DANNY BOY

 

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DANNY BOY

If he tipped his chair back, the window permitted him a narrow glimpse of the railyards and the station with their fringe of tracks, snaking signs of journeys begun, journeys completed, lives in motion. The slow crawl of trains was oddly reassuring to Danny, evidence that life was moving on in some inevitable fashion, that if he could just hang on he might make it to the end of the line in one piece. Yet there were still those days when the passengers hurrying down the platforms slowed until they froze in mid-stride, like objects on the brink of a black hole, trapped going nowhere for evermore.

From over to his left drifted a desultory conversation about refugees. He'd been listening for a while, had his own opinions but was keeping his mouth shut as usual. He restored his chairbase to its proper position and eyeballed the path to the coffee machine. A clear run. No-one else looked poised to move. In his glass-walled office, Mr Bellinger had his back to the room, phone to his ear. In front sat the cluster of three girls – three clones, really, each with this month's speech, this week's hair, this day's fashion – whose mouths and fingers functioned constantly and simultaneously. Danny slid up to a standing position, glided the distance - don't look at me, don't see me - and dropped in the coins, but as the cup filled, a knuckle traced a line up his spine, mean and hard.

“How's it going, Danny boy?” Sanford had breath to match his personality. A dozen small retorts arose in Danny's head but he bit them all back. “What's the matter? Girlfriend trouble?”

The machine spat out the last bit of liquid; Danny's hand shook a little as he reached for it. He wriggled away from the despised touch.

“Could give you some tips,” Sanford continued, voice pitched at a low and deceptively friendly murmur, “but here's the best one. Give up, you freak. Real girls want real men.”

“Shut the fuck up!” It came out shrill and helpless and too late; Sanford was already walking away, mission accomplished.

Like meercats, the trinity of girls raised their heads while not breaking stride in their typing and chatting, although their conversation made an all-too-familiar dip as Danny returned to his desk, more a sullen stamp than a glide this time.

The tea – that's what the machine's label claimed – tasted vile as always. There was a small staffroom where, if he chose, Danny could make a real cuppa, but that would mean bringing in a mug, claiming his own piece of space in the fridge – Hey, that's Danny's milk, Sanford! - leaving a tiny, ghostly impression of his existence. All in all, it was easier to just feed in the money and press the buttons, knowing his fingerprint would soon be smeared away by the next taste-challenged consumer.

He'd been in the office a year now. It wasn't such a bad job, churning through the endless stream of data required to keep a government department functioning; mindless work which left him time to dream, and enough of a wage to cover his bills and service his minimal needs, keep his body going until the day when, by some fuzzily understood miracle, he'd find his feet at last on the path to his real life. Although most of them were nice enough people he rarely spoke to his co-workers beyond the demands of the job, and knew more about them that they would ever know about him. His guts still did a tiny flip when someone called him by his name, as if even that small piece of necessary information was one piece too many. Political arguments, water-cooler chatter, accounts of weekends enjoyed, all passed him by; a shrug, a quick nod, a vague evasion was the most they ever got from him, and so they'd largely learned to leave him be.

Back behind the cover of his monitor he sneaked a glance at the girls. They weren't quite clones; Marijke occasionally broke ranks and gave him a half-smile and a “Hi!" if they happened to catch the same lift. She had green cats' eyes under all the mascara, and a beguiling laugh, and the mole on the swell of her right breast bounced most sweetly as she walked. Sometimes in his imagination he would saunter over to her desk, lean down and chat to her, just making small talk, easy and relaxed, his back to the others, cutting them out of this private moment, and she'd respond in that breathy girlish voice, smile at him so that her whole face would light up, and when he walked away he'd know her eyes would be following him, a little bit pensive and dreamy, and maybe she wouldn't talk to the others for a while...

His glance had become a stare, terminated abruptly as he realised he'd been spotted. As a ripple of giggles floated upwards, Danny felt the flush travel from shirt collar to hair roots.

Sometimes he liked to kid himself that shopping at the big, faceless mall was all about thrift, that the cheaper prices were worth breaking his homeward journey, but in his heart he knew otherwise. He was just a sad fuck scared of the world. At the supermarket he filled his short shopping list then drifted as if by accident into the 'Heath & Beauty' aisle where he made a serious study of toothpastes and razors until the only other customer in sight moved away. Danny scuttled, reached over to the place he'd reconnoitred out of the corner of his eye, seen but not seen, grabbed those things he hated buying, and shoved them under a packet of muesli in his basket. One more purchase had been planned, a three-pack of white y-fronts. He wasn't familiar with the brand, hazarded a guess at the size, pushed the packet face-down under the muesli as well.

