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Authors: Charity Norman

Tags: #Fiction, #Family Life

The New Woman (47 page)

BOOK: The New Woman
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The first thing I saw was a vase of flowers: long stems, and bright yellow petals. I was sure they hadn’t been there earlier.

There was a clock on the wall. The hands stood at ten past seven, but I had no idea whether it was morning or evening. It seemed just a few moments ago that I was lying in an ice-cold operating theatre, with music playing, sweating with terror as I talked to the anaesthetist. I had the vaguest memories of the journey back to my room, lying on a gurney. I remembered a voice saying that all had gone well. I remembered a familiar hand holding mine, as I drifted away.

When they took me to theatre I was wearing a loose set of hospital pyjamas. Now, somebody had replaced the trousers with a pink sarong. The air was very warm, and it smelled of flowers and antiseptic. Sounds began to trickle into my consciousness: the drone of traffic, car horns and the sudden whine of a motorised rickshaw. White curtains covered one wall, filtering the light. It was a pleasant little room, more like a sparsely furnished hotel than a hospital. I saw a drip in my arm, and to my right stood banks of equipment.

I’d done my homework, and talked to other women who’d been through this surgery. I knew there was morphine pumping
into me. I knew that I had a catheter. I knew that the next days and weeks would be shot through with agony and indignities; but right now I felt very little pain. I felt light, as free and light as thistledown, as though all the worries and anxieties of my life had been lifted away. I’d never felt so right. I didn’t even know it was possible to feel like that.

I had a picture in my mind: my own legs and hands when I was a small boy, sitting on the kitchen floor. I felt the heaviness of the carving knife, and heard my own fast breathing. I remembered the fear and the pain, and the sheer desperation to get rid of these things that stopped me from being like the other girls.

I smiled in victory.
You did it
, I told myself.
At last, you did it

The white curtains fluttered. I heard a gentle cough before her slender figure stepped inside, pulling the door shut behind her. She was wearing a linen shirt and shorts, and fanning herself with her book. Two years had passed since that stranger on a train had persuaded me to carry on living, but Eilish seemed as young and vigorous as ever. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and auburn wisps stroked her neck. My beautiful ex-wife. She tiptoed closer, peering to see if I was awake.

‘Hello,’ I said. My voice sounded slurred. I had a sore throat—from the intubation, I supposed. I didn’t care. Who cared about a sore throat? Why would I ever care about anything, ever again?

She sat on a chair next to the bed, resting her fingers on my arm. ‘Eight hours,’ she said, smiling at me. ‘Long time to be under. The doctor’s very pleased with the way it all went. Apparently he’ll be coming in to see you soon.’

My voice was a croak. ‘Thank you for being here.’

She fetched a brush from my sponge bag, saying she’d tidy up my hair before the doctor arrived. It was a soothing sensation. I tilted my head, revelling in a fizz of pleasure and calm. My hair hung over my shoulders now, and I had a wispy fringe.

‘How do you feel?’ she asked. ‘Apart from the screaming agony, of course.’

‘Lucky,’ I said. ‘So lucky. And no screaming agony yet.’

The Thai surgeon who ran that clinic was an artist. I’d seen photos of his work before I chose him. He gave trans women the only gift they’d ever really wanted. He gave it to me. I wished Chloe could have had this gift. She was the one who really deserved it; she was honest about who she was from the very first. She had courage. I was a coward who’d blundered around the china shop for five decades, breaking precious things with my denial.

‘The flowers?’ I whispered.

‘Ah. They’re from Kate and Peter. They came with a cryptic message. Hang on.’ Eilish picked up the card and read it out. ‘
Congratulations on smashing through your glass ceiling.

I remembered our conversation in the bar at Paddington, and smiled. ‘She’s going to make a terrible vicar’s wife,’ I said.

There were footsteps in the corridor before my door opened. It was an orderly, carrying a tray. She grinned widely at both of us, dipped her head and cried, ‘Breakfast!’ We did our best to thank her in Thai. I’d met this same woman when I first came in, and knew she didn’t speak much English. I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t want to sleep, either; I felt no need to do anything except savour these wonderful moments. Soon the pain relief would wear off, and my joy would be tempered by the grisly realities of such major surgery.

The orderly left the tray on a side table as she walked across to the curtains and pulled them wide open. It was mid-morning when I’d been wheeled into the operating theatre, and night when they brought me back. Now a new day had dawned, and its glory blazed into the room. The sun lit up Eilish’s face, deepening the creases of laughter and life around her eyes. It shone on the sheet that covered me. The new me.

