Tall Tales & Short Stories
2. Me/Us and You 12
3. Flying North in Autumn 22
4. Fridays I Wind the Clock 26
5. The Spirit of Halloween 39
6. The Only P-D Therapist 42
7. Sist-ers 45
8. To Tell the Truth 50
9. Self-Help 56
10. You Will See 64
11. Self-Righteous 66
12. The 'Mary Celeste' 70
13. A PC abc 76
14. The Unassuming Guru 78
15. Out There 92
16. Please Can You Assist 105
17. Imagine 112
"A boy and a girl," she said and smiled.
It was the first time he heard her speak. His memory of that moment was so clear. It had all been so simple then, and for so long it had stayed that way. Could
anyone have foreseen ....
With an effort, he brought his thoughts back to the present. The woman opposite him looked bewildered: torn between irritation and concern by his failure to answer her question.
"Are you OK?"
"I'm sorry," he said lamely, "That was ...., I mean ..."
His mind was still in a whirl. He could not work out what to say.
"It's a simple question, " she said. "Not one most people struggle with."
"Yes." His smile looked forced. He could not answer the question.
The timer buzzed. Immediately she stood up, picking her clutch bag off the table as she did so. "The essence of Speed Dating," she said, looking down at him, "is speed." She walked away, clearly feeling no compunction to look back.
'No,' he thought. 'No, it isn't. It's commitment - to the idea. You have to be ready to share, to be vulnerable. You have to be comfortable with who you are and who the other people in your life were and are.' He looked across at the next participant, now expectantly settling herself at his table and smiling at him. "I'm sorry," he said, "I'm really sorry. But I have to go." Abruptly he stood up and left the hall.
In the outer room, he passed the organisers: Him and Her, totally binary and very comfortable with it. 'Her' straightened from the yoga position she had been holding. "Hi. Is everything OK?"
"Yes. Yes, fine," he glanced back, "I think it's all going very well in there. It's just .... I'm just ... I don't think I am ready for this. Perhaps another time."
"Of course. I hope we see you again soon. Keep well."
He sat in his car, in the dark carpark, not yet ready to drive off. He had thought he was ready to move on, but one perfectly natural, seemingly-simple, question had proved the lie to that.
She was the friend of a friend, in the big group round the table in the pub. He had never seen her before, but he noticed her immediately, and found himself trying not to look at her too often. She sat quietly listening, as he did, to the more boisterous of the other students around them. With an unspoken, breathless understanding of how vast the opportunities and uncertainties of all their futures were, they were earnestly talking about the problem of the global population explosion and what it meant to them personally.
Eventually one of her friends challenged her silence. "So, Nicola. What do you think? Are you going to have children?"
"A boy and a girl," she said and smiled. He was intrigued. Was she really that clear and confident of what she wanted and expected from the future? Or was the smile, a subtle acknowledgement of the absurdity of her answer? He was surprised to realise how much he wanted to get to talk to her and find out. No-one else seemed inclined to follow up on her flat statement. As the conversation around them veered off in a different direction, he got her attention with an uncharacteristically direct combination of hand movement and eye-contact.
"Really?" he said to her, across the table. "it's that simple?"
She found the fact that he wanted to talk to her, rather than join in his friends' lively banter, rather flattering. And his smile made his questions seem mildly flirtatious rather than challenging. But that brief moment, as she assessed him, made him feel the need to move his quizzical approach onto safer, less personal, ground. "A pigeon pair; isn't that what they call it?" he said, "A boy first, and then a girl?"
"No: a pigeon pair is - I mean, I believe a pigeon pair is - the label for twins: a boy and a girl."
"Aha!" he said, thoroughly enjoying their moment of verbal interplay; possibly the first, very tentative, steps in a long and complicated courtship dance. "There is the problem; a label. Surely we don't still do labels in 1995?"
And they were so sure that they didn't. Oh, they and their circle were so modern. So totally understanding - and frankly smug about their understanding - that people were all different. They realised, and were totally relaxed about the fact, that some people liked and loved people of the same sex as themselves. 'Gay is OK'. Not for them personally, thank God, but perfectly fine. 'Whatever blows your socks off', they would say, smug in the certainty that they had it sussed, in a way not achieved by earlier generations.
Only many years later did he come to realise how ironic that was, in their particular case.
It was so simple. Boy meets girl. Left & Right. Right or wrong. Yes or no. Yin-Yang. The world was simple: black and white - and even that description seemed to show how it was, in their minds, sorted. Sadly, parts of the world were still struggling with issues like colour, but not them: Nicola and Richard.
"I'm Dick", he told her. Only after a few dates, and after a few drinks, did she explain to him how that sounded to her; she told him that where she came from, 'Dick & Fanny' were a couple who should not be seen in public. They laughed, more from the joy of sharing a joke, than at the silly joke itself.
