As I was leaving a friend’s house after a session of cannabis and tonic wine, I felt a threatening unease come over me as if something were about to happen. I put this down, initially, to the after effects of the smoke and the fact that I have always been prone to bouts of paranoid thought, but tonight, as I walked, the scenery and colours on the dual carriageway made me feel as if I had slipped into another overlapping, criss-cross dimension.
I took the three steps outside the house awkwardly, clanging the heavy gate behind me. As I moved briskly across the road, trying to clear my head, my eyes scanned the dark.
The road was empty, and nothing but a gentle mist filled the street, but the emptiness of the night filled my imagination, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of eerie abandoned cities like Chernobyl. The road was stagnant everything seemed to hang there, in perfect stasis. Only the mist seemed to move.
I tried to keep a steady pace, focusing on the rhythm of my feet, as the old synagogue became more apparent. With each step, it grew, and seemed to sit hunched like a red stone gargoyle to my left.
In the day, when I observe it – as I usually do – it seems perfectly normal, innocuous even, but this night it seemed as morbid and unfriendly as it was possible for a building to be. Even the golden Star of David on the door looked grim – filled with morbidity and threat. The usual gleam seemed to be smothered by grime, and, lurking on the corner of Selbourne Street with a face of pure misery, it still wielded the dignity of three thousand years – an age old perseverance that could never be matched.
My feet were not in control, and I was propelled forward as if on a conveyor belt.
As I reached the corner of Princess Avenue, the Anglican cathedral seemed to step out from behind the Greek Orthodox Church, its light grey domes eclipsed. The cathedral’s face was sullen, dark and macabre like a great four faced owl with piercing eyes that could scan the soul. It sat on its perch shrouded by the darkest purples, but the outlines of the architecture were there with enough strength to bear down on me and make me look away.
I turned onto Upper Parliament and the street lamps seemed to shine like the star that led the three wise men to Bethlehem, and seemed arrayed with the randomness of constellations. In spite of this they bolstered my spirit, representing a seal of control that could lead me home.
As my feet were restored to me, the cold began to make itself known. My hands throbbing, as the blood tried to reach the tips of my fingers. The mist was like freezing smoke now – to breathe it in was to send chills down the throat to the stomach, which was in need of food due to the intense onset of munchies.
The old Caribbean Centre lay defeated on the corner of Mulgrave Street looking with a glint of envy at the Women’s Hospital. Little did it know the Women’s was soon to share its fate, smothered by the Right. Many people had fond memories of places that are destined to fall.
This night though, I was not in the mood for nostalgia. The wind groaned as if in agony, and shook the trees that sat aside the pavement, making them howl like lonely old dogs that long for the moon. The road began to incline as I reached Renshaw’s, which was just across from where the Charles Wootton College used to be – the college where many of the youths of Toxteth had gone to work towards a bright future.
Now, like so much of the city, it was converted into luxury student flats. I shook my head at the thought. As I strode up this unfriendly but familiar stretch of road, I became aware of a car parked in the curve at the top of the road, where Upper Parliament Street meets Smithdown Road. A brilliantly white car with blazing red back lights.
As I approached, the first thing that entered my mind was police. Undercover officers would sit in various spots around the area waiting for someone for them to stop, under the guise of there having been burglaries in the area. I prepared myself for the same old routine; I pictured them in stab-proof jackets – all black except for the pale green flash on the walkie-talkie screen :
“Can you stop there please son!” they would say.
“Can you take your hands out of your pockets?” swinging open the door.
“Have you got anything on you that you shouldn’t have?” as they closed in.
Their attitude was so infuriating, I instantly felt my guard come up. I could not be arsed with this shit tonight. As I got closer to the car, I observed a heavy set women sat in the driver seat – her dark curly hair made me think of my friend’s aunt Zara. Zara was a kind woman with a big heart and an impressive appetite for the cannabis. My guard fell slightly – perhaps I might be able to get a lift the rest of the way. The passenger side window came down slowly with a hiss.
