(Or how to create a story idea out of nothing in less than forty minutes)
By Jenre and Robyn Walker
Transcribed by Mara Ismine, with apologies for all the wonderful ideas and details that got left out of this not so quick draft.
Edited by Charlie Cochrane and Stevie Carroll
“What are you doing there, chica?”
Something about that voice was very familiar, but I couldn’t place it right away; I was more concerned with forcing my eyes open, and trying to lift my head, even though my cheek seemed to be stuck to my pillow. Waking up with your cheek stuck and someone else around was usually a recipe for disaster, and the cue for a flood of embarrassing memories. This time was not an exception.
I groaned as my cheek pulled free of what turned out to be some sort of grubby carpet, rather than Egyptian cotton over finest down. I sat up and tried to focus bleary eyes on my questioner. He was worth looking at, if only I could use both eyes at once to get a better view. Tall with smooth, Bailey’s Original-coloured skin, good legs, dark eyes and a full, pouting mouth, all nicely displayed in tight running shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt, but none of which I recognised. Only that mouth looked slightly familiar, and that might just have been wishful thinking.
“You have a how-you-say-it? A clot on your head?”
“A what?” I tried to sit up straighter and raised a hand to my head to find the ‘clot’. The headache that I hadn’t been aware of bloomed into agony as I brushed against a lump on my forehead. “Ow.” I blinked the tears away and tried to ignore the bright flashes which had appeared before my eyes as well as the pain.
“A clot, a painful clot on your head.”
“Uh. I think the word is knot not clot,” I leaned back against a wall that didn’t seem to be any cleaner than the carpet. “But never m-m-mind about that. Where am I?”
“Maybe you should see a doctor, chica, if you can’t remember. You are in the Honolulu Club, just off Canal Street. You remember that?”
That deluge of embarrassing memories I’d been expecting was more like a muddy trickle, but I did remember the Honolulu Club and the pink neon palm tree sign over the door. I remembered tottering to a table, and enjoying the show while drinking neon pink cocktails with palm trees and paper parasols. Stilettos had not been a wise choice for my first venture into heels, but they did make my legs look good, just as the cute bloke in the shoe shop had promised.
The neon pink cocktails might not have been such a good idea either, and not just because they clashed with my dress, or why else had I spent the night on the floor in a club? Perhaps the ‘clot’ was responsible for that. And how had I got a ‘clot’ in the first place? I shook my head, and regretted it as the pain flared and the bright flashes reappeared.
“Come, you can’t stay there, chica.”
A hand gripped my elbow, and lifted me to my feet with very little effort. My head felt like it was going to fall off, and my legs refused to support me, especially as one seemed to have become shorter than the other while I was asleep. I moaned, and fell against my rescuer who muttered something impatiently in a foreign language, but still kept me upright.
“Sit.” My rescuer gave an irritated sigh before moving me around, and lowering me onto something solid. I whimpered at the loss of support, but kept myself upright until my head settled enough for me to realise that I was sitting on some stairs. My rescuer was crouched in front of me, stealing my shoes.
“S-s-s-stop that!” I was so angry that I forgot to find a word I could safely say, and forgot about how bad I felt as I tried to swing my handbag at his head. I did have a moment of relieved wonder that I still had a handbag to hit him with. He blocked the feeble blow with ease, and held up one of my shoes so I could see it after I recovered from my inopportune movement.
“Calm down, chica. This is your problem, I think. Did you fall down the stairs?” His voice was reasonable and still had that sexy accent. And still sounded impatient.
“I don’t know.” I squinted at the shoe he was holding up; there was something wrong with it and my eyes stung again as I realised that the gorgeous killer stiletto heel was hanging by a thread. Those shoes had cost me an arm and a leg; I had suffered with them all weekend; and now one was completely broken before I’d even worn the shine off the sole.
The tears spilled over as he-of-the-sexy-voice dropped my broken shoe, and then picked up my bare foot, twisting my ankle and adding another stab of pain to my collection.
