by Julia Wood
I only wear them when Mum is out. After she leaves the house I wait at the foot of the stairs. I have to be sure she isn’t going to come back because she often forgets things, like her house keys or her purse. I hope she’s not going doo-lally like Granny.
When I decide she isn’t coming back I creep up the stairs into her bedroom. The yellow light comes through the gaps in the banisters and makes the floor all stripy and it’s like I’m walking up a tiger’s back.
I open the wardrobe door and reach in, amongst the rows of dresses on their hangers. They look creepy; a queue of ghosts. I daren’t put the light on so I feel anxious but Mum says eleven is too old to be scared of the dark. I reach out and touch a toffee-coloured satin dress. It feels smooth and cool on my fingers. My heart is pounding so fast I’m scared it’s going to burst like the overripe tomatoes in our greenhouse that no one picks anymore.
Dare I? I ask myself this every time. And every time I answer with the same question: what if she comes back? What if she catches me? So it’s just the shoes again, because I can get them off quickly if I hear the door go.
Here’s the thing about my story. It’s complicated, like a Rubik’s Cube when you twist it too many times and get all the colours mixed up. It’s like when Mum goes to the land of Muminamood. Her lips pucker like a cat’s bottom and she says, ‘Rich-ard,’ really slowly through the tiny gap and it doesn’t sound like her at all. Muminamood is her angry place, and when she’s there it’s like she’s gone away and left me and I’m waiting for her to come home.
I go to sleep listening to my Culture Club tape on my Walkman and staring up at the big poster of Boy George, who has multi-coloured hair that looks like it’s made from rainbows. When I grow up I want to be beautiful and like I’m made from rainbows too.
I wake up the next day with my head still full of ‘Karma Chameleon,’ which is my favourite song because it’s about a magical place where amazing things happen. It gives me that feeling again like when I forget my key and I’m locked out of the house only I’m locked out of my body and the only way I can get back inside is to be Ruby.
And it’s then that I know: I’m going to go all the way this time. I’m not even going to wait until she’s out.
She’s downstairs. I can hear her from up here in my room—doing that thing with the pans when she bangs them around even though she’s not cooking. She sounds like she’s practicing to be a drummer in one of those Grebo bands with evil people who eat live bats, even though she only ever plays Neil Diamond.
Six weeks ago The Bad Thing happened and then Dad left. She doesn’t talk about it so I don’t know why he left. There’s this tense atmosphere, like before a storm only the storm never comes, but I wish it would. I want us all to be swept away, back to the time before the anger came. I want to go back to a place that feels like home.
Mum is still banging. I go to my secret box under my bed and pull out all the coloured ribbons I have collected. I imagine tying each one to my hair, until my hair is a million rivers of colour and some of them are gold and glittery like the stars in the firmament.
Firmament is the fancy word for sky. It’s a long word so it sounds like it’s describing something massive that goes on forever. My teachers tell Mum I’m slow because I don’t take stuff in but it’s not my fault I find it hard to concentrate. They don’t know what it’s like having a head like a hive and thoughts that are busier than bees.
Anyway, I don’t see how I can be thick if I know words like firmament.
Carrying the ribbons I creep slowly along the landing, avoiding stepping on the floorboard that squeaks like the guinea pig I used to have until it got maggots and died. I tiptoe into Mum’s room. My heart is pounding so fast I’m scared it’s going to burst out of my chest like in that film Alien. Mum doesn’t know I’ve seen it but I watched it when she was out.
Maybe I want to get caught? Maybe I want her to know then I can stop carrying this big secret that weighs more than my satchel even with all my books in it. Maybe I want to send her to the land of Muminamood forever? Maybe I’ve stopped caring.
I put the ribbons on the bed and open the wardrobe door. I wince at the creaking. I grope around, feeling for the shoes, pulling them out in triumph. I take out the silk dress. I swish it across my face, catching the stale smell of Mum’s perfume which is called Obsession and smells like dusty neglected ladies.
I hold it up and look at it in the fading light from the window. My breath is getting shorter and shorter until I feel like I’m suffocating. I slip the dress over my head. I stand there for a moment, until my breath slows then I pull off my jeans from underneath. I stare at my reflection in the big long mirror.
I’ve done it! I’ve actually done it! I’m wearing a dress! I twirl around, getting used to the sight of myself doing different poses—my hands on my hips, chin held high. I move closer and pull my lips into a pout.
Then I stand sideways and tilt my head, pretending my short mousy hair is all the way down my back. I glance at the ribbons on the bed. I hum ‘Karma Chameleon,’ and pick one up. I try attaching it to a strand of hair but it slips out. My hair is too short. I turn away, ease my feet into the shoes and go back to the mirror.
