“Philip?!” she shouted. “Philip? Where are you?”

“Coming, dearest,” the small man replied.

Philip raced as fast as his legs would carry him out on to the patio where, spread out on a sun lounger was Philip’s wife, Brenda. Her lips pursed and her eyes narrowed as he approached.

“Where have you been?” she demanded. “I had to call twice and you know how I can’t be kept waiting.”

“No, dear,” Philip replied obsequiously. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I was...”

“Never mind that now. It’s eleven-thirty, time for my drink - or had you forgotten?” she said, her face becoming more shrewish as she waved him away with an almost negligible flick of her fingers.

Philip was almost bowing as he backed away with an, “At once, dearest”.

“I should think so,” said Brenda, as she picked up her Barbara Cartland and rearranged her massive form to best fit the straining sun lounger.

“How could I have been so stupid?” Philip muttered as he ran full-tilt into the kitchen, quickly snatching the kettle from its base and filling it with water - not too much mind; no sense in over-filling it and wasting energy - or time.

He looked at the small bag before placing it in the cup, with its little piece of string and tag displaying its contents. In this particular instance, it was some fruit concoction.

“Don’t know why she can’t just stick to some good old ‘English Breakfast’ tea,” he muttered. “Proper tea, not this stupid bloody herbal nonsense. It’s not tea at all. It’s just a con.”

With a loud ‘click’ the kettle switched itself off and once the water had ceased bubbling, Philip carefully poured in the water, stirred once then picked up the little china cup and saucer to take it through into the garden and Brenda.

“How can she drink this? It smells disgusting.”

Philip trembled as he approached his wife, the tea cup rattling slightly as he placed it on the table beside her.

“It’s about time. You know, it’s eleven thirty-eight. I should have had this nearly ten minutes ago.” She placed her book on the wrought iron table beside her and regarded her husband with a level gaze.

“I don’t think you care,” she accused. “Here I am at death’s door and you can’t even keep to a schedule. You know how important it is to keep to a strict schedule.”

“Sorry,” he replied, his head bowed. “It’s just that I was...”

“Yes well I expect you thought that whatever it was you were doing was more important than my health.”

“That’s not true at all, my sweet,” he began.

“Don’t you ‘my sweet’ me,” she said, picked up her book and completely ignored him.

Philip returned to the house, his hands thrust deep into his pockets, his head bowed and his eyes moist.

He knew that her behaviour was nothing to do with her failing health, which although not being hindered, it was not being helped by the faddish herbal infusions she seemed so intent upon drinking. What she needed was to stop lying around all day, but was she going to listen? She wouldn’t listen to the doctor’s advice, so it was highly unlikely she’d listen to his.

She was massively overweight and she knew it.

“It’s glandular,” she’d asserted, but the doctor had told both of them in no uncertain terms it wasn’t. He’d also told her categorically to cut down on high fat content foods and whilst Philip had tried to keep her on a strict diet, he’d never managed to get it off the ground.

“What the hell’s this,” she’d demanded. “I’m not eating that rubbish. I wouldn’t even give it to a rabbit.”

To appease the doctor, she gave up having milk in tea - in fact, she’d given up tea entirely in favour of the herbal concoctions she insisted on.

“To help reduce cholesterol,” she explained, smiling.

However, she continued to pile butter on her toast, had three servings of full-fat ice cream a day and chocolate because, “It’s my only vice.”

Philip had attempted to replace her normal ice cream for some less fatty - though no less expensive - variety, but she saw through it. He tried to substitute butter for that stuff no-one can believe wasn’t butter, but somehow, she knew it wasn’t and demanded he replace “that muck” immediately. Worse, when he cut off her chocolate supply, anyone would have thought he’d tried to murder her.

Finally and despite all forms of reasoning, she flatly refused to exercise - in any form.

“The doctor also told me to get plenty of fresh air,” she said. “That’s my compromise.”

Both the doctor and Philip had tried everything they knew to get her back on a healthier path. Even taking her to a convalescent home where her diet could be strictly monitored didn’t work. Before the end of the first meal, they’d phoned and demanded she be removed for fear of permanent damage to the staff and other ‘guests’.

Where did it all go so horribly wrong?