“Hush, chica. Your ankle isn’t broken. See? No swelling.” He lifted my foot too high for dignity so that I could see it. He was right; it didn’t look swollen, but I was too busy tucking my dress between my thighs to worry about my ankle. I noticed that I’d lost my tights along the way as well. What had I been doing? Now that was a very stupid question.
“My n-n-name is Tarq-” I coughed, and corrected myself, “Tara, n-n-not chica.”
“Yes, chica, so you said last night.” He shrugged, and flipped my remaining stiletto off.
“Last n-n-night?” I could feel a sinking sensation as yet more memories trickled back. “Do I know you?”
“Well, Tara-chica, there is know, and then there is know.” Prince Charming in reverse looked up with a practised leer to accompany the words.
Could this morning get any worse? I had promised myself that I’d avoid messy encounters, or even unmessy encounters, this weekend. I was in Manchester to see how I felt about being a woman and get some pointers, not to pick up men; especially men I couldn’t even remember properly, no matter how pretty they were.
“Hey, José-Maria, clear up your own mess. Don’t leave it for me.”
The strange voice behind José-Maria’s shoulder didn’t sound friendly, and I assumed that I was the mess referred to. Being called a mess was bad enough but did he have to call me “it” as well? I’d have glared at him if I could have seen him.
“Tara is an injured customer,” José-Maria turned to snarl at the man, letting me see that whoever it was had an industrial vacuum cleaner and a cart of cleaning supplies. “If you were at work on time you could have called a doctor.”
“Bollocks. We don’t open for hours yet and the night shift should have found any injured customers. If Tara is a customer.”
“Vete a tomar por culo,” José-Maria muttered and turned back to me. “Come, Tara, let’s get you cleaned up.”
The cleaner was leering at José-Maria’s arse and I didn’t want to be left to him, so I didn’t argue when my rescuer urged me up the stairs I’d been sitting on. The carpet didn’t feel very clean to my bare feet and I tried not to think about the sticky patches.
The going wasn’t easy; by the time we’d climbed two flights I was clinging to the banister and needed José-Maria’s supporting hand under my elbow. My head was swimming again and panic was building – what was I doing going anywhere, with a stranger, at whatever time of the morning it was?
Time! I had to catch my flight home; I didn’t have time for anything José-Maria had in mind. “What time is it? I have to get to the airport.” I stopped climbing the stairs and glanced at José-Maria’s handsome profile with a pang of regret for having to leave right now.
“It’s around six, chica. It’s not much farther to my room. Come, you need to clean up before you rush off.” He urged me to carry on climbing and I did.
Six. I might just make my flight. I needed to leave my hotel by eight to give me time to check in. Two hours to get cleaned up, grab a quick breakfast and pack. I should be able to do it – just.
José-Maria steered me along a dark corridor and threw open a door. It wasn’t a big room and there wasn’t a lot of space. There was a single bed against one wall; a miniscule kitchen area with sink, microwave and kettle; a small table with two chairs; a wonky wardrobe; and an enormous metal tool chest with drawers, the sort mechanics had on TV. Was José-Maria a mechanic? Living over the Honolulu Club?
There was also a large mirror on the wall over the tool chest and I stared in horror at my reflection. My wig was flattened on one side and was skew-whiff as well. There was dirt down one side of my face. The goose-egg on my forehead was shades of purple and green. My lipstick was smeared and my mascara had run.
The clatter of my broken shoes landing on the table startled me out of my trance. I blinked at José-Maria and wondered why he’d not left me glued to the carpet downstairs for the unpleasant cleaner to deal with, but he was busy in his wardrobe and didn’t offer any answer to my silent question.
“Hah! Still here!” he exclaimed, holding up a grubby pair of beach sandals with large plastic flowers on. “They were here when I arrived and I thought I might have got rid of them. They will fit you, I think. You have such delicate feet that my flip-flops would look ridiculous on you.”
“And those won’t?” I answered without thinking. “Sorry, I’m being ungrateful. It is very kind of you to think of them.”