The quick checkouts were his favourite, no-one behind him to gaze over his purchases. He dumped the basket in front of the checkout chick, carefully read the advertising posters on the front wall until it was time to pay, murmured the appropriate responses to the artificially cheerful girl, and then hit the street with relief.

Home was an attic flat, nothing special despite its grand description as a 'studio apartment', just a big space shaped by odd angles and awkward corners and shaky partitions, but no-one could walk past his door there, or pace the ceiling above his head, or peer into his windows. By the time he'd climbed the three flights of stairs, evening was already gathering in those corners and angles. He fridged the cold food, left the rest of the shopping to be dealt with later. As the remains of last night's pasta heated up and the kettle boiled for tea, he reached deep into a cupboard, pulled out a tin marked 'Solomon's Liquorice AllSorts', emptied the contents on the bench, and rolled himself three skinny joints.

His flat was sparsely furnished, a wayside stop for only one traveller; a mattress had been laid directly on the polished board floor, a low coffee table now held his dinner, a couple of faded beanbags provided rest for tired limbs. By a wall, CDs, DVDs, and books balanced in shaky piles, like drunken skyscrapers. Danny pulled out some delta blues which hadn't had time to sink down the pile, lit up his first joint, let the darkness fill the room until there was no light save for the occasional match flare, the glowing tip of the joint, and the display on the CD player, set to replay. Gradually, the traffic noise subsided, the sounds of life in the other flats faded away. When the progress of moonlight across the floor reminded him of the late hour he undressed in the dark, pulling on the t-shirt and boxers which functioned as pyjamas. He didn't meet his own eyes in the mirror as he brushed his teeth.

Hidden in the deepest darkness above his bed was the one personal touch of decoration which the flat possessed, a page torn from a magazine many years ago and now pinned carefully to the sloping tent-like ceiling. No need to see it as he lay there - he knew it by heart; a photo of a young man - actor, model, some minor celebrity enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame - Danny neither knew nor cared. Sun-washed curls surrounding a face that was almost feminine in its delicacy, and yet his pose - hands on hips, weight on one leg - and the assured expression, teasing, inviting, in control, stamped him as unmistakably male. Danny lay awake for a long time, as the flickering images of an ideal life made their nightly visit. Somewhere a night bird sent out its yearning cry, somewhere a perfect, androgynous young man strode through his own world with never a doubt. When Danny rolled over, he carried that face into a dreamless sleep.

At the end of two Saturday tram trips lay Alice's house, with its welcoming bed; its kitchen, always well-stocked with tea and biscuits and cheery conversation; and Alice herself, greying and gruff, but a guaranteed safe haven for certain weary wayfarers.

“Good timing. Kettle's on,” she said, hugging him on the doorstep. “So how's it going?”

“Okay.”

“Just okay?” The kettle whistled, and Alice left the question hanging.

Down in the kitchen he set out the cups and saucers and watched her make the tea. She liked to do things properly: real tea made in a real teapot; fine bone china cups and saucers; and always the milk in first. Danny loved the ritual, the incongruity. “I went home for my mum's fiftieth.”

“A fun time was had by all?”

“You're kidding.”

“Ah, families! You've got to love them since murder's illegal.”

“Mmmmm. Sometimes I'm convinced I was a changeling.”

He waited for her to take the talk along a comfortable new path, but Alice had the knack of knowing when to insert a silence, when to leave it open-ended and when to break it herself. She busied herself pouring the tea, pushed Danny's cup towards him.

“It's always the same crap. My dad looks at me like I fell out of some freak show, Mum's always giving me the sad-eyed treatment. When are you going to get married? All my friends are grandmothers already! Jesus, Mum!" He took a sip. Alice nodded, maintained her silence. “I'm always getting invitations to my cousins' weddings. 'Danny and partner' they always say - and frigging partner. Like I've ever brought a partner. And then I turn up by myself yet again and I can feel everyone's eyes on me. And once they get hitched the girls turn into frigging baby factories! They're always shoving the latest brat into my face. I hate it, I can't stand it, Alice. I feel like a fraud, like I'm letting the side down, like I'm not really the same blood as them.”

