Living in Cheam had few compensations for Millicent Dongle. Her life was a trial and a tragedy. Her younger sister had a glamorous job with the Government – Millicent thought glamorous and Government to be oxymoronic, but everyone said the opposite and Millicent avoided family arguments. Whatever the truth, her sister’s employment compared unfavourably with deputy librarian (admin). She lived above a dentist whose patients seemed inclined to scream a lot. She had no real friends: London was too far, and a deputy librarian’s pay limited any social life – there being none to mention in Cheam, anyway. And the tragedy? Millicent had, after years of dithering, at last admitted to herself an unpalatable truth: she wanted to be a man.
Admitting to it and being able to do something about it were two very different propositions. To start with, being a man called Millicent would be a significant drawback, especially as she had to admit she liked her name and didn’t especially want to change it. She lacked the usual male accoutrements, as she thought of masculine genitalia and, while she felt sure she could do without them to start with, having two well-formed (and much admired by the van driving classes) breasts and a feminine countenance counted as a major hurdle.
This being the 1970s, Millicent knew she wasn’t alone and that there were ‘things’ that could be done. Only they couldn’t really be done in the stultifying atmosphere of contemporary Cheam. If a town had a personality, Cheam’s was that of a maiden aunt, jilted at seventeen and never over it. A victim, sour and determined to ensure everyone else shared her pain.
Millicent knew this caricature to be a touch unfair because overall the good citizens were nice enough. They returned their books on time, paid any fines without rancour, if not with good grace, and rarely masturbated between the pages of the top shelf books.
While Millicent was resigned to living her tragedy behind closed doors, she had also decided to try something. If Danny La Rue could cross dress, then so could she. To do that she had to buy some clothes, but the idea of being caught in a male outfitters in Cheam filled her with horror. She was stumped until her new colleague – a recent graduate called Stella who had intimidating eyebrows that regularly formed an angry ‘v’ if Vietnam and the miners were mentioned and who liked to smoke cheroots – mentioned shopping in Surbiton. Surely that was far enough away?
The Dickinson Store was on its last legs, catering for a breed of customer that was going the way of the Dodo and the girdle. Millicent pushed open the doors and breathed in 1947. A harridan with furious hornrims and a perm set at stun marched across. ‘Yes, miss?’
Millicent had practised on the bus, but still the words jammed.
‘Women’s wear, first floor.’
‘No, er, men’s?’ She’d said it. Now all that was needed was the floor to open and for her to sink into primordial ooze; then her day would be complete.
Instead the woman morphed into a simpering teenager, albeit one dressed in a style best described as Aggressive Tweed. ‘Boyfriend? Husband? A little gifty?’
It was the ‘gifty’ that did it. Something snapped, some realisation that Millicent was not Mouse but Magnificent. ‘For me.’ She’d said it and fire and brimstone had not enveloped her.
That said, the matriarch was less than impressed. ‘You?’ The ferocious countenance had returned. As two gimlet sharp eyes bored forward, Millicent’s confidence suppurated away in a miasma of sweat and shame.
‘It’s for fancy dress. I need to be a man.’
Maybe something in the pathetic collapse that had occurred in front of her released some sliver of a maternal instinct in the dragoness. ‘But Miss will never pass for a man.’
We will never know what the shop assistant thought. Clearly on any objective analysis of the situation this was intended as a compliment. But if she had wanted to aim a kick at Millicent’s much longed-for balls, her target was hit with a chilling accuracy. Millicent burst into tears and ran out of the shop.
And into Stella. ‘Millie? You didn’t say you were coming shopping. What are you doing in there? Yuk. Grim. Hey, what’s with the tears?’ Stella looked through the glass doors and saw the gargoyle staring back. ‘Have they been snooty? Ha! Come on. We’ll show them.’
‘Noooo.’ Millicent tried to say she wanted to get away, but a combination of snot and saliva prevented meaningful coherence. She was pulled back to confront her tormentor.
‘You seem to have upset my friend. I don’t know what you said, but I think you owe her an apology.’
‘I’m… I… Sorry.’
‘Good. I think you should apply the staff discount to whatever my friend buys, don’t you? I work for the Surbiton Bugle. I’d hate to have to write a review of the appalling standards of service that Dickinson’s staff show these days.’
The woman glared. Stella glared, and the university education won. ‘Yes, miss. I will make sure.’
‘Good. Ok, Millie, where were you headed? Fashion? Perfume? Make up? Shoes?’
‘Er,’ the now downtrodden assistant coughed. ‘Men’s wear.’
Stella pulled a face and turned to look at Millicent. Behind her the assistant was saying something about ‘fancy dress’ and ‘Miss being so feminine’, but Stella was sharing some indefinable moment with Millicent. In a soft voice she said, ‘Millie? You sure?’