“Excuse me,” a smooth raspy voice called out.
I peered into the car and saw that, instead of Zara, a bulky man sat in the driver’s seat. A black messy wig sat on his head, and he was dressed like a pantomime caricature of woman. A red and yellow polka dot blouse covered his huge frame.
After taking in the bizarre situation – his costume, his face and the open window, I reacted instinctively. Why are you horrified by this man?
“No, you go leave me alone!” I spat pointing my finger, turning slowly away, not wanting to look back or engage any more.
Panic and confusion seized me round the chest like a grizzly bear. I felt convinced that it was an elaborate plot to capture me. The window rolled up, and, turning my head for a second, I caught a glimpse of the man’s made up face. It looked twisted, garish and angry. The big square spectacles magnified his eyes, which were dark with something that resembled hatred. Or perhaps hurt.
The car was moving slowly over the hill and down Smithdown Road, towards me. A serious feeling of dread engulfed me I was certain I was not going to see home again.
I ran. As fast as I was able. My heart pounded in my chest like a bass drum. The darkness of the road continued to form all kinds of brutal, frightening images in my mind. The streetlights on the road could not penetrate the darkness and the corners from which I could be grabbed by the strange fellow I had just encountered. I ran as if I was being chased by a black rhino, as if I could hear its heavy foot steps and feel its breath on the back of my neck. I came to Nana’s road, which was dark and seemed to hide evil things in every recess and cranny.
I hopped over the front gate and rammed my key into the door, struggling to twist it as the lock was stiff. It cracked open. I was sure there was something behind me but I didn’t dare to look I just leapt in and slammed the door shut behind me.
In the yellow light of the house, the familiar smell of stale lager filled my nostrils and calmed me slightly. I climbed up the uneven stairs to my pigsty bedroom, and sat on the edge of my bed breathing heavily, unable to take in what had just occurred.
I remember looking at a poster of a white dove on my wall – its wings spread as if it was taking flight, its eye gazing at mine, and, in that moment, the thing made me feel so fucking nervous that before I could sleep I ripped it down and left it crumpled, facing the floor. I was eventually lulled to sleep by the grey sounds and signs of dawn and the incoherent babbles of my Gran waking up for work.
“Fucking weird that lad, what do you think he wanted?” laughed my friend Ste, the next day, taking a sip of his pint.
“Well… he could’ve thought I was a helpless, hapless student, could’ve got myself sodomized,” I said trying not to let the thought of it sink in too much.
“Wouldn’t be the first time though would it lad,” Ste retorted.
“Or the last,” I shot back making a face to cover up a surge of repulsion at the thought.
I finished my whiskey and coke, said adieu to my compadre and set off to meet Chris at the Café Nero on Mulberry Street.
The building was modern, and it had full screen windows, simple but eye catching. Inside they had a modern version of an Italian coffee shop, with old looking tables and wood finishes everywhere. The mahogany browns and thick creams mixed with the aroma of pungent coffee sometimes fooled me into thinking I was in Milan. I ordered my usual latte with a shot of syrup and whipped cream and sat near the counter facing the entrance. The purpose of the meeting was to talk over an article I had written for the The Tubby magazine which circulated all over the UK and even got sent as far as LA. This was my third article in the publication. I started out in the horoscope section writing fortune cookie shite but the readers seemed to like it. This one was about gender which, apparently, was a hot topic. Writing gave me freedom and allowed me to express a little of what I really thought. I met Chris at a gig. I was smoking outside the venue and he asked for a drag which I usually got pissed off at, but I had seen him around and he looked like a good contact. Meeting him today was a ball ache. He claimed to have read my article many times but insisted he wanted to read it through together today. I knew the fucker hadn’t so much as looked at it and this was likely to be the first time he was to lay eyes on my article. He was a small man with a big mouth. He swaggered in nearly twenty minutes late in his usual melodramatic way.
“My man!” he said with all the enthusiasm of a con-artist. “How’s tricks?”
“Good thanks mate,” I replied.