“You don't have a handy friend you could take along? Someone from work, maybe?”

“Not really, no. There's no-one. I don't...” The tips of his ears flushed hot. Alice reached across and stroked his cheek, cuffed him affectionately on the jaw.

“I know. It's hard sometimes. I remember what it was like. I had a couple of mystery boyfriends, you know? Always busy elsewhere if my oldies dropped around? Of course, in the end...” She shrugged her shoulders. “You could just turn down the invites.”

“Then they'd be wanting to know why.”

“Tell them it's none of their frigging business. Tell them to fuck off. Tell them you haven't found the right girl yet. Tell you what, next time there's a family do, bring me along. That'll shut up their mouths.” She laughed, the full-bodied laugh that always made Danny feel just a tiny bit safer, less of a freak. “Speaking of, I've got some friends coming over later. You're welcome to stay. Dinner'll stretch.”

“No, thanks.” He'd met one or two of Alice's friends, narrow-faced, middle-aged women with pinched mouths and judgment in their eyes, who made him feel like a naughty kindergarten kid at best, an interloper at worst.

A late afternoon sun formed ritual tattoos of lace and leaf across their bodies. Alice's eyes were closed, her lay arm loose around Danny's shoulders, his head moved with the steady rise and fall of her bony chest. He raised up and peered at the clock.

“Gotta go,” he whispered, kissing her.

“Wass time?” she murmured against his mouth.

“Five to five.”

“Oh shit, I'll be caught in flagrante delecto again.”

“Delicto,” he said, starting to pull on his clothes.

“Seems pretty delecto to me.” She watched him dress in his awkward, shy fashion, always turned away as if his body was shameful, too shameful for even the gaze of a tender-hearted lover. When he sat again to put on his socks and boots she curled against his back and ruffled the silky spikes of his hair. “You should get out more, get with people your own age, maybe, take some chances. There's bound to be knockbacks, but it's not the end of the world. You deserve more than just mercy fucks. And you're a nice kid, Danny. Don't be so afraid of showing your real face to people. If they don't like you that's their loss.”

The homeward tram made its slow, moaning turn into the main shopping strip. Danny peered out and saw his own reflection staring back, glowing in the low apricot light. He frowned, raised his hand, squinted through its shadow at the street beyond. Outside a greengrocer's shop a couple were looking at avocadoes, engaged in the serious business of selecting the perfectly ripe one. The girl turned away, helped herself to a grape, smiled up open-mouthed at the man. They'd be going home soon, Danny thought, home to prepare dinner together, and the man would lean in and kiss her neck as she cooked, and her skin would smell of apples and berries, be soft as a sun-warmed peach. That's all he wanted, a girl who'd smile at him that way and share a little secret, share a thousand tiny moments with him, a beautiful girl that he could take back to meet the family. Mum, Dad, come and meet my girl – she needed a name, something gentle and feminine – Tahlia, yes, come and meet Tahlia, my girlfriend, my fiancée, my wife. Or he'd shake hands with strangers, How do you do. I'm Danny Halligan and this lovely lady is my wife, Tahlia.

How good she'd look with her hand nestled in the crook of his elbow, the two of them part of the local scene, happy to be out shopping, nurturing their beautiful relationship, not scurrying through supermarket shelves like a mouse after scraps. But then what? Wouldn't pretty Tahlia-girls want kids, the whole happy families box and dice? She wouldn't want a freak.

Take a chance, Danny, take a chance.

The long mirror behind the hostel room's door reflected back a pleasing image. The extra expense of a single room for two nights was worth it, gave Danny the chance to spend some time preening in private. He checked one more time: baseball cap low over his face, jacket over shirt over t-shirt, boots with a no-nonsense solidity. He stuck a thumb into a belt loop, thrust out a hip, gave himself his best come hither look, found the result to be tolerably passable. A sideways turn confirmed the satisfying bulge shaped by his new jeans, not too modest, not too blatant. He gave that package one last adjusting hitch, took a deep breath, and headed out into the night.

A weekend festival, a regional town, cozy in its anonymity, a chance to get away from his unrelenting problems for a couple of days. On Friday night he'd just wandered, sat in the open square and watched the crowds, enjoyed knowing and being known by no-one. Saturday would be the big night, crammed into a pub with hundreds of other fans of his favourite band. And who knows? He might even get lucky if some girl was drunk enough not to be too choosy.