The woman approached my bed, still smiling. She looked excited, as though she had a present for me hidden behind her back. I have never forgotten her next three words.

‘Good morning, madam,’ she said.


About thirty miles from the city of Florence, nestling among vineyards, there is an old stone villa. It has wooden shutters, a loggia covered in vines—perfect for lazy lunches, with peaches and red wine—and a swimming pool painted a hot cerulean blue, like the sky. On a burning August day, this is as close to paradise as most of us are ever likely to come.

Two small children played in the villa’s garden. One, a boy of six, ran around it—round and round and round. He held a toy plane high above his head, and was making it fly. As he ran he grinned, and as he grinned he shouted to the world. He used no words; it was a long, joyous yodel. His sister bobbed in the pool, held up by a pair of bright red water wings. She was a toddler and very merry, with rosebud lips and dark curls—a smaller version of her mother, who swam close by. The little one kept splashing her hand in the water, making it sparkle in the dazzling light. From time to time she spurted some out of her mouth and then roared with laughter. Her mother tweaked her nose and said she was a monkey.

Two older women—not old, just older—reclined in deckchairs in the deep shade of a covered terrace. They wore large, floppy sunhats and colourful summer dresses. Both were
holding books, but instead of reading they were watching their grandchildren. From time to time they called out, joining in the laughter.

The small boy ran up to the taller of the two and grabbed her hand. She was a striking woman, with dark eyes and strong features. Her hair was caught up with a mother-of-pearl clasp. Green glass beads glittered around her neck.

‘Watch me dive in,
?’ he asked.

‘Like a hawk,’ she said. ‘I’m not going to take my eyes off you.’

‘Hold my plane, then.’

He rushed to the side of the pool—he did nothing slowly—and belly-flopped into the water with a loud splash. He came to the surface a second later, dog paddling furiously. His two spectators clapped and called for an encore, so he got out, ran around the pool and went through the whole performance again. And again. Their hands were beginning to smart when they were distracted by a man stepping out through the door of the house, carrying a jug and some glasses. A towel was slung around his neck, and he wore board shorts.

‘Here we are,’ he announced, laying his wares on the table, next to the wooden plane. ‘My special recipe.’

‘You’re a marvel, Simon,’ said the dark-haired woman as he handed her a glass. ‘Have you seen Nico diving? I think he’s going to end up with a sore tummy.’

‘He’s better at diving than at cricket,’ replied Simon. ‘But, frankly, that’s not saying much. He learned from an expert, though I do say so myself. Watch this!’

He dumped the towel on a chair, took a run-up to the pool and hurled himself in, curling up into a ball so as to create a small tsunami. His wife and children cheered, but the women on the terrace shrieked as water cascaded over them. One of them—freckled, and with auburn hair—flapped her novel to dry the pages.

‘Vandal!’ she cried. ‘You’re just a big kid!’

Simon laughed at them, then grabbed a floating ball and began to play pig-in-the-middle with his family. The two grandmothers tried to go back to their books, but after a few minutes they laid them down on their chests. It was too perfect a day to be buried in a thriller.

I reached for my glass. It was ice cold. Beside me, I heard Lucia drop her book onto the ground, sighing contentedly.

‘Well,’ I said. ‘We made it.’

She knew what I meant. Of course she did. After all, we were as close as it’s possible for two human beings to be.

‘We made it,’ she said.

That sunlit garden rang with splashes, shouts and the gentle slapping of water against the tiled edge of the pool. Lucia and I sipped our drinks and chatted quietly about this and that. I was beginning to feel a little sleepy when the vineyard’s owner walked by. He glanced over the garden wall, nodding affably at us two grandmothers.

Ciao, signore
,’ he called.

Perhaps this is the end of the story, but I doubt it. We have adventures to come, Lucia and I. Maybe our tale will end when death parts us. I doubt that too.

Girl meets boy. They fall in love. They marry. For thirty years, they share one another’s lives. Thirty years.

And then a new journey begins.

About the author

Charity Norman was born in Uganda and brought up in successive draughty vicarages in Yorkshire and Birmingham. After several years’ travel she became a barrister, specialising in crime and family law in the northeast of England. Also a mediator, she is passionate about the power of communication to slice through the knots. In 2002, realising that her three children had barely met her, she took a break from the law and moved with her family to New Zealand. Her first novel,
Freeing Grace
, was published in 2010 and her second,
Second Chances
, in 2012 (published in the UK as
After the Fall
), was a Richard and Judy pick.
The Son-in-Law
, her third novel, was published in 2013.

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BOOK: The New Woman
2.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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