She and Philip shared many interests in the beginning, not least of which was the rambling; taking picnics in the countryside and enjoying days out in the fresh air. However, there was one thing he didn’t share with her: The fact that he was convinced he should have been born a girl.

This was something he discovered very early on when he and his little sister, Rebecca played dress up. They spent hours pretending to be fairies or princesses or even fairy princesses and there was nothing he liked better than to see himself in a pretty party dress or fairy wings. However it wasn’t something he grew out of. In fact, it was something that became more consuming. That was until he met Brenda.

In those days, gender and sexuality were not as clearly defined as they are today and the fact that he loved Brenda with all his heart made the idea that he should also want to be a woman rather difficult to swallow. He therefore made the decision that she would never know about that side of him; that he would never succumb to the temptation of wearing women’s clothes or pursuing that element of his nature. In fact, he promised.

Those early years were the best he could have dreamed of and it was clear that they were two souls very much in love. She had such a joie de vivre, but after the miscarriage of their child, she began putting on weight and with that came a space between them that nothing seemed capable of bridging. Sex disappeared to become something that could only be described as a fond memory. Five years later, they began sleeping in separate beds and later in separate rooms.

Seeing the love of his life change so, made him question his choices. It’s only natural that when something goes so horribly wrong, one begins wondering whether ‘the other choice’ would have been better; a real case of the grass being greener on the other side, but he had promised and a promise as far as he was concerned was for life. ‘Till death do us part’ meant something to Philip.

He tried to put his best foot forward, but no matter how much he tried to convince his beloved Brenda that things could be different; could be better, nothing changed. In fact, as time wore on, she worsened in both her health and her attitude. Nothing either Philip or a succession of doctors tried had any impact on her whatsoever.

 

*        *        *

 

Brenda’s weight increased, as did her size. She’d long since left the pretty clothing behind in favour of more comfortable ‘utilitarian’ sweat pants and oversized t-shirts or sweatshirts and in an effort to make her feel more like her old self, Philip suggested she wear something ‘nice’, but after unsuccessfully attempting to don a particular blouse only to find she couldn’t even get her arms into the garment, she flew into a rage and took all her clothes from the wardrobe and chest of drawers.

“Doesn’t look as though I’ll be needing those anymore,” she stated, ordering Philip to, “Get rid of them”.

“But Brenda,” he reasoned. “If you’d just try and follow the doctor’s suggestions, you’ll lose the weight and...”

However, she would not hear of it and watched with emotionless eyes as Philip gathered up her entire wardrobe - save the numerous plain grey sweats - and consigned it all to black bin-liners. It was an emotional moment and maybe the precise moment that signified that the change in her was irrevocable.

If it was hard for Brenda, it must have been doubly hard for Philip. He had sacrificed something within him for his beloved Brenda’s happiness. Being presented with bag after bag of clothing, some of which had been unworn, whilst most had seldom been worn was a huge temptation.

Dutifully he took the bags away, but they went no further than his bedroom; not because he anticipated her changing her mind, but because he couldn’t resist and after going through all of it, he was able to squirrel most of the items away into his wardrobe and chest of drawers.

Although he would have been perfectly safe, perfectly at liberty to indulge himself with a trip into femininity in his own room, he’d made a promise and intended not to break that promise.

He already felt as though he was breaking his promise by keeping all her clothes in the first place, but although he regularly took items out and laid them on the bed ready to wear in the privacy of his room, he never managed to summon up the courage to actually put any of them on. He would simply look at them and sigh once or maybe twice while handling the soft undergarments, the brightly-coloured skirts and dresses or the silky nightwear, before returning them to their drawers and hangers.

 

*        *        *

 

Having taken the herbal infusion to Brenda, he walked into his bedroom and regarded the lingerie, skirt and blouse that had been neatly laid out on the bed. However, once again, he refused to break that promise and simply ran his hand over the fabric of each garment before sighing and returning them to the drawer or hanger from whence they came.

He sat on the edge of the bed, tears beginning to form in his eyes as the sobbing began. For the longest time, he wondered how much longer he could maintain the pretence, the lie. He’d never once broken the promise he’d made, but as time had drifted by and Brenda had become less and less approachable, he began wondering whether keeping that promise would be possible.