‘Hello, Ruby.’ I smile at the girl in the reflection. I watch the light glint on the red leather, on the shiny bows. It’s called patent apparently when it shines like this. I do what I always do. I tap the heels together—click, click, click. It hasn’t worked so far but I’m hoping it will because maybe if I wish hard enough then one day, home will be home again.
I look longingly at the bunch of ribbons and remember Mum’s wigs. If I wear a wig then I can tie the ribbons to it. After The Bad Thing happened Mum went out and bought a load of wigs and sometimes she wears them when she goes out . When I asked her why she just said, ‘Because I don’t like being me anymore.’
For the first few days she cried and cried and kept being sick. I thought maybe it was prawns. She can’t eat prawns, they make her ill but she’s taking medicine now to stop her crying and puking.
I begin quietly opening the drawers. I don’t know where she keeps the wigs but I know she has loads. As I’m on the third drawer the floorboard squeaks. I quickly pull off the dress so I’m standing in my underpants and tank top. I kick my legs out and the shoes fall onto their sides next to each other. I turn around.
Mum is standing in the doorway.
‘What are you doing?’ She’s gone pale. She doesn’t speak for ages and I’m trying to work out what she’s thinking. Is she going to scream? Cry? Stop my pocket money?
She narrows her eyes and she says, ‘Put them back on.’
‘What?’ It comes out in a whisper.
‘I said, put them back on.’
I do as she asks.
‘Now, stay there.’
She marches out of the room. I hear her going into my bedroom and I don’t like it when she goes in there because it’s my space. I want to cry but Mum said boys aren’t meant to cry but I’m not a boy. I feel shaky and I want to sit down on the bed but I don’t dare to move.
Soon, she’s back and she’s clutching something small and black. I smother a sob. It’s my Culture Club cassette I was playing last night. I stand motionless as she leans down at my feet.
‘You want to wear women’s shoes then you will wear women’s shoes.’
She sticks her fingernail under the cassette and starts pulling out the reels of tape.
‘Lift your foot.’
I do as she asks.
She winds the tape under the shoes, over the top of my foot again and again, tying knot after knot until the tape digs into my skin. She winds it up to my ankle and lower leg, wrapping it round and round. I wonder when she’s going to stop and how long the tape is and if she’s going to use all of it on just my one foot but then she snaps it off and ties it again at the top.
She does the same with my other foot, more yards and yards of tape, knotted and tied until I’m a mess of twisty knots and it’s like having thin brown snakes coiled around my legs.
‘That’s your punishment. You are not to remove these shoes unless I say so. Do you understand?’
I nod. My face is burning so hot I think I’m getting a fever. I want to ask her how she knew and how long she’s known but she swishes off down the hall in her dirndl skirt that flaps like the sails of a pirate ship leaving the harbour.
I don’t sleep that night. The next day I’m tired as I go into school. The shoes were heavy. I got tangled in the blankets and tore a hole in the duvet trying to free myself.
I spend the morning self-conscious and ashamed, all the other kids pointing and laughing.
‘Why are you wearing girls’ shoes? Are you a queer or something?’ Kevin says. I’m frightened of Kevin because his older brother is a skinhead who duffs people up and he’ll set him on me if I talk back.
Clare comes over. ‘You ok, Richie? What’s with the shoes, and…the tape?’ Clare is my friend because she’s odd like me. She combs her hair backwards so it sticks up all over the place and makes holes in her tights and the teachers never tell her off because her dad is on some important board to do with the school. The other kids say she’s stupid because she reads slowly but I think she just likes words and wants to make them last, like Opal Fruits.
‘Just…felt like it.’ I shrug. I can’t tell her about Mum, not in front of all these people.
‘I like it,’ she says. ‘Don’t worry what those idiots think.’
I wish I didn’t but I do.
It’s first lesson after lunch and I wait for Mr. Whispers to arrive for double maths. I look across the corridor to see Nigel standing there, hands in his trouser pockets. He gives a half-smile then looks away. Nigel is a scaredy-cat so he never sticks up for me when it counts but he’s sort of my secret friend. Kevin hates him as much as me because he stammers and is ginger.
Mr. Whispers arrives and we file into the room. He’s really called Mr. Bellows but he doesn’t bellow so it’s a silly name.
‘Class sit.’ He talks so quietly it’s like he’s talking to himself.
I sit down. As usual, Clare sits next to me and starts getting her books out but all I can think about are the shoes. I shuffle my feet under the desk. They’ve rubbed a bit because they don’t fit properly and now my feet hurt.