“Is this the masterpiece?” he said gesturing towards them.
He had this nosy grin which made him seem like a character from a Roald Dahl novel, or a vulture. As Chris looked over the pages (and more than occasionally tapped the screen of his phone to check his messages), I felt a presence behind me. The smell of rich Italian coffee was contaminated by the smell of cheap perfume and musk. I glanced over my shoulder at the counter and there, with his back to me stood the man from the white car. Today he was wearing a yellow red mackintosh with a blonde wig tied into ponytails. I suddenly felt very tense, seeing this nightmarish figure in the light of day. My hands gripped the sides of the grainy wood table. He scooped up his coffee, walked round the corner and sat facing the window. I risked a look and saw his round hulking face. It was expressionless but haunting like David Duckenfield in drag, looking on out the window sipping his coffee. I was in so much of a panic that I didn’t hear Chris slip in that I would receive only half of my original fee this time. I snapped my laptop shut my heart racing. It was too fucking soon to be a coincidence. I pushed my chair back and said a quick goodbye to Chris. I risked another glance. My stomach turned over like clothes sloshing in the washing machine. He seemed to slowly nod at me.
Before that encounter, I was prepared to accept that it may have been a drink and drug induced hallucination. Possibly it was a sign from beyond that I needed to knock rebelliousness in the head, put an end to my ways and get over myself, but now – now, I was under no illusions. He was real and the inventor meant for this to happen.
I needed to find some fresh opinions on the whole thing – but this would be a task in itself. My immediate circle was limited to former hard men and borderline drug dealers. I hadn’t attempted to ask any women what they saw in this troubling situation. When I eventually spoke to my Nana Maureen, she had a familiar stand point.
“He must’ve fancied you,” she said with a chuckle.
“Oh Nan, why can’t anyone take it seriously?” I said, my voice rising with irritation.
“Why are gettin’ so worked up about it son?” she said still amused.
“Because I feel like am bein’ threatened or somethin’.” I spoke without thinking.
Nana had a way of getting me to speak my mind even if it was out of sheer frustration. She put her cup of tea down on her knee high varnished stool and trotted into the kitchen. I lay down on the couch and put my forearm over my eyes. Nan’s heavy trot pattered back in she sat down stiffly with a grunt. I could hear her rubbing her feet with Sudocrem.
“You’ve always been a bit weird when it came to people dressin’ up,”she said after a long pause. At first, the words passed over me like the hook of a pop song. Then I began to think about something I’d seen on Facebook about childhood trauma.
“Why do you think that was?” I said sitting up slightly.
“How the bloody hell would I know?” she said with a shrug and a wince as she smoothed the thick white cream over her bumpy, blistered feet. This was a common response from my Nan but at least she didn’t feel obliged to act like she knew.
I was tempted to ask my uncle Mark, who lived with Nana Pauline, what he thought. I knew that he would have one kind of solution, a violent one. He’d taken pride in his stories about pretending to be a rent boy down on Otterspool prom when he was teenager. Robbing and beating up the ‘nonces’ who came to him for sex. He loved the grotesque details – breaking noses, stamping feet and their pleas for him to stop. I really hated these tales and would try my best to avoid provoking them from him.
Walking along Tunnel Road one blustery afternoon, I could see a church tower poking out from behind a new building. It reminded me of the titans who attacked mount Olympus in the Disney version of Hercules. The boarded up windows were like probing eyes. It looked out of place, scary and hostile. Next to it a great greyish blue cloud hung, sluggishly sliding by. For a second I thought I saw a rainbow. Or the outline of one. But in reality, a shadow had just moved in front of the weak sun, and I lost interest.
To try and apply a religious perspective to this was another invitation to violent hell fire. To apply science was to research the madness of it. I decided to settle for some trans stories from trans people.
