Wrapped in a thick dressing gown, Steph sat at a table outside the chocolate box cottage. She hugged her coffee tight and watched the world awake. The birds said hello and the sun waved a greeting. It was a quiet moment when no one else existed.
Lori came out in a ridiculously thin satin nightdress. Her make up was already done. She smiled and sat down opposite Steph. She looked at her nails and blew on them. Her voice was soft and a notch higher than Nick’s had been. “Do you have any plans for the day?”
“I thought we could hang out. Watch some TV, walk over the hills. You know get to know each other.”
“Why don’t I book us an hour of beauty treatments. Maybe find a babysitter?” For the first time since they arrived Lori looked excited, happy.
Steph raised an eyebrow. “Really, Miss Moneybags – you are feeling flush today?”
She blushed and looked away. “I… I… just thought.”
With a sigh Steph reminded herself that Lori had only been a woman for two days and this must be bloody confusing. She reached over and took Lori’s hand. “This holiday is about getting to know you. That treat was a big deal for you I know but lets have a day here. If you want to go into the village tomorrow we can try it.”
“Mum, when’s breakfast.” Luke zipped past in his swim shorts. “I’m going in the burn.”
Before Steph could raise an eyebrow in his direction there was a splash. “Do you not want breakfast?” she shouted.
“After my swim.”
An awkward silence descended between Steph and Lori.
Lori coughed. “Maybe I could do your hair? Paint your nails?”
“Yeah. OK. No make-up though.” It hurt that Lori didn’t seem to know Steph like Nick knew Steph. There’s no way Steph would normally agree to having her hair and nails done. It wasn’t her thing. “I’ve got something for you.” She got up and went into the pretty kitchen, all chintz and relaxation, where she put her cup in the sink. From the cupboard she got out a box. Stefan had helped her wrap it in pink paper with felt flowers – it looked beautiful. Carrying it like the fourth king in a nativity she went back out and placed it down in front of Lori.
Lori appeared nervous and she blinked. “I didn’t get you anything.”
Steph waved that away. “Nick never bothered buying me anything so I hadn’t expected it from Lori.” She kissed her cheek and brushed it with her hand, adjusting to the smooth face caked in foundation would take time. It took an effort on Steph’s part not to wipe her hands on her dressing gown. “This is your welcome to womanhood pack. I gave Ellie one when she was about eight – I figured as a new woman Lori should have one too.” Covering her mouth, she whispered. “I didn’t bother with the Tampax though. You’re one lucky gal and get to skip the shitty stuff.” Whilst Steph had expected Lori to laugh, Lori didn’t. She appeared a little upset. “Look, if I’ve messed up, I promise that I’ll get you tampax and nice carrying case the next time I get to a chemist. Just...” Steph shrugged. “I don’t get why any woman would want a period if she doesn’t have to have it.”
Lori shook her head. She looked a little angry. “It’s not that. You’re just so damn understanding. Can’t you hate me a little bit?”
“You want me to be angry with you?” Steph sat down.
Luke came past them. “Period’s are manky. You put me right off the breakfast you haven't made me.”
“Periods are not manky, young man. They’re painful but they’re a fact of life.” Her emotions were pulled in all directions and Steph didn’t want Luke to leave. This was supposed to be a time to relax, their first holiday in years. But he left them to face each other. “Why do you want me to be angry, Lori?” Steph had been trying to say the name as often as she could in an attempt to forget the bitch from school.
“Have you any idea how hard its been for me? Wanting to be Lori and I kept it secret all this time. Then when I finally tell you, you tell me not to wear your tights. What the damn hell was that all about?”
“I was hung over, you stupid bitch. It was all I could think of. Then I spent all bloody day trying to work out how to be a lesbian and then you said I’d done it wrong because I’d talked to people.” Furious that Lori had ruined what Steph thought would be a special moment, Steph ignored her aching legs and took off down the path to the nearby forest. She kept checking behind her but Lori didn’t follow.
Coffee cups clinked, and the crowd chattered. Steph nursed her decaff latte with soya milk and jumped every time the door jingled open.
Over half an hour late, Nat rushed in with her arms full of shopping bags. She wore a fetching tunic top and a pair of leggings. Her eyes scanned the coffee shop, and she waved at Steph. “Daniella, I’ll have a gingerbread latte and a cheesecake. Thank you, sweetheart.” With confidence, she glided through the tables and sat down opposite Steph. She dumped her bags and smiled. “How are you, hon? I wanted to catch up what with your gal being in such a state the last time we met.”
Steph held her cup tighter. She still couldn’t get used to Nick or Lori being referred to as “a gal”. She shrugged. “We haven’t seen Lori in two weeks. Not a peep. Not even nail varnish or women’s knickers.”
Daniella brought over the cheesecake and coffee.
“Thanks, Dani, love.” Nat smiled at her. “This looks so good. You not having, Steph?”
The cheesecake looked so damn good. Forget the diet. Steph wanted to feel shitty physically to match her mood. She needed to collapse in bed and be miserable. If the fibromyalgia was bad, she could do that. “Daniella, can you get me a slice? And I’ll have the caramel doughnut with custard.” If she was going to be ill Steph figured it might as well be worth the pain. It was not like she had to worry about turning Lori or Nick off as they still showed no interest in Steph.
