GIRL BY DESIGN 

by Amanda Holmes <aholmesduffy@hotmail.com>

There's more to a woman than a pretty floral dress. We know that in our hearts, but sometimes we forget. The day I'm going to tell you about, I had on a netted crop top, giant bellbottoms with a flame running up one leg, and a fountain of cork screw curls bursting from a scrunchie on the crown of my head. Not the clothes your Auntie approves.

"You might have taken that stud out of your nose," Mum said as we walked up the tiny path by the tea-rose bush. There was a sound of yapping dogs beyond the yellow front door and I patted the top of Mum's head, to remind her I was bigger than she was.

The door opened to the usual round of hugs and kisses. Auntie Nan looked about five inches smaller than the last time I saw her, but she was still very energetic for an elderly woman. A bunch of little dogs jumped around our ankles.

If you want to know what it feels like to be entombed alive, visit my Auntie Nan's house. It was like the sun had stopped shining twenty years before, and she was still trying to live on borrowed light. There was no energy in the ticking clock on the mantle, and thick smell of furniture polish. Nothing had changed since our visit a year earlier. Knick-knacks and doilies dotted every surface, as did photographs of various smooth young men who had now grown old and died. I dipped my hand into a sad little dish of chocolates, and popped one into my mouth.

"Let's go through to the garden," said Auntie Nan. She'd been to the hair-dressers and bothered about jewelry, for a change.

Out on the patio, Big Auntie was sitting in a wicker chair wearing a white suit that matched her white hair. Her false teeth shifted in her mouth ever so slightly. I wondered when the smiles were going to crack. Hey everybody, Jessie isn't such a sweet little girl after all, is she, with her nose stud and her black lipstick.

The sun came out, the grass was green, and a blackbird was singing in the hedges. Neither my father nor the male cousins turned up. Off at some football match, I supposed.

Big Auntie's smile hung out like she'd forgotten it. Her lip dribbled a bit these days when she had her tea, but I'm sure I could have found something better for her than the pink bib she had on, decorated with elephants climbing ladders and spilling buckets of water.

"It's all a game, isn't it Auntie," I said. "All a crazy game."

"What did you say, dear?"

"I said you look very stylish in that suit. It matches your hair very well," I said, in a louder voice.

"I'm glad you told me," she said. "The others want to get something out of me. But you I trust, and I thank you very much." She twirled the ring on her finger, a chunk of amber that would look good only on an old hand. "Pretty ring, isn't it," she said. "What's that spider's web doing on your arm?" I showed her my tattoo.

Somehow we got around to Big Auntie's Will and she asked me to go upstairs and fetch her pearls. It always came down to something like this. Auntie telling me what she would leave me in her Will and me saying thank you, although I could no more imagine myself wearing a string of pearls than I could imagine her with a body piercing. I headed through the kitchen, a tiny world with a boiling kettle where Nan was cutting sandwiches and scooping flapjacks onto a plate.

Suddenly, a great big woman in a picture-frame hat came waltzing through the door. She was floral, flouncy, and overdone. She filled the door frame, towering over me, leaning forwards, while I was on the floor somewhere, trying to get out of the way. Mum's face froze.

Auntie Nan said "Oh," and frowned down at her sandwich board. "You've never met Vanessa before, have you?"

"No," I said, thinking this was a neighbor.

"Of course we've met, Jessica. It's me, your mother's cousin, Tim." I was gob-smacked.

Tim, the one who was always growing a beard and shaving it off again? The cousin with all the girlfriends?

"I've never done it with the hat before," he confided, as he walked into the garden. "Does it work?"

"No," I said. "It looks bloody awful." And I laughed, because who wouldn't?

I saw Mum making warning faces at me behind his back, and Auntie Nan looked ashen. The only one who took it in stride was Big Auntie, in her white suit and elephant bib. "Come over here dear, and give your Auntie a kiss!"

"Excuse me," I told them. "I was just going to fetch Big Auntie's pearls." I dashed back through the kitchen, but Mum ran after me, grabbing my arm. I pulled free and almost toppled the Staffordshire dogs on the mantle.

"Jessica," Mum said, going soft and quiet, her face pinched. "I didn't know he was coming. Apparently he's having a sex-change. He's always felt like a woman trapped in a man's body, trying to get out."