What I found baffled me. Gender variance was everywhere. There were all different types – a whole spectrum. The most pivotal thing I learned was that you didn’t have to be gay to dress in women’s clothes. Married men did it. It had a history as long as history itself spanning the globe. The Ancient Greeks and Romans had gods who had the ability to take the appearance of either gender. I read about a trans person who was mistaken for a woman constantly, before they became one. She was confronted in the toilets of a supermarket and had to literally get her cock out to prove she belonged there. For this one, the pronoun used to describe her was an indicator of how she identified. I had to google what a pronoun was. It all became very complicated. All of these theories raised more and more questions.
Slowly, time blunted my interest, and I began to forget the man in the white car. It came to the point where I set my mind on an untidy ending. I began to realise that trying to find a word to describe someone throughout their life is something that simply can’t be done. I saw how my father – who was always described as a robust man – was reduced to skin and bones by cancer. My mother, once a strong fearless woman, was broken. She remarried and moved away for fear of becoming like Nana Maureen. Nana Pauline was an intellectual, well-respected woman but was driven to despair by the death of my father. It seemed like she hated life, and she was hard to spend too much time around. Her mind picked out the negative in everything. It would do more harm than good – life changes people, breaks them.
Closure came, as it usually does, at the time when I least expected it. I was hauling bundles of The Tubby all over the city centre using a battered yellow trolley that had a seriously wonky wheel. I had agreed to distribute this week’s issue around the city to make up what I had lost from my fee. The sun was beating me into slow submission. My feet were swollen and sweaty. My t-shirt stuck to me, and was chafing around the armpits.
‘Fuck you Chris, you, snide, little…’ I must’ve muttered to myself like a mantra. It was the only thing getting me through.
As I left LIPA, a flash of colour struck my peripherals. And there, plodding along was the astonishing human being that had been skulking in the shadows of my mind for so long. I had searched for her. Weeks had become months. Then, out of the crystal blue sky of a summer’s day, there she was. A dry chill swept over me. The flowery courtyard of the Paul McCartney institute seemed to freeze. A breeze picked up and caught the hanging trees causing them to sway and fuss like a group of elderly women waiting for the bus after bingo. I felt my heart leap into my throat. I had to confront this – bring an end to it.
I marched out of the gate abandoning the bundle of magazines and the trolley. I had to quicken my pace, as she had already disappeared from sight. Her flamboyant multi-coloured attire was like a fishing lure, as she walked with a satisfied slowness. She descended the snaking pathway that had the headstones of priests and bishops displayed on either side. They stood all squat, green and mossy. Aged and eroded. Each one she passed attempted to bear down on her – all masculine and oppressive. Judging every breath and step she took.
I walked at some length behind, too anxious to breathe. The scent of old lady perfume mingled with the damp brown smell of this ancient pathway was the only indication that this was not another vivid dream. She passed through the sandy-coloured worm hole. As she came to the bottom of the path she slowed cautiously and then turned her face, made up with rosy cheeks and the lustrous red lip stick. A purple shawl lazily drooping from her shoulders showed her sense of style. She knew who she was.
“Who are you?” she asked in a friendly tone
I couldn’t speak. My mouth just hung open like I had stumbled upon a unicorn.
In my silence, her face became weary. “What do you want?”
We stood there facing each other for a while before she turned and continued on her way.
I followed slowly trying to figure out what to say. I could feel the cathedral at my shoulder standing aloof, its expression severe. When I finally found my voice again, it seemed to flow from the heart in a way that was impossible to remember but she seemed to understand me.
‘Who am I?’
‘What do I want?’
This was not an easy question to answer with honesty. No final answers came. I had tried to look inward and confront the demons that dwelled there. It was satisfying when they started to leave without a ruckus. For the first time I explored what filled the shadows up. The Rainbow became a thing of beauty again. Answers slipped from my grasp like a bar of soap in the shower. It all seemed futile. Was God really that mystery man? It was shocking when the thought hit me. The female seemed like a more fitting candidate. Her mysterious ways, her grace and beauty, her ability to create seemed more viable. Men would want to see me die in a painful way for suggesting such a thing. It was definitely the work of a woman and that woman got style. Man, she got style.