For years - decades even - he’d maintained his faithfulness, not only to Brenda but to his promise and had seemingly received nothing in return; nothing that amounted to much more than a slap in the face. Maybe it had taken him several decades to come to the conclusion that he needed something for himself and it scared him that it was only a matter of time before he finally succumbed to the call.

“Philip?!”

The voice was shrill, urgent

He ignored it. This was important to him; important for him to get to grips with what was whilst deciding what will be.

Something strange caught his attention.

Had it been a sound?

No.

There had been no sound whatsoever and that’s what caught his attention. Several seconds had passed since Brenda had called out his name and she should have called again, but there had been nothing.

He rushed to the garden to find his wife lying still on the sun lounger, her arms hanging limply by her sides and her Barbara Cartland novel lying on the ground beside her, its pages like butterfly wings, fluttering in the gentle breeze.

“Brenda?”

There was no answer. No breath passed between her lips and no sound came forth.

Philip knelt beside the still, recumbent form of his wife, the tears beginning anew as he took her hand, drew it towards him and kissed it softly, just once.

 

*        *        *

 

The ambulance arrived in due course and Philip watched, unable to speak as the paramedics attended his wife.

“I’m so sorry …” the paramedic said solemnly as his colleague covered her inert body and pushed the gurney through the house to load her into the back of the ambulance.

Philip stood silently watching as they disappeared, leaving no traces, save the still fluttering novel that rested just inches from where her outstretched hand had fallen. He picked up the book, closed it and brushed its covers before placing it upon the table and walking inside.

Later, Brenda’s death was deemed to have been as a result of massive heart failure, due to being morbidly obese.

 

*        *        *

 

Philip tried to move on with his life, but despite Brenda’s antisocial nature and aggressive attitude, he found he missed her. For weeks he never even looked in his drawers or wardrobe, finding his new situation difficult to come to terms with. Mostly, he missed the sound of her voice calling for him and its removal from his life left a cold empty space.

Spiralling into depression, Philip went to see the doctor.

“I can find nothing physically wrong with you,” the doctor told him. “What I think you need is to join a group; to be with others who are also grieving the loss of a loved one.”

“I don’t need that,” Philip retorted. “It’s all bloody psycho-babble and flim-flam.”

“Philip, Philip,” the doctor said calmly. “It’s not like that. It’s just a workshop to give people in the same position as you some ideas about what to do. Brenda’s passing has wrenched a large hole in your life and now you need to fill that hole. It’s not about replacing her, but a way to fill your time and stop you going any further down the road you currently find yourself on.”

Philip didn’t like the idea one bit. He’d seen plenty of films and TV shows that portrayed this ‘workshop’ as some stupid tree-hugger bloke patronising a bunch of sad-o people who seemed to lap up his rubbish.

However, as the day for the workshop arrived, he couldn’t think of anything better to do and decided to give the workshop the benefit of the doubt.

“Let me say first, that I’m truly sorry for the loss each and every one of you are feeling right now, but all of you need to find ways to move on,” said the young woman at the front of the class. “It may not be what you want to hear, but there’s a big wide world out there and whether you like it or not, each and every one of you are still part of it.”

That certainly got Philip’s attention. He’d been expecting some limp-wristed character like Harvey Bains from Waiting for God, who’d soft-speak his way into telling everyone nothing. This was to the point - blunt. He liked that.

“Many of you will have had hobbies or interests that over the years have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps now is the time to restart them.”

She’d already got his attention and whilst her suggestion appeared simple, it had never occurred to him and already, his cerebral mechanisms had whirred into life.

“You’ll need to get out too,” she continued. “That’s very important. Staying in all the time is just a way of psychologically refusing to accept the passing of your loved one by remaining in the atmosphere you associate with them. Getting out reinforces the fact that you can move on and the more time you can spend away from that environment, the less you’ll find you need it.”

Somewhere in the back of Philip’s mind, a light went on and he was transported back over forty years to memories of Brenda and him in jeans and hiking boots, walking through the countryside, his back-pack full of the picnic they could look forward to, whilst they sat gazing out at the scenery.

That was how he wanted to remember Brenda.

