All that glitters…
by Patrick O’Connor
THE drive home was slow: the flat tyre made it seem to last a lifetime. Even my usual game of mimicking other drivers didn’t help.
A lone packet of vegetable lasagne stared back at me from the middle shelf of my otherwise bare freezer. I kicked off my shoes and tried to relax, but the mistakes I’d made earlier at work kept sneaking into my thoughts.
The microwave pinged. At the same time, the phone rang. I was in two minds: answer it, or let the machine kick in? Years later I came to regard that moment as the single biggest mistake I ever made, one that I would regret for the rest of my life.
I picked up the phone.
“Hi gorgeous, it’s me,” said the familiar voice on the other end of the line.
“May I say that you were looking particularly stunning at work today.”
“Thank you kind sir.”
“Fancy popping out to the The Squires?”
“Are you sure, you know…”
“No problem, come as you are, I am.”
“What! You can’t be serious.”
There was a pause, followed by a giggle, the sort of giggle that had swayed me so many times over the years.
“Robert, I can’t.”
I gave myself a once over.
“Why? My feet are killing me, my hair’s a mess and my nails need doing.”
Robert’s trademark dirty laugh echoed in my ears. It was a crazy idea but I knew I was weakening, I always did.
“Don’t worry beautiful, you’ll have all the men in there drooling over you,” he said.
The Squires was a cool bar for cool people, the sort of place which played Sade continuously on a loop. Polished oak floors, leather loungers, cosy corners, all expertly crafted to provide the right sort of atmosphere for the opulent or those with aspirations.
Just inside the entrance was a long, gilt framed mirror which provided the perfect opportunity for critical appraisal.
I thought I looked okay in my Top Shop print dress, high-heeled wedge sandals, an appearance underpinned by black tights from Next and rather fetching matching red M&S bra and knickers.
The only thing which let me down was the walk but I just about managed to stagger over to where Robert was sitting without falling over.
I was 28 years old, a normal sort of bloke, engaged to the lovely Cecilia with a wedding only a fortnight away but at the time of that telephone conservation, Robert and I were both dressed as women!
He was my best friend, we went to school together and worked at an advertising agency as account managers. Our boss Martina, a she-devil in a power suit, finely tuned muscles and a face that could switch from seductive to sadistic in a nano-second, was always coming up with crazy ideas such as team-bonding hikes in the Hebrides or brain-storming sessions in a mixed sauna at the local health club.
Her latest wheeze had been a “gender realignment week” during which she wanted some of her male staff to “understand the needs of women consumers better.”
“Robert, Gilbert, my pretty boys, you’ll do,” was the command from up on high. Martina was 6ft 1in and once represented Gloucestershire at judo whilst at Cheltenham Ladies’ College so you didn’t argue with her.
She was always calling Robert and I her pretty boys. We were very similar in looks, slim, fit, typical English Home Counties handsome in a Hugh Grant sort of way, floppy brown hair constantly being flicked away from dark brown eyes.
Martina wanted Robert and I to spend the week dressed as women so that we “could better relate to their issues, desires and the obstacles they faced.” We were to get ‘in character’ to help us study shopping patterns, brand allegiances and consumer trends.
Her friend Theodora, a make-up artist in the West End, was brought in to give us a makeover – clothes, make-up, how to walk, how to pitch our voices and, of course, how to pad the bra out.
Our brief was spend a working week as women. Martina also suggested that when stuck in rush-hour traffic jams we copied women drivers as they preened and perfected themselves in the driver’s mirror.
“Watch their every movement my lovelies. Watch how conscious they are of their appearance every single minute of the day. That’s what being a woman is all about, at least, that’s what our clients want them to believe. So that’s what I want you to do. Just think upon it as a game, a copy-cat game.”
Robert took to the whole thing like a duck to water but I struggled, especially with the walk.
The day of the phone call Martina was forever yelling at me: “Gilbert darling, wiggle that arse. Pout, for God’s sake man pout.”
I was forever stumbling along the corridors, forgetting to use my ‘girly voice’ to colleagues. Martina was pretty demanding and my mistakes were starting to worry me. She was one tough bitch and if her mood was right she would sack me without giving it a moment’s thought.
So a flat tyre on the way home capped a lousy day, especially as the breakdown man couldn’t stop giggling to himself throughout the entire time he changed the wheel.
There was no way I was going change it myself, not the way I was dressed, but by the time he arrived it was sweltering hot and I just had to take my wig off.
So the idea of going to a wine bar still dressed as woman was not something I would have normally considered but then there was the situation with Irish Darren.
