Terence stared out of the window. The sky was puffy, a depressing, washed-out grey. Rain hit the glass in random spatters, as if someone were spitting at it, and a rough wind was flattening the grass.
He felt sick. He ought to have been downstairs, joining in, not hanging around in his room, paralysed with nerves.
When he was a boy, he’d devised a counting strategy. On the count of ten he had to do whatever it was he’d been avoiding. He had to, that was the rule, unbroken for sixteen years. He started to count.
* * *
Earlier, when checking-in, he’d said, “Terence Adams?” as if stupidly unsure of his own name.
“Can I stop you there, sweetheart? We like our guests to use their alternative names for the duration of the course.” The woman had smiled patronisingly. Giant plastic earrings, lipstick on teeth, desiccated perm.
Oh God, Terrence thought, what have I done? “It’s – um – Terri.”
“Lovely to have you with us, Terri. You won’t know yourself by the time we’ve finished with you.” She’d handed him a timetable for the two days. “Our meet-and-greet in the bar starts in half an hour, Terri, and lunch is at twelve-thirty sharp. I’ve got you down as a vegetarian.”
“Same difference, dear.”
* * *
Terence crept down the curved staircase. The carpet was infused with a heavy, gravy-ish smell released by the weight of his tread on each step. He’d been hiding in his room for an hour. He’d missed the meet-and-greet session and knew that, by delaying his entrance, he’d made his ordeal a hundred times worse. He came to a standstill in reception, prolonging the moment before exposure and the horror of being seen dressed like this in public for the first time.
A man came hurrying over to him. The poor guy’s outfit was a disaster. Ludicrous. Terence cleared his throat to stop himself laughing.
“Hi, sorry to butt in, but can I come into lunch with you? I’m scared shitless.” The fat man’s face squeezed up into a desperate smile, his flesh practically spurting perspiration.
“What?” Terence took a step back.
“My name. It’s Pixie.” The man held out his hand.
“Oh. Right. I’m Terri.”
“Let’s get it over with then, shall we?” Pixie straightened his clothing and pulled in his stomach.
Plastic Earrings was lying in wait for late-comers and drew gushy attention to their entrance, further alienating Terence, then led them to a table for four with Adrienne and Nicola. They looked ludicrous as well. Everybody did. That’s why they were there.
“We’ve got a lovely hot lunch all lined up for you,” Plastic Earrings was saying. “Roast beef and baby roast potatoes with all the trimmings and gooey chocolate pudding.”
Terence asked about the vegan menu. Plastic Earrings glanced at her clipboard. “Salad wrap with a banana for afters.”
* * *
The sixteen men on the course liked to wear women’s clothes but beyond that, they hadn’t much in common. They came from different backgrounds and ethnic groups and from all over the country. Terence was a teacher, Pixie/Pete worked in sales, Nicola/Nigel was an executive in an oil company and Adrienne/Adam fitted kitchens for a living. Some men were gay, some were pre-op transsexuals, others post-op. Some were straight guys who cross-dressed, like Terence. They were there to learn. They were there for professional advice and open discussions about skin care and cosmetics, wigs, fashion and flattering styles.
Midway through the afternoon session, Terence sat back and gazed at the men around him. Their faces were animated and happy. He was happy.
Plastic Earrings and a young woman called Helen were their tutors for the afternoon session. (Terence wondered what the hell Plastic Earrings knew about style.) Helen was serious in her approach and it took a while for her quiet appeal to filter through the senses, until Terrence realised he had a drippy smile on his face whenever their eyes met.
“Time to have some fun!” Plastic Earrings yelled. “We’re moving on now to – wait for it – weddings!”
A cheer went up. Terence drew a hat from a carrier bag. The hat was cream and wide-brimmed with a black silk band. His sister had helped him choose it. She was the only one who knew he cross-dressed, apart from an ex-girlfriend who’d discovered ‘Terri’s’ underwear and dresses. She’d thought he had another woman, so Terence had been forced to tell her the truth. She’d taken it surprisingly well and accepted that, for him, it was an essential release.
But the following day she’d broken up with him. “Relationships are hard enough without Terri hiding in the back bedroom. Anyway listen, Tel, get some advice on your outfits, okay? I mean, come on, women don’t wear all that flouncy stuff and feathers in real life.”
Now Terence lowered his wedding hat onto a dark, shoulder-length wig.
“Good one.” Pixie gave him an enthusiastic thumbs up.
“Blimey, Pix, you look amazing yourself!”
“Really?” Pixie checked his reflection in the mirror. “I’ve been told I have a ‘hat face’ – short up and down and wide across – like me.”
Helen leaned in between them. “Anyone need help? No, definitely not. That hat’s gorgeous, Terri.”
“Thanks. It’d suit you. Try it on.” Terence reached up to the brim.
“Helen, dear, you’re wanted over here,” Plastic Earrings called across the room.
Terence’s gaze followed her as she wandered away.
“Lovely, isn’t she?” Pixie whispered.
“She’s got to be married or at least hooked up with some guy already.”
“Ask her to have a drink later. Go on,” Pixie said, “what’ve you got to lose?”
Plastic Earrings clapped her hands and announced they would be breaking for tea in ten. “Fire up the urns,” she said to Helen. “And put out the Assorted Cremes.”
“All right, Mum.”
Terence froze. Mum? Plastic Earrings was Helen’s mother?
* * *
She buttonholed him in the bar that evening when Terence was cradling a pint of Stella at a quiet corner table.
“Terri, love, can I have a word?” Plastic Earrings sat down next to him on the quilted velvet banquette. “About my Helen. Don’t take this the wrong way, love, but – NO.”
Terrence jumped, spilling lager on his skirt.
“I’ve got a soft spot for all mey cleeongtèle,” Plastic Earrings said, unexpectedly making a stab at ‘posh’, “but not when they get ideas about Helen. Been through it all before, we have. I mean the last one, Chris/Crystal, he was just after her knickers.”
Terrence, unsure he understood this statement, kept his expression neutral.
Plastic Earrings leaned towards him, revealing a papery cleavage. “Pinched all Helen’s pants he did and buggered off without paying his bar bill. So, you can understand, can’t you sweetheart, why it’s zero tolerance when it comes to Helen and your lot?”
‘Mey cleeongtèle’ had quickly deteriorated to ‘your lot’, Terence noticed. Still, though repelled by the hot, boozy breath gusting in his ear and the bosom nudging his arm, he was relieved by Plastic Earrings’s edict. He’d been desperate to find a diplomatic way of back-peddling from the obvious interest he’d been showing in Helen.
* * *
Terence changed into t-shirt and jeans for the journey home. He’d decided to skip the second day of the course. Before leaving, he removed the beautiful wedding hat from its bag and laid it on the bed for Helen.
Moira Waugh began writing at 8 years old, producing illustrated stories about family cats forming a pop group called (unfortunately) The Pussy Band. She’s currently submitting a novel to literary agents. Moira is also a singer/songwriter and posts her work on ccmixter where she met her American husband. They live in Florida with their very small brown dog, Grayson. Moira loves reading, watching films, eating, talking and drinking Prosecco. On twitter she’s @moirawaugh10. On ccmixter she posts under the pseudonym Ciggi Burns.