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Authors: Charity Norman

Tags: #Fiction, #Family Life

The New Woman (29 page)

BOOK: The New Woman
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‘Um, well, to be honest, my home town got a bit small. I lost my job. They said it was a redundancy but . . . you know.
And my family aren’t talking to me. My mum reckons I’m dead to her.’ She chuckled fondly, as though her mother was terribly witty. ‘My brother said he’d make sure I was
really
dead if he saw me again.’

She told me she’d been for an interview the day before. It was at a cafe that was looking for a manager. Right up her alley; she could have done it standing on her head. I asked how it had gone, and she shrugged. ‘As soon as they saw me they said they had somebody else in mind. That’s okay. No problem. Something will come up.’

We walked on. I imagined the cafe owner hearing Chloe’s deep voice and thinking,
No way
. I felt angry for my new young friend. My mind was skimming across the employment laws, wondering if she should take a stand.

‘It’s okay. If they don’t want me, I don’t want to be there,’ she said, as though she’d read my thoughts. ‘I can almost pass, most of the time. I just need to work on my voice.’

‘You certainly can pass. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to.’

She looked me up and down with a critical eye. ‘’Course you will! You’ve got the face for it. You’re not too tall. Just wait till you’ve been on hormones for a while, and get boobs.’

‘I can’t even walk right.’

She took my arm and danced me down the street. She seemed hopeful and vital and oddly naive. I hated to think of her plying her trade.

‘Watch and learn,’ she said, laughing. ‘Watch and learn.’

Thirty

Eilish

November the tenth was my birthday. Jim Chadwick buttonholed me at school, and asked if he could take me out for dinner. I was able to say no without having to search my conscience, because Carmela—such a thoughtful daughter-in-law—had invited me to London to spend the night with them.

Jim was undeterred. ‘How about some other time? Absolutely no strings attached. I promise.’

‘Not for a couple of weeks, anyway. I’ve got parent meetings and reports and the school play.’ I was making excuses; putting off the decision.

He grinned. ‘Good enough for me,’ he said, before pelting away to stop a violent brawl in the quad. I could hear him yelling, ‘Break it up! C’mon, break it up! Haven’t you lads heard of the Queensberry Rules?’

A parcel from Luke arrived on my birthday. I opened it to find emerald earrings glowing on a velvet cushion. They matched my engagement ring. What was the proper response to such a gift from the man I was divorcing? Should I mark the parcel
return to sender
and shove it in the nearest post box? Should I give it to charity?

I did neither. Instead, I stood in front of the bedroom mirror
and slid them into my ears. They were single stones set in gold, and truly beautiful. Luke had chosen well. He always did have good taste. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to imagine that he was standing very close behind me. We were still happy, still together, still off to Tuscany next year.

I was deep in this daydream when the phone rang. Talk of the devil.

‘Sorry to bother you,’ said Luke. ‘Happy birthday.’

I never admitted it to him, I barely admitted it even to myself, but I felt warmer when I heard his voice. You can’t just drop a friendship like ours into the recycling bin.

I thanked him for the earrings. ‘They’re perfect,’ I said. ‘Though I’ve a feeling my solicitor would disapprove. We’re supposed to be dividing our assets, not giving more of them to each other.’

He asked about work, and I fumed about the size of Walter’s ego, which was in inverse proportion to his competence. Luke was worried about the Rayburn—did it need servicing? Was the house warm enough? And how were the grandchildren?

Once we’d covered all these topics, there was a long pause. Neither of us wanted the conversation to end. This can’t go on, I thought. I have to understand his new world. If I don’t do that, I can’t even be his friend. I took a breath.

‘So,’ I said. ‘What’s happening about your . . . gender problems?’

He sounded pleased, but wary. ‘You don’t really want to know.’

‘I think I’d better. It’s probably time my head came out of the sand.’

He talked; slowly at first, hesitantly, as though afraid I’d slam down the phone. He’d been to a gender clinic but had taken no hormones yet. He was also seeing a counsellor, though he wasn’t sure why.

‘That’s good,’ I said. ‘You’ve got professional help.’

‘The further down this road I go, the more I feel as though I’m coming home. Do you know what I did last week? Well, of
course you don’t know.’ He gave a small, nervous laugh. ‘I’m going gaga.’

I sighed. ‘All right. What did you do last week?’

‘I went to a group. A peer support group. I met people I never knew existed.’

He was obviously bursting to tell me about it. As he talked, I was struck by the animation in his voice. The old Luke never used to bubble over with news; he was reticent and careful. The new Luke was forging a new life. He’d taken the tube to Barking and gone into the community room of a church, a room filled with strangers. He’d befriended a transsexual prostitute from Manchester. He used other words for it (
trans woman
,
escort
) but we both knew what he meant.

‘What’s, um, he or she like?’ I asked, genuinely curious.

‘Her name is Chloe. She’s brave. Bright, I think. She’s also vulnerable, despite towering over me at six foot two. She’s almost exactly Kate’s age.’

‘How sad. She’s got no future, has she?’

‘I hope you’re wrong about that. Here’s something that surprised me . . . On the twentieth of November, they’re all meeting up for a candlelight vigil to mark—this is extraordinary, Eilish, I didn’t even know this existed—to mark the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s held all over the world, to remember everyone who’s been murdered because they’re trans.’

‘Actually murdered?’ This was a new worry; it hadn’t occurred to me. ‘Are you safe?’

‘Oh, I think so. I’m too old and ugly to attract any attention.’

I was talking to Luke; and yet it wasn’t quite Luke. This person was . . . not exactly happy, he was too anxious for that, but . . .
hopeful.
Yes, that was it. There was a light at the end of his tunnel. It was heartbreaking, and yet intriguing.