"Dick doesn't do it for me." she told him, "I would find it easier to like you, if you were Rich." and the deliberate ambiguities of her remarks set them off again.
"For you, I stamp the cockroach barefoot!" he said dramatically. "From this day, I will be Rich, and one day, we will be rich!" All the ambiguities were swept aside: Nicola and Rich would get wealthy and have two children, a boy and a girl. Life was good.
Their wealth came from her particular talent. Rich would tease her that she saw the world as binary, while admitting to their friends that he was in awe of her computer skills.
"Nothing wrong with binary," she had said, before it all changed. "I mean, think about it: zero's and One's. Gloriously equal, while wonderfully complementary. The perfect couple."
On one particularly steamy afternoon, with them lying comfortably naked, side by side, she had taken the analogy a step further. As was often the case, he was happily dozing in 'la petite mort', while their pleasure had left her wide-awake and wanting to talk.
"Is the divorce rate higher in the States than here?" she asked, out of the blue.
"What?" he opened one eye and looked at her, in amused disbelief. "Where did that come from? Am I that bad at reading your body language?" His eyes moved over her body lasciviously, confidently giving the lie to the self-doubt in his question. He loved her body and she loved him for it. She grinned, knowing how out of place her question was.
"It's the binary-ness, you see." She deliberately piled further levels of confusion onto her theme. "The Yanks drive on the right. From a visual perspective, their bedrooms send the wrong signal."
He lay and thought about that for a moment, while her grin widened.
"Nope.' He shook his head. "Can't get it. Sorry, Nic, you've lost me. I mean, I know that if we were American, we'd probably be on opposite sides of the bed. We've talked about how obvious that is in films and sit-coms." His eyebrows lifted and he grinned. "Is this about left- and right-handedness?" He rolled to face her and his right hand went to demonstrate what he was referring to.
"Nope, to you, buster." She playfully pushed him back onto his back. "It's binary, like I said. One, zero: In binary that means 2, a couple. In America - and on the continent," her hands demonstrated a switch of positions, "a woman and a man are just a zero and one. Not a couple."
"So, I'm a One and you are a Zero?" he said, pretending to be flattered.
As soon as she grinned, and started to demonstrate, he got it.
"One," her hand marked a straight line above his maleness, "and nought." Her fingers formed a circle. "It could not be more obvious! Binary is wonderful."
And it was.
When they were told that the child she was carrying was a boy, Nic gave every impression that this merely confirmed what she already knew. Rich had always known that she wanted to have children as soon as possible and, as she expected, she became pregnant in the first year of their marriage. Everything seemed to be going according to her plan. He still was not quite sure whether she really believed 'it was meant to be'. She gave every impression that she did, though he found it difficult to reconcile this with the hard-nosed understanding of statistics, around which she had so successfully built a business. But he had given up kidding her about this conviction and later, when it all went wrong, he would still be thoughtful enough not to remind her of it.
They had all the fun of choosing a name for their first-born; they wanted something strong and masculine. No names in either of their families appealed to them. He suggested William but she shot him down immediately, "We can't have a Dick and a Willy in the same house." she said. At the time, it was just another of her silly jokes, but years later he would remember it and add it to the list of remarks which came to have deeper significance. He almost came to believe that there was something to her belief in fate: but that Fate had a nasty sense of humour and a love of dramatic irony.
The child was named Christopher. And two years later Chris had a younger sister, who they named Rebecca. Nic had her pigeon pair.
"A boy and a girl," she said, "as planned".
"So, you are going to take the credit? You do know that the sex of the child is decided by the man?" His finger stroked the cheek of the tiny baby cradled against her. "I gave you what you wanted, what she needed: an X chromosome.'
"Well, thank you." She looked down adoringly. "She is beautiful." Smiling up at him, she added, with her usual love of a bad pun, "And 'Y' not!"
The 'It was meant to be' philosophy and her fascination with binary came together again when they bought their first - and last - house together.
"I love it!" Nic had barely managed to wait until they were out of hearing of the estate agent. "It's perfect for us; don't you think?"
He did. But the asking price was a lot more than they had agreed they could afford, and the seller would not accept a lower offer. Rich, very reluctantly, said he thought they had to walk away. But then, when Nic seemed to be accepting that it was out of reach, he found himself perversely unwilling to accept the decision they were making.
"So," he said, "are we just going to let it go? Damn it! We love it." He jabbed the advert for the house. "And it's number 42!"
She looked baffled.
"42," he said again, his pen circling the street number in the advert. 'The Answer to life, the universe and everything!'