For a moment José-Maria looked hurt and offended, but then he laughed and said, “Yes, these are hideous things, but you need shoes and I can’t fix your pretty heels. Now you need to shower. Things will seem better once you are clean. Take a couple of these first.” He handed me a pack of paracetamol, and a bottle of water from his fridge.
I swallowed my pride and took the tablets as he found me a towel, a t-shirt and some shorts to wear before escorting me along the corridor to the bathroom, which was old and minute compared to my en suite at the hotel, but not much smaller than the shower room at home. José-Maria crowded in with me, and put the bundled clothes and towel on the cistern.
“Use my shampoo and shower gel.” He reached around me to pick the bottles off a shelf in the corner. “If you give me your hair I will fix it while you shower. And you better give me the dress, as well.”
“M-m-my dress?” Well, technically Mum’s dress that I had borrowed for the weekend, but still mine in a sense. “What are you going to do with m-m-my dress?”
“That I will fix, too.”
“Fix?” I could feel that the morning had still not reached rock bottom. “Why does the dress n-n-need fixing? Or are you going to clean it?”
“There is a tear in the hem,” José-Maria said, pointing behind me. “I think you caught your heel in it. Maybe that is what made you fall and break your shoe.”
I wasn’t listening; I was too busy trying to pull the dress around so that I could see the tear. Mum had only worn it once – to Aunt Gloria’s wedding which had been three years ago – but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t take it into her head to wear it again. Mum had gone over the top to buy this dress because she had never liked Aunt Gloria, Dad’s sister, and wanted to outdo her. A splurge on calf-length teal silk with a beaded bodice in a straight up-and-down style reminiscent of the nineteen twenties, full-length gauze sleeves with beaded cuffs – a real jaw-dropper.
I didn’t follow the logic of buying something better for someone you didn’t like, but Mum had looked good in the dress and so did I; there were some advantages to being short and skinny. I couldn’t afford a posh dress after buying the stilettos and the wig, so I’d just borrowed Mum’s dress with the intention of sneaking it back in her wardrobe when she was at bingo.
Now it was torn. And filthy, as I noticed when I tried pulling the skirt around the other way to find the rip. I knew I wasn’t ready to explain to Mum why I’d borrowed her special dress and ruined it. I wasn’t sure if me borrowing her clothes was a conversation either of us would ever be comfortable having.
“Here.” José-Maria crowded me against the basin, and undid the back zip, pushing the dress off my shoulders when I froze. “Step out.”
I did as I was told and stepped out of the dress, which José-Maria whisked from the floor and brandished in front of me. There was a rip I could see daylight through and the hem had torn out as well. It was as big a disaster as my shoes, if not bigger.
“M-m-mum’ll kill me.” I stared at the dress in horror. How could I fix it? How could José-Maria fix it? Did I want to let him try? What other option did I have?
“Do not worry, chica. I will make it as good as new. Does your mother not know you’ve borrowed her dress?”
I shook my head, unable to explain why when presented with that arrogant smirk on his face.
“It looks good on you, so maybe you should tell her you will keep it.”
“N-n-no!” I yelped. “I haven’t even told her I like wearing dresses, yet.” I could feel the blush storming up my neck at the admission.
“Is not an easy conversation, I expect.” José-Maria laughed aloud and snatched my wig right off my head. “I will go and fix these. You shower and come back to my room when you’re ready.”
With that he was gone, and there seemed to be plenty of space in the small bathroom. I locked the door in case he decided to come back and take my underwear for fixing, too. My underwear! I was standing around in only my underwear with two pairs of socks stuffed in a plain bra to give me boobs and José-Maria had seen – couldn’t help but have seen – my pathetic sock falsies. I groaned and nearly banged my head on the white tiled wall, only remembering the ‘clot’ in time to avoid further damage.