I heard a knock on the kitchen doors downstairs, and Stella’s voice, calling, ‘Yoo-hoo, where’s the birthday girl?’

Luke laughed. ‘I heard that all the way from London! You’d better go. Give Stella my love.’

‘Thanks for these lovely earrings,’ I said.

‘Happy birthday, my darling.’

That afternoon, I babysat Nico. We got out his Lego. He built a spaceship, flew it around—
whoosh!
—and carefully landed. Then he stopped playing. He just sat and looked at the ship. He was mouthing words silently to himself.

‘What are you thinking about, monkey?’ I asked.

‘Thinking about a wooden plane. Is Grandpa home again?’

I didn’t expect it. Not coming out, just like that.

‘He isn’t,’ I said.

‘Is he in the little house? The one with a door under the ground?’

‘Yes.’ I swallowed, making a supreme effort to keep my voice light. ‘Yes. He’s been busy at work, and the door-under-ground house is handy for his work.’

‘He should be at
your
house.’ His brow was furrowed. I stood up, brushing down my trousers as I wondered how best to distract him.

‘Daddy shouted at Grandpa,’ he said.

‘Shall we go out into the garden?’

He picked up the spaceship and flew it through the air in front of him, whispering
Whoosh.
‘Is Grandpa dead?’

‘No, darling, he’s not dead. He’s—he’s—’ My throat closed up. Yes, I thought, Grandpa is dead, in a way. Or at least dying. He’s never going to come back to us.

‘Whoosh. Whoooosh. We were going to make a plane out of wood. In his shed. He promised.’

‘I’ll tell him.’

‘You’ll tell him we have to make a plane?’

I nodded and smiled. I was thinking that perhaps Luke could come back to Smith’s Barn for a day, and Nico could come too. Why not? Surely Simon would agree, if I offered to be present at all times. I imagined Luke back at home, making a plane with
Nico. It was such a happy idea. They could potter about in the shed. I could bring them cups of tea and juice. It would be just pretending, but it would be like old times.

Nico was energised; he jumped up and ran across to the telephone. ‘Shall we phone and tell him? You dial the number, please, Granny, and I will talk.’

‘He’ll be . . .’ I shook my head. ‘We have to ask your dad and mum.’

His face crumpled. I ran over to him, picked him up and squeezed him tight. ‘Don’t cry! Grandpa will make your plane with you,’ I said. ‘I promise.’

‘Absolutely not,’ said Simon.

‘But if—’

‘Not happening. Please drop the subject.’

We were sitting at the breakfast bar in their kitchen, eating paella Carmela had rustled up. Simon had arrived home later than expected, via the pub (‘just a couple of drinks’), and was now knocking back prosecco at a rate of knots. Carmela looked dog-tired but refused any help. Nico was in bed, Rosa asleep in her carrycot in a corner of the kitchen. She was a stunner, my little granddaughter; still the size of a newborn baby, with olive skin and cherry-red lips. Kate had joined us too. She seemed rather smitten with her new niece, which amused me because she’d never before—at any age, or any stage—shown the slightest interest in babies, or kittens, or ponies. She kept taking photographs of Rosa.

‘Simon,’ I said sternly—he might be almost thirty, but he was my son and I wasn’t going to be bullied. ‘Let me finish my sentence. I just thought Luke could come to my place for the day. Obviously he’d have to promise to . . . you know. Be male. Nico can stay over with me.’

‘Nico asks about Luke all the time,’ said Carmela. ‘But I’m afraid it’s not going to happen.’

Kate scowled. ‘Why not? Because Simon can’t behave like an adult?’

Simon wasn’t sober, and he was struggling to stay calm under fire. I knew the signs; his jaw was tight. ‘What d’you suggest, Miss Cleverclogs? D’you want Nico and Rosa to grow up with a drag queen for a role model? What are they supposed to tell their schoolmates?’

‘God, you’re a pompous douchebag,’ retorted Kate. ‘Is this about what’s best for your kids, or is it really about punishing poor Dad?’

Simon looked as though he could cheerfully strangle his sister, which was nothing new. They’d begun arguing when Kate was two, and there haven’t been many ceasefires since then. Still, I think they love one another. I hope they do.

‘It’ll be very hard on Nico if Luke simply disappears from his life,’ I ventured.

‘Mum, think about the practicalities,’ Simon said, refilling our glasses. ‘Let’s assume Dad goes ahead as planned: takes hormones, grows breasts, has his bits cut off, goes the whole way. People do. I know they do. Nico and Rosa are not—repeat
not
—going to have to deal with that kind of . . . weirdness. How do you propose to explain to Nico that Grandpa is a lady boy?’

‘Well,’ said Kate, ‘you could just tell him the truth. He’ll take it in his stride.’

‘Shut up.’

She didn’t shut up. ‘So you’d rather cut Dad out altogether? Seriously—you’re going to be that bigoted?’

I saw Carmela touch her husband’s shoulder, flashing Kate a warning glance. ‘We have to decide whether we’re happy about our children having a transsexual person in their lives. There is a stigma, Kate. And Simon feels that the answer is no.’

Transsexual
. I didn’t like the word. It conjured images of
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
. Fishnet tights. Transylvania.

‘If Luke has a lovely day with Nico,’ I suggested, ‘he might change his mind.’

‘You can’t use Nico as bait,’ said Simon, who’d begun slamming plates into the dishwasher.

‘No! Not bait. Just a reminder of what family life is all about; what he’s missing.’

‘You’d trust him again? I wouldn’t. Come on, Mum. He’s history. Find yourself somebody else.’

BOOK: The New Woman
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