There’s a knock on the door and the secretary, Miss Baines, walks in. She goes over to Mr. Whispers and says something I can’t hear. Then she leaves. Next, Mr. Whispers is looking at me.
‘Bowles,’ he says. ‘Mr. Timms wants to see you. His office. Now.’
There’s a whoop of amusement from the class.
‘You’re going to be expelled for being a poofter!’ Kevin yells.
Mr. Whispers bangs on the desk. ‘Quiet,’ he says, as I get up and leave, shaky and scared.
I don’t like the Head. He’s huge; he has this really massive voice and it’s so loud it’s like he’s got a microphone built into his chest and he canes boys so hard they get stripy bottoms and can’t sit down without crying.
He hasn’t got a heart because he had it taken out. Instead, he has a plastic one, but then maybe he doesn’t want a real heart because it will get smashed into little bits, like the I Shot J.R. mug Mum threw at the wall last week when she was on her way to Muminamood.
I walk slowly up the stairs. My feet are heavy in the shoes and the thin brown snakes are tightening around my ankles.
When I arrive at the Head’s office the door is closed and I have to stand outside in the staff corridor. My legs ache and I want to sit down but there isn’t a chair, not even one of those plastic ones that melt when you push them against the school radiator.
Kids file past, pointing and laughing.
‘Poofter! Backs against the wall!’
‘Look, it’s the school bender!’
I look down at my shoes. I’m wrapped in Boy George, which should comfort me but it doesn’t because it reminds me that Mum hates my music so she must hate me too. Clare said it’s because parents are squares and don’t understand pop music but what would she know? Her mum bought her crimpers for her birthday and doesn’t tie her shoes on with music.
I press my hand to my hot cheek. I feel like I might go on fire. I read about it in a science magazine of Dad’s once. People can go on fire and they don’t burn anything around them and then there’s a pile of ash and that’s all that’s left of them. I press my face against the cool glass of the window.
Mr.Timms is walking towards me. His heavy feet make the floor shake like it’s scared of him too. He walks weirdly as well, because he’s got some kind of problem with his joints. I wonder if he needs WD40 like Mum uses on the hinges of our garden gate.
He opens the door and walks into his office. ‘Bowles. In here. Now.’
I hate it when he calls me by my surname. He calls all the boys by their surnames. I hate him because he doesn’t accept that I’m not a boy. He’s cruel and I think it’s because he has a plastic heart instead of a real one.
I follow him. My legs are shaking. I’m scared I’m going to fall over in my shoes with the big heels. I feel clumsy and ridiculous and I’m angry because when I’m wearing the red shoes I usually feel snug in my body like I belong in it.
I do as he asks.
‘What’s the meaning of this, lad?’
‘Of what, Sir.’
‘The shoes. They’re not uniform.’
My mind goes blank.
‘Bowles? What do you have to say for yourself?’
‘It’s…I…I need a new pair of shoes and we can’t afford them yet, Sir.’ I glance down at them, my gaze travelling to his glum black shoes under the desk. They’re called Brogues and all gloomy people wear them, like men who do peoples’ funerals and Morrissey.
‘You’re wearing girl’s shoes.’
‘They’re Mum’s, Sir.’
‘What about your sports shoes?’
‘I…I left my bag on the bus.’ This is actually true because when my thoughts are doing that buzzing bee thing I go inside my head too much and forget stuff.
He slams his hand on the desk. I jerk backwards.
‘I left my bag on the bus, SIR!’ His eyes go all small like the little buttons on his cardigan and his voice shakes the room like an earthquake.
I bite my lip, trying to stop it trembling.
‘Right. I am going to cane you. It is no less than you deserve.’
My eyes fill with tears but I have to remember I’m not supposed to cry. Cane me? But it’s not my fault! I want to explain how Mum taped me into the shoes because she goes to Muminamood sometimes and when she goes there she gets a bit mad and says ‘Richard’ in her pointy witch’s voice and she can watch me when I can’t see her because she’s got special powers.
‘You are going to remove those shoes and I will find you a school regulation pair from the Lost Property.’
I want to shout, ‘but I don’t want a school regulation pair!’ I want to dress like the rainbow with colours that are red and gold like dreams. Instead I’m stuck with clothes that are grey like the winter clouds that make people depressed, because they don’t understand why the sun has been stolen and how to get it back.
He leaves the room, an immense, lop-sided god who’s bigger and more powerful than I can ever imagine being.