“She’s probably having trouble admitting things to herself.” With the fork, Nat tucked in. “Scared herself back into the closet.”
“She shouted at me for using she as a pronoun the other day. Says I should use the pronoun she dictates. But I never get what is going on from day to day. I need something more concrete.” Steph held up her hand to stop Nat saying anything. She had to get this out. “It’s selfish of me but I need her to engage with me. I need to understand. She’s still barely speaking to me. I guess I need it to be our issue not Lori’s issue. Our daughter thinks we need a week away somewhere. Just the kids, Lori and me. It doesn’t help my mother’s living with us and she hates Nick. Nick doesn’t want her to know.”
“Your daughter sounds like a sensible kid.”
“Thanks.” Steph leant back so Daniella could lay down the cheesecake and doughnut.
“Dani, chick. You think Steph here should take her transitioning mtof spouse on holiday, you know try and get to know the woman?”
Daniella shrugged. “Worth a try.”
Steph glared at Nat.
“Don’t worry, chick,” Nat addressed Steph. “This is a safe environment and Dani has been my friend for years. She’s like my Stefan.”
It was still an invasion to have all and sundry told but then she’d done the very same thing to Nick when Nick had first come out. There wasn’t any reason to be ashamed. She looked up, gave Daniella a nod. “All advice welcome. Was Nat cagey, secretive and uncommunicative when she came out? I gather you’ve been in her life that long?”
Daniella shook her head. “Sorry. No.”
“Oh. Stefan and I have been a non couple for twenty-five years.” She squinted. “Speaking of the stylish hunk.”
“Ladies.” Stefan waltzed in. “How are you all?” He kissed Dani, Nat and then Steph on the cheek. “I was hoping I’d find you here. There’s an exhibition at the art gallery you should all see. And I’ll buy you dinner afterwards? When do you get off Dan?”
Steph concentrated on her cake. She tried not to be annoyed with him for not being in her life much. He had a lot on at work. It’s just she needed time with right now. Time alone with him to talk and not time with other people, virtual strangers.
“Oh my, Steph. I heard what Nick’s new name is. Bloody hell. Can you handle that?” Stefan sat down next to her and held Steph’s hands. “I am sorry. You know I’m opening a new shop.” He avoided her. “And I let you down.”
Steph nodded. “Yeah, I know. You’re busy. I’m fine.” She swallowed. “I will be fine.”
“No you’re not,” Stefan mouthed.
Nat raised an eyebrow. “Is there a problem?”
Tears formed in Steph’s eyes but she brushed them away and sniffed. “Lori Hudson was the girl that made my life at school a misery. I’ve never met another one.” She bit her lip. “I just need to get used to Nick being Lori. I’m sure it’ll be OK. I’m sure once we’ve had this time away that I will associate it with my Lori rather than that Lori.”
Stefan blinked. “Stop being so damn reasonable Steph. Your Lori is walking all over you. It’s tearing you apart. It’s time for Lori to throw you a bone.”
Steph stared at Nick.
Nick stared at his brandy glass.
Her brandy glass sat on the table untouched. The smell of it taunted her. Although her left leg twitched a couple of times, the lower part of her body remained out of touch with her mind. The pain from sitting still so long grew with every minute.
The blasted cuckoo cuckoo’d again. She tried once more. “Maybe I should call her Birdie or what was that film...” Her hand moved, Steph clicked her fingers and smiled. “Tootsie. Can I call her Tootsie?” Once she had the feeling back in her hands her upper body managed a brief wriggle which gave her some relief from the stiffness, but her feet remained welded to the floor.
Nick stared at his brandy glass.
“You know I love you. Nick, you’re not a freak but I need to understand and you’re not helping me.”
Nick stared at his brandy glass.
Still no response from Nick.
“Lily as in Savage?” She needed him to talk and needling him to anger was the only thing left in her toolbox.
“Oh Rosie don’t you do that to the boys,” she sang the Joan Armatrading song loudly and out of tune. Unable to come up with the rest of the words she dah dummed until she came to a line she did know. “Don’t you come on so strong...” Her voice tailed off. “I wish… might as well have married Stefan for all the sex I’m getting at the moment. He said he’d marry me but I wanted more… and so did he really. I thought I had that with you.” She paused. "I hope I still have that with you."
Nick stared at his brandy glass and he said nothing.
She sighed. “Nick, please. If not for me think of our children.” He leg kicked out and she knocked over a chair.
Voices outside the kitchen door and Chris came in. Behind him stood a petite woman in jeans and a t-shirt. He walked over and picked up his oak chair.
“I’m sorry. My leg kicked. I didn’t mean to.” Steph used her eyes to plead with him for forgiveness. “I really didn’t.” She turned her gaze and looked the woman up and down. She was unhappy that Chris had brought a stranger into this intimate moment between her and Nick. “Who’s this?”
“Steph, Nick. This is my friend Nat. I think she might be able to help you.” He took two more glasses out of the kitchen cupboard and sat down next to Nick. Chris poured the brandy out for himself and Nat, and another one for Nick. Steph’s glass remained untouched. She was uncomfortably sober.