“It’s the clot in m-m-y head I have to worry about,” I muttered, as I stripped off my pretty panties and bra. A glance in the mirror showed me looking even worse than I had before, now that my sweat-matted hair was no longer hidden by the wig. I pulled off the tight hairnet and scratched my itchy scalp carefully. Things felt even worse than they looked.
The hideous sandals caught my eye and I decided to give them a wash, so that they were clean to put on once I’d showered. They were plastic so there’d be no problem drying them. They cleaned up surprisingly well – still hideous but at least not grimy and hideous. I sorted out the towel from the bundle that José-Maria had left and hung it over the towel rail so it was ready to use when I was wet. I discovered make-up remover and cotton balls in the bundle, and felt my eyes tear up again. There was no need to worry about mascara streaks on the towel, or foundation on the flannel, because José-Maria had thought of everything.
The shower coughed and spluttered when I turned it on but soon settled, so I got in quickly before it could change its mind or run out of hot water. This looked like the sort of place that would run out of hot water; it was kind of surprising that there was any to start with. Maybe that was because it was still early…which reminded me that I needed to get a move on to catch my plane.
The hot water lasted until my final rinse and I turned it off quickly when it went tepid. I felt a lot better now I was clean, until I wiped the condensation off the mirror and found Tarquin looking back at me. I wasn’t ready to be Tarquin again; I’d been Tara all weekend and it had been wonderful. Being able to wear feminine clothes all day without worrying that anyone would see and make fun of me had felt so right, so natural. And now I was back to being Tarquin the nerdy accounts assistant with the stupid stutter.
Putting on some lippy only made me feel worse. I looked ridiculous wearing José-Maria’s t-shirt and shorts and lippy and the hideous beach sandals screamed “loser”. I was a loser. I’d never been comfortable as Tarquin but I was too scared to do anything about it. What would the neighbours say? How would the people at work react if I turned up in a dress? They weren’t very nice to Tarquin, so there wasn’t a hope that they’d understand Tara.
More to the point, what would Mum say? She was disappointed enough without me telling her I wanted to be a girl. But after this weekend of freedom, could I go back to that other life? Did I want to? No. But what could I do?
For the moment, I had to get back to the hotel, and get ready for my flight. I gathered up José-Maria’s supplies, putting his shower gel and shampoo back on the shelf. His minty toothpaste – someone’s minty toothpaste – had freshened up my mouth even with just a finger for a brush. I might not want to be Tarquin but at least Tarquin was clean and fresh.
José-Maria was chewing Mum’s dress when I got back to his room, or at least that’s what it looked like. His tool box was open with a couple of drawers were pulled out and I realised that he was just biting off the thread from the repaired hem. There was a suspicious ribbon of grubby teal silk on the floor by his feet.
“You c-c-cut it!” I said, before I could stop myself.
“Yes. The tear was too big to mend so I just shortened the whole thing by an inch. Your mother will not notice, and neither will you.” He shook the dress out, and held it up for inspection.
“Thank you, I didn’t m-m-mean to be rude. It looks great,” I said quickly. It did look great compared to the state it had been in when he took it away. The stitches were neat, but the new hem line looked puffy rather than sharp.
“I will press it, and once it is clean no-one will know the difference. Your hair is ready, too.”
“Thank you.” My wig was on a proper wig stand next to the kitchen sink and was catching the early morning sunshine. It looked even better than when I’d bought it. “You are very kind.”
“Is nothing. You need help, I give it.” He shrugged with a liquid elegance that was no more British than his accent. “Now you make some coffee while I finish the dress.”
He put away his needle and thread in the tool box, and shut the drawers to give himself more room. The table became an ironing board with the addition of a thick sheet, and I set to making coffee, ignoring the hissing of the iron as he pressed the hem. The dress was dry clean only; I’d checked the label last night before I put it on, and I wasn’t sure that you were supposed to steam ‘dry clean only’ fabric, but what did it matter? José-Maria wasn’t going to make it any worse than it had been; at worst I was going to have to try and get Mum another identical dress.