I want to get up and run away but I don’t dare to. I can’t get the cane, I just can’t. He doesn’t understand that I’m a girl and not a boy.
I wait and I wait. I watch the big clock on the wall. The ticking gets slower; a heart about to stop—half past one, two o’clock, quarter to three…. The bell goes for afternoon break. My stomach churns. I torment myself with thoughts of chips and tomato sauce, of iced buns and doughnuts.
Afternoon break passes and he’s still not back. The hands on the clock creep up to four and then the bell goes for the end of school. I have to go or Mum will be angry again. Nervously I get up and leave the office but instead of just going home and forgetting about it I decide I have to know where he is. I’m going to have to be very brave.
The Lost Property cupboard is hidden in a wing of the school where there are no classes. I don’t like it because it’s got a weird little door that’s pointed at the top. I shiver as I creep along the corridor. It’s quiet. I can hear the chatter of pupils getting further and further away. It’s different up here. It’s not school. It’s another place, a far away land; somewhere you could get lost and never find your way home.
As I get to the cupboard, the pointy door is ajar. I notice a small dark shape from inside the cupboard, peeping into the hall. I nervously go closer, peering into the gap. There’s a pile of rubbish, stacks and stacks of boxes all toppled over with clothes spilling out of them. There’s a smell of rotting feet and mouldy things. They’re the unwanted lost things that used to belong to someone—sports shoes, school jumpers, blazers. I don’t know why but it makes me sad.
Underneath I can see the Brogues, sticking out at odd angles.
I stand there, my heart is going so fast I think I’m going to be sick. I try to work out what to do. After a while I push the door a little wider and peer into the darkened room. I fight the urge to run away.
Instead I creep past the fallen boxes and peer over them. His body is all twisted and lifeless and suddenly he’s not a big powerful god with a massive voice any more, he’s just a shrunken man in a cupboard. I tap his dull shoe with the toe of my shiny red shoe. It flops listlessly and I shudder. I walk away to go and get a teacher.
The next day everyone’s talking about what happened, about how the ambulance came and took him away and everything. It was a big drama because they carried his body through the school under a plastic cover and I watched them do it.
‘The Head is Dead! The Head is Dead!’ they’re all saying, jumping up and down excitedly. I’m happy too even though I feel guilty for being relieved he’s not coming back. The kids in my form are crowding in the corridor waiting for Mr. Whispers. He’s late so I wonder if he’s dead too and then we won’t have to look at all those weird symbols and numbers that make me dizzy.
‘You’re still wearing those bender-boy shoes!’ Kevin pushes his way through the crowds towards me.
He does that thing where he makes himself taller and sticks out his chin. But I stand up just as tall. I feel different now. I found the Head all shrivelled up under the boxes of other people’s unwanted things all by myself so he can’t scare me anymore and if he can’t scare me then no one can.
‘Leave him alone, you big bully,’ Clare says, appearing at my side.
‘It’s fine.’ I reply.
I take a deep breath and walk into the middle of the corridor, to where there’s a space between the crowds.
I stand up straight and stare at my classmates, hands on my hips. I walk past them, to the end of the corridor, chin in the air. The hooting and jeering dies down.
When I reach the end I turn back and walk through them again, a model on the catwalk, really tall and proud. When I stop no one says anything. They’re all just staring and quiet like they’ve been turned to stone in a game of tag.
Next, Kevin is walking towards me. My heart races but I stand my ground.
He looks me in the eye and I look right back.
Then he says, ‘You’ve got some bottle, I give you that.’
As he walks away I catch Clare’s eye and she smiles. I smile back.
When I open the door and walk into the hall that night Mum comes out of the lounge. She looks down at my feet. I want to run to my room but I remember Mr. Timms and how brave I was. I remember Kevin saying I had bottle so I stand tall like I did with him.
‘Richard?’ Her voice isn’t angry, just sad-sounding.
‘It’s Ruby,’ I reply. ‘My name is Ruby.’
She frowns. I feel uneasy.
‘All the kids laughed and said I was a poof but I don’t care and I’m keeping the shoes on anyway because I like them.’ I’m scared she’s going to get angry again but she just goes all weird and starts crying. I wait for her to stop but she carries on. She’s all stooped and bent over like the droopy willow tree in our garden and she’s leaning on the banister at the foot of the stairs with her hair all over the place.
I don’t know what to do. Can you die from too much crying? Should I call an ambulance like Miss Baines did for the Head? But just as I’m about to pick up the phone, she dries her eyes. Then she straightens up and says, ‘I’m going to make tea now.’