Nat, at ease, picked up the chair, spun it round and sat on it backwards in between Steph and Nick. She looked Nick up and down. “I know you’re hurting, honey, but you’re the luckiest girl alive. This woman has been taking your crap and she’s still here. She doesn’t deserve this.” With confidence she touched Nick on the shoulder. “I used to be called Jack. When I told my wife she threw me out that night and I had to fight to see my children.” She jerked her head in Steph’s direction. “Talk to her.”
Nick turned and he looked at Steph. His eyes were red and heavy. The pain in them was palpable.
Steph’s emotions did a 360. The anger and petulance melted. Her eyes burned and her face screwed up. He was in such a lot of pain and all she wanted was to kiss it away. She wanted him to hold her, to love her and to tell her it was going to be all right.
“Lori. Her… I mean my name is Lori.” He, she, they, drained their glass.
Steph grinned. “Hey Lori Newlove, I’m Steph.” She held out her hand. “Now hurry up and shake my hand, because I want that bloody brandy.”
Stefan and Chris left.
Steph and Nick were alone together.
Alone with a bottle of brandy and two glasses.
For Steph the emphasis was definitely on the alone. She felt no connection to this Nick and there was no reaction from him.
Unnaturally still, Nick sat at the table. He made no move to pour the brandy. A deep and abiding misery gnawed at him. It hurt her heart to watch him.
Beyond exhausted, Steph stood by the door although not through choice. She couldn’t move. Her body and mind were numb, and her fibromyalgia had enforced life support only. She could stand and she could breathe but nothing else would work again until her body decided otherwise. Chris’s beloved cuckoo clock ticked and chimed. The bird cuckoo’d the hour and if she could have moved she’d have thrown something at it. Her legs ached but they still didn’t move.
Talking was a chore and each word needed forming separately. It took her a long time to remember the word she needed. “Help.”
He had the temerity to sigh and give her a glare more at home on a sulky teen than a grown man. His expression made it clear she was nothing but a useless burden.
“Forget it.” Tears would have fallen down her face but her body couldn’t find the energy to do it. Her eyes stung but her face couldn’t even crumple.
All manly and sexy, he marched over to her, picked her up and carried her to the chair. The way he rammed her body into the sitting position had little care about it. It was undignified and she slumped forward like an ape with her arms long by her side. God she needed the drink but her arms wouldn’t move to pour the brandy. She considered asking but suspected she’d end up wearing it. “I didn’t mean to hurt you… I feel you’re cheating on me with another woman... I mean I hardly… see her.” She struggled through the fibrofog to get the words out she needed. “I don’t have a name for her...”
He didn’t speak. He didn’t pour a drink for either Steph or himself. She wasn’t Luke Skywalker and the bottle didn’t magically pour for her.
“Tonight?” she asked.
“I...I...” He pulled his lips in over his teeth in a manner that suggested he held in intolerable pain. With them still over his teeth, he clamped down on his lips and didn’t say anything. Finally, he reached over and opened the bottle, releasing the scent of the good quality brandy into the kitchen. “I got to the hotel where they were holding the meal...” As he spoke he poured out two glasses and placed one in front of Steph but he made no move to help her drink it. He drained his own. “Then I saw them go in. You know the other freaks like me.”
“Not a freak.” Again the force failed her and the alcohol didn’t make it into her mouth. Her hands dangled by her side and her bum ached from being sat so still on a hard kitchen chair for so long.
“Everything in society says I’m not normal and I can never be normal. That makes me a freak worthy of a Victorian sideshow. What did they call them – female impersonators. Well I’m impersonating a man and I make a lousy woman.” His voice held a deep bitterness that told her of the sourness in his soul. He poured another glass and drained it.
At least one of them would be hung over. Steph sat and glared at her brandy for daring to remain in the glass. “Tonight. What? What happened?”
“First a transman went in and that was fine. But I stayed in the car because I was working up the nerve.” He tortured her and downed his third brandy in five minutes. At least it was turning the bitterness into a slight slur. “Then a really gorgeous girl arrived in and that was OK. But then well… Cupid Stunt appeared. I mean she’d shaved her face… and she was so damn confident… but she was a bloke in a frock.” The fourth brandy he nursed, swirling it round his glass. “I want to be like her and can’t. To own the woman I want to be. She made me face what a damn failure I am.” He threw the alcohol down his neck. “Do you want that?” Nick pointed at Steph’s drink. His fingernails were still manicured and polished. Whilst he’d removed all other traces of the woman, he’d kept the burgundy nail polish.
She stared at his fingers but Steph didn’t know what to say. “I love you.” And she did love Nick, but she wasn’t sure she knew how to love the other woman. Her voice freed up enough to be able express her feelings, maybe it sensed this was life support and as necessary as breathing. “You have to stop blowing up without telling me where the minefields are. I can’t live like that, Nick. I grew up in a home filled with eggshells and I swore my children would never experience that. I don’t mind you becoming a woman I do object to the way you’re treating me because of her.”
"Best Possible Taste" is very loosely based on real life events.