As I mentioned earlier, Robert was my best mate and he got me in at the agency after I was made redundant from my job as an ad rep at a local newspaper. We go back a long way but Robert was a nutter, mad as a hatter, always getting into scrapes and often dragging me down with him as well. In years gone by he would have been described as a rake, an adventurer.
But if I’m being honest, that was part of his appeal. He did things that I would never dare to do, he brought excitement where I brought boredom, he was the Hyde to my Jekyll.
There were times when I should have dumped him but somehow I always forgave him.
Mind you, the Irish Darren thing was really pushing it. Darren, a 5ft 8in, ginger-haired lump of mayhem, was a money lender, a human Staffordshire bull terrier, out of equally ugly parentage from County Cork.
Robert got himself into a bit of mess, owing money to Irish Darren but then set up a separate account in my name without telling me. Darren wasn’t particularly concerned with procedure/authorisation, that sort of thing. He couldn’t care less where the money went to, as long as it came back with massive interest – and on time.
The upshot of all this was that Irish Darren was on the hunt for both of us which was why for the past couple of weeks we had been lying low, afraid to go out in the evenings.
But dressed as a couple of girls, well that shouldn’t have been a problem…
“Right, I’m Roberta and you’re Gilda,” said Robert, pouring a large glass of Pino. There was no doubt that of the two us, Robert was by far the more attractive as a woman, in fact the same could be said of him as a man. Once when he was very drunk, he had asked me if I would have fancied him if I was a woman. I made a joke of it and laughed it off but deep down I knew the answer. He had a magnetic personality, a beguiling manner which drew you to him. Yes he in many ways he was a scoundrel, but a lovable one.
Robert sat there in his knee-length black chiffon dress with a print pattern from H&M and said he had come shoeless as a tribute to his mother’s heroine, Sandie Shaw. I didn’t bother asking what knickers he had on.
We’d only been there a few minutes when I spotted Robert fluttering his eyelids at a couple of men sitting a few feet away.
“What on earth are you doing?”I whispered as I grabbed his arm.
“Come on, this should be fun,” he replied in the velvety Roberta voice he had conjured up to perfection.
Nathaniel and Nigel were loaded and well groomed. They were obviously on the pull and I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable.
Within the hour we had consumed three bottles of champagne and Robert was looking all dewy-eyed at Nathaniel. I couldn’t understand what was going on. He wasn’t gay, or at least in all the years I had known him, he had never given any indication that he was that way inclined. He’d had plenty of girlfriends, far more than me but he seemed to be enjoying the occasion far too much for my liking.
Nigel kept putting his hand up my skirt under the table and I kept pushing it away. He was obviously far too drunk to recognise the charade that was taking place but it was getting close to the moment when I would have to come clean. Then I discovered I had far bigger worries.
Into the bar walked Cecilia with her sister Ruth. She had returned that day from uni where she was studying theology but it was her sister’s birthday and we weren’t due to meet up until the weekend.
I was dumbfounded.
Robert and I had met the two sisters at a party three years previously and he’d had a tempestuous fling with Ruth which ended in tears before she went off to marry an accountant but Cecilia and I hit it off straight away. She wasn’t conventionally beautiful and, in truth, was slightly overweight compared to the usual girls I went out with but she had a lovely warm personality and we had become great friends.
The hardest thing about our relationship was that she didn’t want to have sex until we were married. She was a stickler when it came to her Christian beliefs and although Robert had lambasted her as “dull as dishwater” I was prepared to wait – after all the wedding was just around the corner.
She had never been to The Squires before as far as I knew – she didn’t even drink alcohol – so it must have been Ruth’s idea.
They sat down a few yards away from us and I froze as she gazed around the room. For a moment, her eyes settled on me and there was a just a hint, just a very, very subtle hint that something was unsettling her sub-conscious, something in the depths of her mind telling her that the person she was looking at was in some way familiar.
I hadn’t told her about my ‘project’, I didn’t think Cecilia would think it would be proper although I’m not sure what would have annoyed her more, me dressed as a woman or being with Robert. She said he was trouble and that I should end the friendship. Before she went away to uni the last time, we had a blazing row.
“Either you tell him to get lost or the wedding’s off,” she blazed with all the fervour of a Bible-belt preacher. “You’re always together you two, it’s always ‘Robert this’. ‘Robert that’ ” she claimed. “Sometimes I think you’d rather marry him than me!”
I thought she was over-reacting, probably pre-wedding nerves, so I replied with all the sincerity of a TV evangelist: “I’ll tell him, I promise my love, you are far more important to me than some boozing pal.”
I let out a deep breath as her attention moved on but after a few more minutes my nightmare evening turned Armageddon-like.
