Feeling a little apprehensive, I went into the hotel, passing a smiling receptionist, and then through to the bar and restaurant area. Smartly dressed family groups ate at tables or sat in a more casual area with sofas, easy chairs, and leafy potted trees, drinking coffee or sipping wine. Quiet jazz music played in the background. For some odd reason, I suddenly had an image of a group of skinheads bursting in, all braces, high Dr Martens and shaven skulls. Up-ending tables and hurling them around, smashing glass and porcelain alike. People screaming as jabbing fists and thudding boots left a trail of broken and bloodied bodies.
Fortunately, nothing like that occurred, and the sound of a gentle, tinkling jazz piano solo was all there was to be heard.
At one table sat a young woman, conspicuously alone, looking at her phone. That must be my blind date, I thought, Jules. As I grew closer, she looked up, put her phone down and smiled. “Hello, are you Vincent?”
“Yes, nice to meet you. Can I get you a drink?”
“I’ve ordered a coffee. I gave them my card. Just ask the waiter for whatever you like, he’ll put it on the card.”
“Oh, that’s kind of you, thank you.” I took my jacket off, put it on the back of the chair and sat down.
“So, Sarah’s told me a lot about you,” she said.
“Oh.” Sarah was my big sister. I wasn’t sure what there was to tell exactly, and I couldn’t imagine it being favourable, the way I knew she’d tell it anyway.
“Me and Sarah were close at Uni – that was a while ago! We shared a room on the farm, did she tell you?”
“No … no, I didn’t know that.”
She began to reminisce about their days at agricultural college. I looked at her and wondered ….
She had short brown hair and an oval face, quite pink, healthy-looking, with no make-up. She wore a green tunic top and new ‘designer’ jeans with smart brown leather boots. Her chest seemed quite flat – two small lumps. Her teeth were white and even and her voice was mid-range in pitch.
As she chatted, and I attempted to make intelligent noises, I realised there wasn’t much to mark her out as specifically feminine. Her skin looked to be smooth, though, with no sign of a beard.
Sarah had said Jules was ‘special,’ and there was something strange in the way she’d said it, a hint of a smile playing on the corner of her lips.
The waiter brought her coffee and I ordered a pint of lager. “Sarah said you work in healthcare,” I remarked.
“Well, my path’s meandered a bit. I went into yoga and meditation classes, then counselling, and now I’m a gender-assignment advisor!” She smiled, noticing my bewilderment. “I still work for the NHS, though.” She sipped some coffee, leaving a brown rim above her upper lip.
“Oh, that sounds, er … different.” I wondered if I should say something about the stain on her face.
As if reading my thoughts, she extracted a tissue and wiped her mouth. “Yes, things have got a bit complicated nowadays. There’s gender binary and cisnormativity.” She laughed. “Male and female, if you like. Then there’s what some call genderqueer. Those are people you may call bigender, trigender or pangender.” She stopped talking and looked down, sipping her coffee as the waiter deposited my lager before me, in a tall elegant glass. He put her card on the table, together with a receipt. “Thank you, madam.”
“So, what exactly do you do then?” I asked.
“Well, we have to match the perceived sexual identity with the actual, er attributes desired.” Noticing my blank look, she said, “In other words, whether they want a cock and balls, vagina or tits.”
A portly lady in red at a nearby table looked around. Jules stared at her and she hurriedly looked away, carving into her coq-au-vin, face flushing.
Embarrassed, I took a gulp of lager, feeling the alcohol rushing to my brain. I realised I hadn’t eaten for hours.
“You see, we have the medical technology available now to offer a full range of options. Some of it will be covered by the NHS, for instance a boy wants to be a girl, they can prove it’s a deep-seated desire and last the assessment course. But others, well, they just want a bit of fun, but of course, they have to pay for it!”
“Oh.” I’d planned to talk about my work as a car dealer but it would no doubt seem deadly dull compared to the ‘characters’ she came up against.
She hesitated. “I’m sorry, I need to pop to the loo. Can you look after my handbag please?”
“Yes, no problem.”
I watched her walk briskly away and noticed a direct motion, a lack of sway. The toilets were through a side door at the far end of the restaurant area, and once she’d passed through it, on impulse I quickly followed her, oblivious to the regular family chit-chat going on around me. I reached the door to the toilets and, opening it, saw the men’s toilet door swinging shut.
Not daring to go in, I took a chance and opened the ladies’ loo door, ready to apologise effusively. However, all the cubicle doors were open, and no one there!
I hastily retreated and made my way back to the table. An elderly couple sat in silence nearby, nursing glasses of red wine and staring blankly at each other.
“Could you tell the young lady that I had to go please, and keep an eye on her bag?” I asked.
They looked up, surprised, then appeared pleased to have something useful to do. “Of course, er, should we say why?” said the lady.
“Oh … thank you … er, yes, gender concerns!”
I quickly made my way to the exit, leaving them looking at each other in bewilderment.
Featured in the book, Letters from Reuben and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Mirth
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