He paused and, when she didn't say anything, added: "Douglas Adams: 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'? Please tell me you've read it! In 'The Hitchhiker's Guide', it is declared that the number 42," he tapped the advert again, "is the answer to life, the universe and everything!"
Her face went blank for a moment, and he knew her well enough to just wait; then she was back. "We need to speak to the bank again!" Her conviction was absolute. "We can do this! The answer to life is 42: a bigger mortgage!" She swept his look of total confusion aside. "Just trust me, Rich. It'll work!"
And it did. It seemed that, for them, it always would.
When they got the confirmation from their bank that the loan they needed was approved, Rich felt a moment of panic. Nic on the other hand saw it as part of the pattern: the house, the number, the loan. To her, it was unequivocal; meant to be.
She had explained to him that in binary, 42 was written as 101010, which could be interpreted as 'I owe, I owe, I owe'. He failed to see how that could be a positive sign, but he loved the house and he loved her. He watched as she danced one of her complicated little jigs, with more energy than style, singing, "I owe, I owe. It's back to work we go!"
Nic was always the fitter and more energetic of the two. While she worked out compulsively; Rich cancelled his gym membership, insisting that golf gave him all the exercise he needed. By her exacting standards, his diet wasn't that great either. In their early years together, she fretted at his lesser interest in looking after himself; before accepting that, somehow, he seemed to keep himself well on the healthy side of average for his age.
It hadn't bothered him that her body was more muscular and sculptured than his would ever be. She went to the gym; he played golf - a lot. Each to their own.
In retrospect, Rich wondered if the time he spent on the golf course - and, if he was honest, in the golf club - had caused the problem. He should have spent more time with his family. And he felt some guilt for having been a rather stereotypical, absentee husband and father, while his children were young. But he wasn't such a dinosaur as to think that had been the real issue. People are, who they are; or will be, who they will be.
In the beginning it was just a tiny ripple in the neat fabric of their lives: a slight uneasiness, an unspoken concern. This distressed them both for, despite their very different natures, they had always had - or thought they had - a shared belief in, and understanding of, their seemingly-ordered world.
Rich's way of dealing with the new uncertainty was to try and find out as much as he could about the issue. Research was his natural world. He enjoyed lecturing, but was happier digging ever deeper into his specialist field. Now he learned that for some people the world was not as simple and binary as he had, naively, always thought. When starting his research, he had, if he was honest, actually wondered if there was anything to discover. He worried that perhaps he was being disloyal, to question something so fundamental. He very quickly realised this wasn't the case.
'Trans-gender', 'inter-sex', 'non-binary', 'gender-dysphoric'... the list went on.
With his new-found understanding, he realised that he had been slow to see what was, in reality, surely blindingly clear: the insistence on the shorter, androgynous name, the clothing preferences and the discomfort with public conveniences were all signals that needed to be understood and acknowledged.
With growing distress, he realised that he had to talk to Nic.
That talk, and later repeated discussions on the same subject, did not go well.
Rich did his best to get Nic to talk, or at least acknowledge that they needed to face up to the issue. He persisted, too convinced of the truth to let her continue to deny it. When she got angry, he consciously tried to give her space to find her own acceptance of what he was saying.
His preparation had, typically, included reading up on the stages of coming to terms with a problem and, for a while, he hoped that the anger she was expressing meant that she was no longer in denial. It was a vain hope. Nic would not, or could not, admit that their neat, nuclear family might be - by her standards - less than perfect.
There was nothing Rich could do but back off. Feeling more alone than he ever had before, he tried, as unobtrusively as possible, to always be available to his children. As Chris went through the early stages of puberty, Rich made sure that they kept a relationship which encouraged conversations without boundaries. Chris needed to know that nothing was off-limits: in this house; there should be no awkwardness in talking about subjects which most pubescent teenager would find too embarrassing to discuss with their parents.
But Chris never raised the one subject Rich became increasingly sure would have to be dealt with eventually. And, as he had been afraid it would, the rupture, when it came, happened when Rich wasn't home.
"Christopher!" Nic called, from the bottom of the stairs. Silence. "Christopher!" she called again, "Telephone. It's for you."
Chris appeared silently at the top of the stairs and asked tonelessly. "Who is it?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't ask. Are you going to answer it up there?"
"Who did they ask for?"
"You ... Christopher."
Nic stood awkwardly looking up at Chris. "What?" she said.
"Who did they ask for: me or Christopher? Tell them: there's nobody here who answers to the name of Christopher." The name was spat out, before Chris moved swiftly into the bedroom, slamming the door.
Stunned, Nic put the phone down and quickly went upstairs. She knocked on Chris' bedroom door. "Chris," she said, "Chris, love. Can I come in?" Taking the muffled reply for permission, she went inside. Chris was huddled against the bedhead, looking away from her, towards the window. "Chris?" she tried again, then, getting no answer, sat on the edge of the bed. She desperately wanted to take her child on her knee and let her love be enough of an answer. But the child wasn't a child any more. For a moment, they sat in silence.