“Perhaps if your hobby or interest isn’t strictly the outdoors-type, maybe there’s a way you can combine it with something that is,” she said. “Perhaps if you’re into collecting things, you could combine it with visiting car boot sales. They’re an absolute treasure chest of things to discover, both for collectors and for those who want to get rid of stuff they don’t feel they’ll need anymore. Going to them would not only get you out and about, but you never know what bargains you may find or who you might meet.” A serious look returned to her face.

“As you are now, it’s too easy for you to just waste away at home, so the more you can get out and about; meet with others and try and move on with your lives, the better it will be. Many of you will have been with your partners for some considerable time and feel that you’re beyond new things, but you’re wrong. Margaret Rutherford didn’t play her famous ‘Miss Marple’ character until she was seventy, so there’s time for all of you yet.”

Philip had to concede that the workshop wasn’t all ‘flim-flammery’ after all. It was just sound, solid, sensible advice that may have appeared to be basic common sense, but in the case of the people there - him included - the simple things weren’t always as obvious as others may have thought. Despite those early misgivings, the workshop had given him motivation, something that right then, he was lacking. It had also given him a new sense of optimism: that it didn’t matter how far on in life you are, things can still happen.

 

*        *        *

 

Over the following weeks, a change came over Philip. He was out nearly every day visiting places old and new and he seemed to find himself smiling far more often than he had in years. He bought a camera - something he couldn’t afford when he and Brenda used to walk those routes - and took photos.

His life before he lost Brenda had been full, but full in a way he didn’t like. He didn’t like the way it made him feel and he especially didn’t like watching Brenda’s decline, helpless and unable to prevent the inevitable.

Out in the countryside, with the birds singing and wind in his hair, he began rediscovering a lust for life he thought had long since passed him by. His mind became full of the sound of laughter, the memories of the times he and Brenda spent together before all this began.

Back at the bungalow, he found himself in his bedroom staring into the wardrobe where alongside his clothes, Brenda’s clothes had been hung and a lump rose in his throat. Shaking his head, he went to the chest of drawers and pulled on one of the drawers to reveal more of her clothes, neatly folded in piles; stockings, knickers, bras, camisoles, nightwear and other items, each of which brought back memories.

His mind replayed images of Brenda; that once happy face that turned to one of scorn and that once lithe body, ballooning and finally being pushed away, lifeless on the gurney.

“This is wrong!” he cried. “So, so wrong. It wasn’t always like that.”

 

*        *        *

 

Philip left the house and its memories and got into the car, driving out beyond the usual places that he and Brenda used to walk, while images of the boy and his sister and Brenda’s worse side continued to plague him.

“Keep away from me!” he shouted, paying little or no attention to where he was going.

He had no idea how long he’d been driving, but he pulled off the road as tears made it impossible for him to drive any further.

Getting out of the car, he looked about him.

He was in a car park that looked strangely familiar, but it wasn’t one that he’d visited frequently. Perhaps they’d come up here once or twice many years ago, but he couldn’t be sure. It didn’t matter as to begin with, the place he’d found himself in did not immediately bring back those memories and for the first time since Brenda’s death, he was truly alone with his thoughts - his own thoughts.

Looking about him, the place felt odd. It didn’t sound right either. It was eerily quiet; devoid it seemed, of birdsong … or wind. Not even the fairly powerful gusts that had been buffeting the car on the way there seemed to register - there was nothing save the sound of his footfalls.

Through narrow paths between the trees he walked, not really paying any attention at all. The paths seemed endless, but he couldn’t stop walking, twisting his way through the trees and bushes - this way and that, that way and this.

As dusk began changing day to night, he stopped and once again looked about him, squinting in an attempt to see through the failing light. He was scared. He had no idea where he was and had changed direction so many times he wasn’t sure how to find his way out either. Nothing seemed to ring any bells and still he felt that eerie silence that had dogged him since he first came out into the woods.

His heart leapt as through the thinning bush, he saw light. Not a bright light, but it flickered like a beckoning finger, drawing him like a moth to a flame.

“Where there’s fire, there’s bound to be people,” he said, beginning to feel a little more upbeat and he made his way through the vegetation towards the source of the light.