At the venue a support band was playing, and there was still room to move. He downed a couple of beers, kept one eye on the toilets, on the slow traffic to and from the Men's. In went one man, shouting over his shoulder at a mate as he did. In went another, then two emerged together, already the worse for drink. In, in, in, out, in, out, out, out. When the ins seemed to equal the outs, and the coast looked clear, Danny casually sauntered over, head down, catching nobody's eye. The toilets were empty, silent save for the constant trickle of water and the wall-shaking thumps from the band outside. He locked himself in a cubicle, pulled down his jeans, sat, breathed in, relaxed just a little. He could do this, he really could do this. The floor was tacky underfoot, the place stunk of beery piss, of cheap disinfectant and fresh spew; despite himself, his nose wrinkled. The partition walls sported a palimpsest of graffiti. He read all the door and most of the side walls, stayed so long he peed twice.

Every minute or so, the main door swung open and a wave of noise swept in; voices, zips, heavy streams of urine, water, raucous laughter, then they'd be gone. Someone slammed a fist into his door, shaking the stall: “Hey, mate, get your hand off it!” “Shut up, Gazz, be the only root he'll get all night.” At last Danny left as he'd arrived, wrapped in his own defensive bubble, but he had started to smile.

While the crew set up for the main act, he drank a few more beers, began to doubt the wisdom of eating that kebab beforehand. His guts were getting heavy, bloated, demanding attention he wasn't prepared to give them as the crowd increased and bodies began jamming into each other. Girls brushed against him in the crush, girls with soft curves, silky hair, and skin fragrant with scent and sweat. He danced, just a nameless atom in the heaving mass; the night bloomed outwards, euphoric, laden with promise. Someone trod on his foot. “Sorry, man.” “S'okay.” Danny gave the thumbs up. A girl was eyeing him off, sliding up to him, circling briefly before shifting away, turning for another look...

Something wet and unwanted was happening in his crotch. Jesus! Too many damn beers! And the aching guts could be ignored no longer. He shoved through to the toilets, had no time to count the entrances and exits, made a head-down dash to the nearest empty cubicle. In the blue light, the heavy stains on his y-fronts were black. A wave of panicked revulsion hit him. The new jeans too were already speckled with the hated stigmata. He cleaned up as best he could, wadded a load of toilet paper into his pants, tied his shirt around his waist and ran, heedless of the others.

Fucking cretin, fucking stupid cunt! Loser! Fucking freak! The litany spun round and round his brain, its rhythm beaten by fists again and again into wretched, disobedient flesh, all the way back to the hostel. Alone once more, he stripped off jacket and t-shirt, boots and dirtied jeans, and, shaking with the years of tension, faced himself in that mocking mirror. A sullen, tear-streaked face stared back, the lips bleeding from a chain of crescent bites. He reached behind and undid the sports bra, two sizes too small and cutting into his yielding body like steel bands; freed from confinement, the delicate breasts revealed a pattern of angry creases, nipples mashed flat from the pressure. He pulled down the y-fronts, wrenched out the carefully stitched roll of socks and hurled them across the room. Torso and thigh, he wore the marks of his accusatory pummelling, and from between his legs, from that taunting nothingness, that despised hole, trickled more of the red death. Then he collapsed onto the floor and cried until there was nothing left but the oblivion of sleep.

“Hey there, kiddo, long time no see,” said Alice, already turning towards the kitchen and the kettle, “pick your face up before you trip over it. And what on earth have you been doing to yourself?” She gestured at Danny's denim skirt over thick black tights and the usual boots, and his hair now growing out into a soft, shiny halo. “Got some old lippy and mascara somewhere, if you want it.”

He trailed behind her, head packed so tight with words that none could escape. Alice leaned on the bench, folded her arms, and studied him from head to toe.

“I've seen misery before, but you...”

It took two cups of tea, a few tokes on a joint, and several crumbly oat biscuits before he could begin to string together something comprehensible.

“I took a chance.”

“And?”

“It was a fucking disaster.” Alice raised an eyebrow. “I don't want to talk about it. Not about that.”

“You got a knockback? We all get them, like I---”

“A knockback? If only! Jesus, if a girl could look at me, see me for who I really am, and then turn me down I'd think it was Christmas.”

“You're not making sense, Danny.”