The radio was playing and I half-listened to it as I waited for the kettle to boil. It was a local station that I’d heard snatches of during the weekend. It seemed very popular in Canal Street and I realised why when the name came up: Gaydio was not just a local station it was the local gay radio station. – I’d heard part of a walking tour while I was having coffee outside one of the bars in Canal Street and the bloke had said it was the biggest of its kind in the UK.
The traffic news rudely interrupted my memories of the weekend. “Just to remind you all that the fog’s causing delays at the airport this morning, at least two hours at the moment, so do call your airline to check your flight before rushing off…”
Delays at the airport? Was I finally going to have some good luck? Although, meeting José-Maria was good luck; otherwise I would have been limping back to the hotel looking like an extra from a zombie film.
The kettle boiled, and I made the coffee, adding milk and sugar to mine, much to José-Maria’s disgust. I felt myself relax as I sipped. I had some extra time to get sorted, the dress looked great and had survived the steam without obvious damage, and José-Maria was no chore to look at across the table.
“You are looking better,” he said with a satisfied nod. “But you are not ready to go out yet.”
“No, of course not. You are all flat.” He waved at his chest, “And you’ve not put on your hair or make-up.”
“I’d look daft with m-m-make-up and st-st-stubble.”
“So shave.” He reached behind him and pulled an electric razor out of the tool chest. “Here. You shave, and I’ll fix your face when you’re done. And put your bra on before I start.”
“You’ll do m-m-my face?” I felt like I’d slipped off the planet again. Who was José-Maria that he could mend hems and do make-up?
“If I am going out on the street with you, then I will make sure you look good.” He sniffed, and drank his coffee.
A poster on the wall behind his head caught my eye as I counted up to ten to avoid saying something else ungrateful. My granddad had been a big Shirley Bassey fan so it wasn’t difficult to recognise the girl from Tiger Bay, only according to the writing it was the “divine Venuz all the way from South America”. I remembered watching Venuz last night, through a haze of pink cocktails, and thinking he was spectacular. Hadn’t I had some idiotic idea of asking Venuz for tips on how to look good as a woman?
A few things clicked slowly into place. Venuz was José-Maria. I had tottered backstage to ask for advice. Advice I didn’t get, although I got something else, all right, and it cost me my last pair of tights. Visions of racks of sequinned gowns came back to me, viewed from a strange angle, with an added rocking motion that gowns didn’t normally have. That must mean that I was José-Maria’s mess after all. It would only be right to let him tidy me up properly, and maybe I could get some of those tips I’d been looking for while I was at it.
“Are there any fast dry cleaners around here?” I asked, my eyes flicking from the poster to José-Maria’s face. “It sounds like m-m-my flight is delayed, so I can get the dress cleaned before I have to leave, after all.”
“Yes. There is a one hour service that should be open now, and there is a shoe repair place nearby. I will walk you back to your hotel when you are fit to be seen, and show you where they are.”
“Thank you. Would you like to join m-m-me for breakfast at the hotel? As thanks for all your help this m-m-morning.”
“I need to run first, but if you can wait for twenty minutes and let me use your shower, then that would be good.”
“Great.” I smiled at him and finished my coffee. Tara had never looked so good when we left the Honolulu Club, even with the hideous plastic sandals and baggy t-shirt. José-Maria was a man of his word and my make-up was beautiful. Nobody gave us a second glance, unless it was appreciative, as we walked together. We parted after dropping off my dress and shoes and I watched him jog away, admiring the view before I hurried back to the hotel to check just how much extra time I had.
I picked up a local paper in reception, and took it up to my room. I didn’t want to leave Manchester, but I had to be back at work tomorrow. There had to be companies looking for accounts assistants in Manchester somewhere, and maybe they wouldn’t be bothered by an accounts assistant called Tara with qualifications in the name of Tarquin. It shouldn’t be as difficult to make the switch somewhere people like me were living openly.
That still left a very awkward conversation to have with Mum – the borrowed dress was the least of it – but at least I now had some hope for the future, and maybe the start of a plan. If I could only find the cojones to follow it through.