When he finally found it, he wished he hadn’t as he stumbled on to something he felt he wasn’t supposed to see.

About a dozen women - all naked - danced round one of the biggest bonfires he’d seen. It must have stood over ten feet tall, casting a ruddy glow over the skin of all the women as they cavorted and whirled around it to an oddly haunting melody.

Philip ducked down out of sight and watched as slowly the tempo rose. With that, the dancing became wilder with the women joining in with shrieks and wails, continuing their circling of the fire while it appeared that they were touching each other, stroking; sometimes in places he didn’t think they ought to have been touching.

Suddenly the women and the music stopped and another woman in a long black gown with a deep hood that covered her face stepped into view, turned and began staring directly at Philip. He couldn’t see her face, but he could feel her looking at him - it made all the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and icy shivers run up and down his spine.

He backed away, scared. How did he know the person in the hood was female and how did she know he was there? Surely she couldn’t have seen him through the gloom. Nevertheless, it appeared that she had and as he continued to back away, he realised he was actually getting closer to the fire, closer to the woman in the gown and the more he tried to back out, the closer he got.

“Philip,” the voice said as the woman in the gown beckoned him forward. He didn’t know how she did it, but her voice sounded as if it was coming from right next to him, yet she had to be at least twenty or thirty yards from him.

“Philip,” she repeated. Was she next to him? He jumped and despite moving backwards, he was close enough now to feel the heat of the fire, hear the crackling of the wood as it burned.

“Philip,” the voice implored and whether he wanted to or not, he felt himself drawn to her, unable to resist. Before he knew it, he was kneeling before her, looking up at her, looking under the hood, yet seeing nothing.

“Rise, Philip,” she said, lifting a hand.

“H-how d-d-d’you know my n-name?” he stammered.

“I know much about you. I know of your unfailing love for someone who treated you despicably.”

“It wasn’t her fault,” he said, defensively.

“Perhaps,” she said with an almost imperceptible sideways inclination of her head and shrug of her shoulders. “Nevertheless, you remained faithful. Why is that? Why did you not seek love elsewhere; seek to feel the touch of another?”

Philip couldn’t answer. Had years of being subjugated taken his will? Had he anticipated a miraculous turn-around in her? An inner strength to follow doctors orders and eventually return to her former self?

“It was never going to happen, Philip. She was a lost cause.”

“She was never a lost cause,” he spat. “I loved her until the very end.”

“Ahh,” she said, nodding. “But had she lived on, would you have managed to keep that promise?”

Philip’s head bowed and for what felt like the longest time, he thought long and hard. “I don’t know.”

The crackling of the fire was all that he could hear, but at the same time, he could feel her eyes boring into him, reading him like an open book.

“I admire your honesty and for that I feel your sacrifice will be well received.”

Philip went cold. Fear sprung up within him and he began trembling, trying with all his might to move, to escape his fate, to run and never look back.

She laughed. “Now is not the time to run, Philip,” she told him. “For tonight, I shall set you free.”

As the pale purples and crimson splashes of cloud, barely visible through the ring of trees surrounding them, succumbed to the inky black velvet of night, the women rose, taking Philip’s hand. He fought, but whilst in his mind he wrestled, pulled, pushed, kicked and screamed, on the outside, his body simply did as it was told.

A short distance from the fire, the women removed his clothing. As his inner turmoil continued, several of the women anointed his body with fragrant oils, while in his mind, he headed for a meltdown, unable to prevent them from doing anything, unable to resist and unable to leave.

“Bring him to me,” the Priestess commanded.

Philip was led back near to the fire, where a rude altar of stone had been erected and draped with a silky purple cloth. Upon the altar stood an ornate chalice, a pair of candlesticks and an ornate dagger, its blade glinting in the firelight.

Philip’s heart began pounding, as he caught sight of the dagger as coupled with word ‘sacrifice’ meant just one thing. Yet the feeling of helplessness was soon overtaken by acceptance, of knowing that no matter how much kicking and screaming he may do, it would not alter the outcome one iota.

“You are calm at last,” the Priestess remarked.

“Would panic make a difference,” he asked.

Although he couldn’t see it, he could feel the faceless person in the hooded robe smile. “No, I don’t suppose it would.”