Strolling into The Squires like a wild-eyed Staffy let loose in a poodle parlour came Irish Darren. Again, like Cecilia, he surveyed the room and again like Cecilia, he paused momentarily at the sight of two flashy, banker types pouring champagne down the throats of two flighty ‘girls.’
But then he spotted Cecilia, and plonked his considerable backside down on a chair next to her and Ruth.
I watched on in horror Darren quizzed the two girls. I couldn’t hear what he was saying but his body language looked menacing
Nathaniel and Nigel headed to the bar to order more bubbly and I said: “Robert, I’ve got to go for a pee, I’m bursting. Where should I…”
“Use the ladies, you daft pillock, where else,” said Robert.
“I can’t go in there.”
“Of course you can, it’s all cubicles, no one will know.”
Fortunately there was no-one in the ladies and I rushed into the cubicle where I took down my tights and knickers. My wig was also whipped off because an itchy scalp was driving me crackers.
The sigh I emitted as my bladder was finally let out of its misery had its origins in my nether regions but it certainly wasn’t sexual. However, looking back I can concede that it could have been misinterpreted as some sort of climatic utterance.
So there I was, knickers around my ankles, wig in my hand, manhood on full display and making the sort of noise some porn stars would give their right wotsit for.
I’ve often wondered what God, what demon, what spirit world idiot decided that it would be good fun for me in my desperation to pee to forget to lock the cubicle door.
For whilst I was still in mid-stream it swung open and there was a middle-aged, plumpish woman, neatly coiffured hair, handbag over arm, staring at me in all my drag glory.
The scream that she let out would have raised a thousand Zombies. I followed suit before panic set in and I rushed out of the toilet.
“Stop him, he’s not a her,” she yelled as I fled into the bar. The speed at which Cecilia’s jaw dropped could have sent a spaceship to Mars and back, the speed at which Irish Darren stood up, fists clenched, could have put the fear of God into Mohammed Ali, the speed at which I raced out onto the High Street was of Olympic standard.
As I dashed for the door I caught a glimpse of Robert who had been rejoined at the table by Nathaniel. They were pointing and laughing at me, gestures which pierced my heart.
As I went galloping down the street, taking only a brief respite to fling off the sandals, I could hear some chap yelling “Sex fiend! Pervert! Chase him” in a shrill, slightly camp voice, prompting more knights in shining white armour to join the chase. It was fox-hunting urban style and I was the fox.
I knew that leading the pack would be Irish Darren so I was stopping for nothing or no-one.
I bowled over a very athletic looking man wearing a tracksuit (how was I to know he was a highly valued footballer and that the fall would break his leg); leapt over the bonnet of a Jaguar causing it to bump into a Range Rover which then crashed through a shop window causing the sprinkler system to douse a 64 year old spinster who suffered from acute aqua phobia; and raced through customers sitting at a pavement café, knocking a bottle of red wine over a woman dressed in a very expensive full length white summer frock – at the time I didn’t notice it was Martina.
Seeking safety in the side streets I careered around a corner only to flip over the bonnet over a police patrol car. As I lay battered and bruised on the ground, skirt hitched up around my buttocks, tattered tights exposing hairy legs, discarded bra padding around my ears, I stared up into the face of Sergeant Eric Bathurst – Cecilia’s father.
Sergeant Bathurst (I never, ever got round to calling him Eric) hated my guts from the very first day his daughter introduced me.
I don’t know why, although the night that Robert took me to a strip club which Sergeant Bathurst later raided didn’t help. Neither did the fact that one exceptional beery evening ended up with Robert and I falling down a 50ft manhole where we lay undiscovered until 11am the next morning, meaning that I missed the christening of Ruth’s first born.
So I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised when he leaned over my prone, bruised carcass, gleefully swinging a pair of handcuffs, to say: “Who’s been a naughty lady then?”
I ended up working at a Tesco Express in Widnes (my gran lived there) just to stay out of Irish Darren’s way until I could save enough money to pay him off. That took quite a while because I also had the hefty fines to clear. In my absence Cecilia married an organist she met at choir practice. They’ve now got two beautiful daughters and by all accounts she’s very happy. What would have happened if I hadn’t answered Robert’s telephone call? Who knows?
I used to think Robert was the golden boy. I idolised him and thought our friendship was a two-way thing but looking back I realise it was always on his terms. I was just someone to keep him company, to make him laugh, until someone better came along. It was never for real.
He and Nathaniel bought a bar in Ibiza and I found out later that they had a civil partnership ceremony. I wasn’t invited.
© Patrick O’Connor 2013