Somehow, despite years of denial, of heavy weights hanging from her shoulders, Millicent managed a small nod, a nod that stopped the world spinning and started it turning in the opposite direction.
Stella nodded. ‘Great. Men’s wear, here we come.’
Stella took charge. She insisted to the staff member assigned to their needs they were both to be dressed as men. For Stella, androgynous and athletic, this was easy. But Millicent’s curves and soft femininity meant the challenge was greater. Still, after an hour of agonising, they both had matching jeans and checked shirts. The sales person sighed. ‘Shall I pack them together or separately?’
Stella kept her eyes on the assistant. ‘No, we’ll wear them now. Just give us a bag for our other clothes.’
Millicent boggled. She couldn’t. This was for her small living room, not the very public pavements of Surbiton. But Stella was clearly determined and some of her devil-may-care-ness began to rub off. They climbed into their new gear and, giggling like the young women they were, they collected their bags, paid, with discount, and headed for the streets.
Outside Stella slipped her hand through Millicent’s arm. ‘Pub. Let’s road test this stuff.’
The word ‘pub’, which Millicent associated with intimidating leers and her father’s anger, caused her stomach to liquefy and the urgent need to pee nearly overwhelmed her. She confessed as much to Stella.
‘Even more reason to go to the pub.’
The Coach and Compass was an old-fashioned town public house with smoky windows, a sepia tint to the décor caused by a hundred years of Woodbines and an almost exclusively male clientele which, on this Saturday afternoon, was escaping from ‘women folk’ out shopping.
Stella ushered her to the toilets, ‘Go on, use the gents’,’ and turned to buy them a drink.
The idea that she would pass some man at a urinal was so far outside Millicent’s purview that she didn’t hesitate but pushed open the door to the ladies. A barmaid stood at the mirror applying lipstick. She eyed Millicent in the reflection. ‘Bloody hell, girl. You’ll kill the old sods out there in that get up.’ She left, laughing.
Millicent wasn’t entirely sure that she understood what the woman meant though a gnawing fear passed through her as she washed her hands and tightened the bun which she pushed under her cap.
As she entered the bar all male eyes trained on her. She focused on Stella whose back was to the bar and walked as confidently as she could to join her. The silence was broken by a low and rather poorly executed wolf whistle. It was at that moment Millicent realised that rather than transform herself into a man she had created a male fantasy and made herself even more attractive – as a woman. Stella’s expression gave nothing away. On the bar sat two halves of bitter, a drink Millicent detested but which she knew, if she was ever to become a man, she would have to learn to drink with some semblance of enjoyment. She picked it up and sipped it. Stella faced her and did likewise.
The barman, who had been standing to one side, moved so he stood between the two facing women. He leant forward. ‘Don’t often get lesbians here. You on the pull?’
Stella held Millicent’s gaze and without blinking threw the remains of her drink in the barman’s face. Half a beat later Millicent did the same. They quickly picked up their things and headed for the doors. The barman’s curses followed as well as, ‘You’re banned.’
Millicent felt mortified. She’d never done anything so outrageous. Then she realised the other noises she could hear were cheers. She looked up. The man by the door held it open and said to Stella as she passed, ‘Good on you, kid. He deserved that. Prick.’ As Millicent drew alongside, he smiled at her. ‘You want a date, doll?’
Outside Stella burst into laughter and Millicent joined in, albeit a bit wearily. ‘Come on. We need to talk.’
As they headed for a coffee bar Millicent said, ‘Are you? You know. One of those?’
‘Lezzo? Yep, that’s me. Not exactly popular but, hey, it’s the way you’re made, isn’t it? You?’
‘Me? No. No, not at all. At least, I don’t think so.’
‘Just like dressing up as a boy, huh? We had a couple of girls at uni like that. They’d scare the pants off most blokes.’
Millicent studied the narrow shoulders and short hair of her newly found friend. The sophistication and education of this woman was beyond Millicent’s understanding, but here, in this moment, she recognised she had an opportunity to be true to herself. She pulled Stella back to make her stop. ‘I want to be a man.’
Was there a pause, a look of doubt in Stella’s eyes? Before Millicent could wonder, Stella hugged her. She said, ‘Big step that. I’m guessing you’ve thought about this?’
Millicent laughed. ‘For twenty-two years.’
‘You’ve not talked to anyone? Psychologist? Doctor?’
‘God no. You’re the first.’
Another hug. Stella reached up and wiped away the tear that clung to the corner of Millicent’s eye. ‘Millicent Dongle, I’m honoured to have met you.’
‘Do you think I’m crazy?’
‘Most probably, but if you’re determined to go on this journey then I want along for the ride. I have a feeling we’re going to be good for each other.’
If you have enjoyed this story then consider buying the anthology in which it appears. Each story is a bite-sized 1667 words, written for Nanowrimo, one a day throughout November 2016. Life In A Grain Of Sand is available here. It will be free for five days from tomorrow