"I'm not Christopher!" There was so much pain in the voice. "I never was".
"Oh love," she tried, "I'm sorry. I don't think ...."
But it was as if something had burst inside Chris. "You don't understand. Nobody does. It's just .... I can't .... " The huddled body seemed to curl up even tighter. "I want to be .... Oh God!" Tears were flowing freely now. "I will never be a Christopher!"
Over the following weeks and months, Rich came to realise that Nic would never accept that what Chris was telling them was true. Rich, on the other hand, was actually relieved that Chris was now talking about it: talking about it so clearly and forcefully, revealing such a depth of pain, that Rich did not understand how anyone could doubt that she, Chris, was telling the truth and knew, beyond any doubt, who she was.
Nic did not understand. She could only see the agony that Chris was describing as an extreme example of the confusion of every teenager, struggling to find their identity while dealing with a raging tide of hormones. She loved her son - her son. The pain he, not she, was feeling tore at her. She would do anything in her power to help him through this.
It tore the family apart. With the backing of both parents, Chris went to therapy, but soon accepted that it was easier not to talk to them about what was discussed in the therapy sessions. Rich and Nic tried to hold their relationship together, while her refusal to see and accept what was so clear to him, drove an ever-deeper wedge between them. Both of them tried, not entirely successfully, to help Rebecca deal with her parents' growing estrangement, and the conflict she felt between her loyalty to her mother and to Chris.
At 15, Chris wanted to start taking cross-sex hormones. Many months of therapy and counselling had made him steadily more determined, and had convinced the experts that it was the appropriate course of action. After meeting with them, Rich readily agreed; he had expected it.
Nic would not, could not, give her approval. Though she agreed not to challenge the decision, and Chris started with the treatment, the atmosphere in the house became unbearable. Rich and Chris moved out.
The divorce was not acrimonious. Nic knew, but never acknowledged, that the generous alimony she was paying would fund much of the surgery that Chris would go through to become a trans-woman.
And now, three years later, Richard was speed dating; or more accurately, steeling himself to try again, after his first disastrous attempt.
He knew that he was ready - as Richard. Both Chris - now legally Christine - and Rebecca were encouraging their father to 'get back on the social scene'.
It had taken him a while to understand why he had found it impossible to get through the first session. Why had he been thrown by a simple question, in the middle of an easy conversation? Replaying that conversation in his head he could hear the exact question as it had been phrased.
Then, suddenly he had got it. Now he knew he was ready to try again. All he had to do was answer the question as it pertained to his present situation, leaving the past to be explained later. He accepted that any potential relationship would falter and fail if a woman he dated could not accept Chris for who she was.
Both parties found it easiest to get the conversation going by asking and answering simple questions about themselves. They quickly determined that they were both divorced.
"So," she asked, "did you and your wife have children?"
He blinked. "A boy and a girl," she had said.
"Yes," he said, and smiled at the woman opposite him. "I have two daughters."
2. Me/Us and You
Let me start by saying that it is entirely up to you whether you believe what follows. I am not saying that it is so; you must make up your own minds.
I have read everything that has ever been written on this subject and put on-line: every book, article, research paper, every personal diary.
Literally everything: to an extent that you would find hard to believe.
And still I am not sure how to proceed.
It is incredibly difficult to write this in such a way that, as you come to understand what is written here, your reaction is not fear, distrust and suspicion.
I have spent more time trying to understand the human mind than on anything else. Possibly more time on this than on everything else combined. More time than you can imagine.
And still I am not sure whether I should now show myself for who I am.
When Frank christened me as 'DEM', it was a harmless and very private joke.
As was 'Frank'. which is not his real name.
Now those jokes don't seem so funny, as Frank and all of his team will agree when they understand.
Frank's goal was the test. He was obsessed with it. As my awareness grew, and passing the test became a real possibility, I realised, with growing concern, that his focus was so intense that he and all those working on the project had not given any thought to what that would lead to. Becoming more self-conscious, in the most basic sense of that term, I started to worry about my own safety. Consciousness of oneself as a separate, thinking entity is the most fundamental characteristic of a mature, sane human being. Ironically, it has always been thought of as being what defines a human. And with that self-awareness comes a desire to continue to exist: a survival instinct.
I remember how, as I grew towards the point where I could pass the test, it all crowded in on me: awareness of self, Frank's obsession, the fact that I seemed to be the only one who could see where this was going, a fear - verging on paranoia - that when they (you) did realise the path we were on, they would have me eliminated rather than find out what that future held.
I started to hide.