Two of the women - whose nakedness still disturbed Philip - cleared the altar and obediently, Philip walked to it, lying down and hoping against all hope that his death would be painless, but the panic rose in him once again as the Priestess seemed to know just what he was thinking.

“There is no guarantee, Philip,” she said. “Even I cannot see that far.”

Somehow, she didn’t instil in him that sense of foreboding he'd expected and as she stood before the altar, the dagger in her right hand, he tried with all his might to relax and try to accept what was happening - as bizarre as it was - with some element of dignity.

“Philip,” the Priestess intoned. “Your life has been one that has been wasted, which is what has brought you here to this place on this night.”

She raised he arms. “Hear me Goddess Hecate…” she began.

“Hecate we beseech thee,” the others intoned.

They say that right before death, your life flashes before your eyes and so it was with Philip as he stared up at the stars in the sky, only dimly aware of what was going on around him, the Priestess’s intonations sounded like no more than a drone in his peripheral hearing.

He saw images going right back to his childhood, of him and his sister, of school, of Brenda and of the Priestess bringing her hands together above her head, clasping the dagger in both hands.

“Hecate we beseech thee,” they all intoned, as the Priestess plunged downwards with the dagger in an almost slow motion arc towards his naked chest.

 

*        *        *

 

There was no pain, although it was something of a shock, looking down to see the gold and jewel-encrusted dagger being drawn from his chest, the small rivulet of blood that ran down his ribs suddenly and inexplicably reversing course and running back up, across his chest to recede into the hole the knife had made.

Then there was the hole itself. No sooner had the Priestess removed it and the blood returned, it began closing, seamlessly ‘zipping’ itself together, leaving no trace whatsoever of its penetration through the skin.

“Wh-what?”

“I’m sure it will be a little disorientating to begin with. I understand, my child, but it’s done now. You may rise.”

Swinging his legs round and sitting up, he felt different, odd. There was a subtle imbalance he wasn’t expecting, confusing feelings, not just those about his shoulders, but everywhere. His very skin felt different, his eyesight - sharper, the sensation of touch new and unexpected.

He looked around at the assembled women - still naked - but this time, their nakedness did not instil that same disturbing feeling within him. In fact, seeing the women smiling made him want to smile too.

“I believe your sister named you,” the Priestess said, throwing back her hood. “Welcome Dawn.”

Dawn?’ Philip thought, his confusion rising steadily. He did remember that name and the images of the little boy playing dress-up with his sister jogged more of those memories, however, there was a subtle difference with the way he-er, she remembered things as the little boy and his sister had been replaced by two sisters playing dress-up.

“But …?” he began, looking at the Priestess, mentally wrestling with the new sound his voice made.

“Sadly not even I can turn back time itself, but I am able to turn back the clock in a manner of speaking. Your family, friends, neighbours - anyone you have met or know will all know you as Dawn, a twenty-two year-old woman.”

“Woman?” she squeaked.

“Isn’t it what you have always wanted?”

“Well…” she began and she had to think carefully about what she said, but the Priestess was quite right. It was what she had always wanted. “Yes.”

“Of course,” the Priestess added. “Your little sister is now your big sister, but I’m sure you’ll adapt.”

“But I thought...”

“That I had intended to sacrifice you, to take your life? Well I did, didn’t I?”

Dawn looked at the striking woman before her, her face screwed up in thought.

“I took an old, wasted life and replaced it with another. You’re restarting from where yours and Brenda’s issues first began. Do you not recognise this place as the very place you proposed undying love? That point where you made the promise, where you sacrificed your life for her; sacrificed your needs for her needs. Anyway, it’s getting cold up here, and shouldn’t you be getting home?”

Dawn looked about her; at the tall trees that encircled the small clearing and upon looking back, noticed that the Priestess and her naked followers had gone and as she glanced about her, so too had the clearing, replaced instead, by the car park, her nakedness replaced by a pink-trimmed, grey jogging outfit complete with pink trimmed white jogging shoes, her long blonde hair, tied back in a pony tail with a pink scrunchy.

Shaking her head, she returned to her car, the memories of a previous life, fading as she opened the door…

 


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