"Just leave me alone," I said. I forgot about getting the pearls. Instead I went into the lavatory and shut the door. I stared at my whitened face. My heart was thumping and I started to laugh, but all of a sudden I was crying. He looked like a caricature. What was he thinking, trying to get to womanhood all in one go? And why did he imagine that a floral dress and a hat would help? You wouldn't have caught me dead in a ditch with the clothes he had on that day.

I splashed my face with cold water, put on some black lipstick and readjusted my nose stud. Then I sat on the candlewick loo cover and tried to catch my breath.

Outside in the garden everyone sat around making polite conversation. Tim was center stage, legs neatly crossed like a lady. He ate some sandwiches and got a big slice of cake. Before he tucked into it, I screwed up my courage and piped: "You're going to have to curb your appetite, Vanessa darling. We girls have to watch our figures."

Everyone laughed at the joke. "So, Mum was telling me you think you're a woman trapped inside a man's body," I said. Out with it, I decided. No use beating around the bush.

He flicked his hair over one shoulder with a studied gesture. "That's a good way of putting it," he said confidentially. "And Jessie, I can't tell you what a relief it is to be able to dress the way I feel."

"It's a fashion thing?" I asked. "But I thought you were having a sex-change."

His eyes went thick and glassy. "It's a long process. The operation comes later. For now I've only done electrolysis and had my eyebrows plucked. I'm taking female hormones to make my breasts enlarge. It's all very new at the moment, so I hope you understand if I get a bit emotional. "

Mum was balancing a cup of tea on her lap. "Of course we do, Vanessa," she gushed.

"Jessie understands, don't you Jess." I thought that was pretty stupid of her. I mean, if he'd been born in the eighteenth century he could have worn powder and make-up and interesting wigs and been every bit as male as Casanova.

"But how do you know you're different from the rest of us?" I asked, biting into my chocolate cake. "Maybe I'm a little man trapped inside a woman's body," I said. "Ever thought of that?"

"Don't be funny," Mum interjected, looking apologetic because I was saying things the others didn't have the nerve to ask themselves.

I looked into Tim's eyes and remembered them without all that make-up on. It made me want to cry again. "Of course, there's more to being a woman than wearing a dress," he said, putting a hand on my knee.

"Hey," I said. "Get off! You're still attracted to women, aren't you?"

"I am still attracted to girls," Vanessa said. "But there's more to being a girl than sex. Nobody embarks on something like this for simple reasons, Jess."

"No matter what you do, you'll never realize the half of it," I told him. "The first time I got my period, Mum wanted to talk about blood and babies, and my body reminding me every month that it's female. And I thought, You've got to be joking. You mean I've got to go through this every month? That's normal?"

Tim said nothing.

"Strange. I would have thought she'd understand," Auntie Nan put in with her lip quavering. "Where's your compassion, Jessie? You, of all people, all tarted up like a vampire. None of us said a thing about what you were wearing, did we? Do you think Tim asked to be born a man?"

I thought she'd gone crazy.

"That's not how I feel Auntie Nan," I cried. "He's planning on getting his penis cut off. It's a terrible idea. Isn't anybody going to stop him?"

I could see Mum and Auntie Nan glaring at me. But what did they care about Tim? They can't have seen him like I did, because if they had, they'd have realized he'd never make a convincing girl. The proportions were wrong. The nose was too big, the lips too thin, the chin too broad for a girl. And his knees in those stockings looked lumpy and mannish. Tim could have all the hormones and plastic surgery in the world, and he'd still only end up a girl by design.

The sun was going down, the light was orange, somehow the flapjacks got eaten. Big Auntie nodded off. Nobody bothered explaining Tim to her. They thought they'd allow her to put it down to her new medication.

I nipped upstairs to fetch Auntie's pearls. I found them on her dressing table in her rose-smelling, robin's-egg bedroom. At the mirror, I fastened the pearls round my neck. They lay against the black synthetic netting of my crop top, old as cobweb, but heavy with the substance of history. Against their whiteness, my own pallor hinted at death.

I went back out to the garden. "Auntie wants to leave these to me, in her Will," I said. Auntie woke up with a befuddled start. Her eyes locked on my neck.

"Oh!" she said. "What's wrong with the pearls?"

"They're fine," I said. "It's me that's wrong."

"You'd better take them off, Jess," Mum said quietly.

Tim wiped his eyes and Mum smiled, but I couldn't look him in the eye. I wanted to turn the clocks to zero, and think it through again. Man in God's image, both male and female, and all of it very good.


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