She goes into the kitchen and I’m worried in case she’s going back to the land of Muminamood but she doesn’t bang the pans and after a while I hear the kettle boil.
Several hours pass and things sort of calm down. I feel like I’m waiting for the storm again only nothing happens except fish fingers and Tomorrow’s World. Mum is acting weirdly because she’s not in Muminamood but I’m not sure she’s back home either.
Then, at nine-thirty, just after I climb into bed she comes into my room and sits down next to me.
‘I just don’t know why you would do it—why do you want to wear women’s clothes?’ Her voice is as quiet as Mr. Whispers.
‘Boy George does it. So why can’t I?’ I tell her about Ruby and how wearing women’s clothes makes me feel I’m properly inside my body instead of locked out, like when I’m Richard.
Then she starts going on about what the neighbours will think which is odd because she didn’t seem to be worrying about that when she sent me to school in her shoes. Grown-ups are weird.
‘Richard, you’re a boy. You can’t dress like a girl. It’s… it’s not right.’
I feel my lip trembling but I bite on it hard which hurts. ‘Why did you send me to school in the shoes if it’s not right?’
‘Because I wanted you to see that it’s not normal.’
‘You wanted me to get picked on?’
‘No. Of course not.’ She turns away. ‘I’m so sorry… it was a terrible thing to do. I wasn’t thinking straight. I was upset, I—’ She brushes away a tear.
She says nothing for a long time and I watch her face, all sort of serious like Anna Ford when she reads the news and I can tell she wants to ask me more but she just looks worried and confused.
‘You’re always angry,’ I tell her. ‘Why do I make you angry?’
She pulls me to her and kisses the top of my head. ‘You don’t make me angry,’ she says. ‘But it scares me, all this—wanting to be a girl. What do I do wrong? Was it something we did, your father and I?’
‘I don’t know. I just like myself better as Ruby. You like being someone else when you put the wigs on, because you don’t want to be you anymore. That’s what you said.’
‘I see.’ She looks unnerved by this and shakes her head as if there’s a wasp in her hair but there isn’t. There’s a long silence and I can tell she’s thinking really hard because her face is all squinty like when the sun is in her eyes and it’s too bright.
‘There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you about too. It’s about your father.’
She tells me about The Bad Thing but she raises her voice so I slide down under the covers. She says she had found out Dad has been having an affair with some ‘peroxide slut’ who wears cheap perfume that smells like horse piss so she threw all his things out of the window and told him never to come back.
‘What’s a slut?’ My eyes widen. ‘Did her perfume really smell of horse piss?’
‘You shouldn’t use words like that. I only said them because I’m so angry.’
‘I hate him! I hate him for leaving us! I want to go to the window and I want to shout PISS! And SLUT! so all the neighbours can hear.’
‘You mustn’t do that. It’s naughty.’ She reminds me about our neighbours who are easily offended because they go to church a lot and try to stop people turning to the devil.
‘It’s not been easy for me.’ She touches my cheek really lightly, the way a cobweb lands only I don’t brush it away. I start feeling calmer because maybe things are going to be nicer now so I won’t need to shout rude words out of the window and the neighbours won’t think I’ve turned to the devil.
‘I guess I just hadn’t thought about how hard it’s been for you.’ She chews on her lip, something she does when she’s thinking really hard. ‘I’m going to see a shrink,’ she says. ‘For my depression.’
I tell her not to. I don’t want her to get smaller and smaller until she disappears. She laughs and explains that he’s not going to make her smaller, he’s going to make her bigger by helping her not to be angry and sad anymore. I’m glad she’s found someone to show her the way back from Muminamood.
‘I’m going to try and make things better,’ she says. ‘I promise. We can replace your tape. I’ll buy you a new one.’ Then she says, ‘I can’t pretend I like all this but I suppose we’ll just have to figure it out together—somehow. If you really want to you can be Ruby, but only in the house.’
I hug her really tight with all my strength until my arms ache. I have my wish.
Julia Wood holds a Masters’ Degree in Continental Philosophy from Warwick University and has previously published a non-fiction book, The Resurrection of Oscar Wilde: A Cultural Afterlife (Lutterworth Press, 2007). Julia’s short stories have appeared in anthologies, including, Exhausting a Place in Leicester, Songs for the Elephant Man, In the Kitchen, Dark and Light Anthology and Resolutions. Julia has had stories shortlisted for, No Spiders were Harmed in the Making of this Anthology, 2020 and, the Hastings Short Story Prize, 2020. Julia is currently working on a Women’s Fiction/Humour Lockdown Novel, The Adventures of Jenny Bean, Aged 49 and a Lot.