's going to be the best child ever.

So where does all this leave me now? Am I an integrated, whole person? Not even close. Am I a woman now, or still a man lost in someone else's life? God only knows. Am I happy?

You know something? I think I might be.

And, for now, that will just have to be enough.

(c) 1999 XoYo

Back to index