“Yeah? Let me tell you, none of it makes any sense to me, not one tiny skerrick. It's like some great cosmic joke---” His throat tightened, the tea in his cup shivered. Alice waited until the worst of it had passed.

“You want to try again?”

“I'm not what you think I am.”

“A dyke?”

“I'm not a dyke.”

“Yeah, me neither. I'm straight as they come and denial's just a river in Egypt. Shouldn't you be past all this shit? You put on a skirt and suddenly you're not a dyke? What next? A boyfriend?”

“Shut up, Alice. Please?” He sucked in a few breaths and took it from the top. “I don't think I'm a girl.”

“Coulda fooled me, darling.” She let out an abrupt snorting laugh but her eyes, never leaving his face, were untouched by any mirth. “Go on.”

“I know I'm not. In here,” - he held his head, two-handed - “there isn't a girl.”

Alice touched her hand to the teapot, poured them both some more tea.

“So when did you figure this out? Did they wrap you in a pink blanket and you started screaming for a blue one?”

Danny shrugged; the wild thoughts, the doubts and fears and shames of so many years couldn't be easily wrangled into a narrative which made sense to him, to anyone.

“Nothing like that. When I was a kid I played with what I was given, wore what my mum put on me. It was okay, sort of, I suppose, but the older I got ... I don't know."

Alice's voice was gentle. “All kids feel that way sometimes. Tomboys, sissy boys, it doesn't mean---”

“No, this is different, this is much more than that, this is...” His hands flapped across his body, fingers clenching and opening, then he pushed back his chair, crawled under the table and removed Alice's espadrilles, replaced them on the wrong feet, resumed his seat, watched her face. She frowned, wriggled her feet, returned her shoes to their comfortable positions, nodded.

“All over,” said Danny, “back when I was a teenager, that's what it felt like all the time. Then when I got interested in girls, I thought maybe it was just,” - he flicked his finger from himself to Alice and back again - “just the sex stuff, but it's not, I know that now.”

“And this – the clothes, the hair – what's that all about, then?”

“Dunno. I thought maybe I was just kidding myself, that if I tried to be a proper girl again it mightn't feel as bad as it used to.”

“And did it help?”

“No.”

Alice chewed on her lips a while. “If you're serious – yes, yes, I can see that you are – you've got a long, hard road ahead of you, you know that, don't you. Hormones, surgery, therapy – transitioning's not just a stroll in the park---”

“I know that, I know it. I've been reading up everything I can find. And there's a place out at Bayside...”

“You've contacted them?”

“Not yet. Alice, I'm scared shitless. I don't even know if I want that whole package. I don't know what I want, I just know what I don't want, and that's to live the way I have been. It's not like I even hate the way I am. I can't explain it. I just know that when I fill in a form and tick the F box I feel like I'm lying. I go to the women's loos and I feel like a sneak, getting in where I shouldn't be. I'm not stupid - I know they probably think I'm a lesbian at work. I know I make the girls feel uncomfortable, but if they knew how I feel---”

Alice bridled slightly. “There's nothing wrong in girls liking girls.”

“Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that.”

“You know that's why there's resentment. It's as if you're letting down the side, rejecting what others accept. Don't expect to find support easily, not with the people you know. There's been one or two others...” She let the words hang, busied herself with topping up their cups. “Let's just say that sometimes friends can let you down badly.”

Danny gave a bitter laugh. “That's okay, I don't have any friends.”

“Except me.”

“Except you.”

“I'll do the best I can, I promise, but you need to find people who will really understand, who can talk you through the options, who've tried the options. Tell me, if you could snap your fingers, if you could wake up tomorrow as a man---”

“But how do you wipe out twenty-six years of being a girl? And I know that what they can do these days still won't make the outside match the inside, not properly. And I don't even know if the inside is how a man feels anyway. How the hell could I know? I lie awake every night and imagine it all, try to picture myself - there. I just want people to look and see me, whoever that is.”

The words ran out and a long silence settled. Alice opened her mouth a few times, then closed it again. Then she reached out for his hand, pulled him to his feet, and led him down the hallway.

“I don't know if this will help at all...” She took him not to her bed but to a couch where she sat him down, wrapped her arms around him, and held him tight, through the tears which came, through the shaking and sobbing, the incoherent mumblings, and through the deep stillness which settled, as it must.

When they finally agreed that the day had run its course and he was ready to face the journey home, she hugged him warmly, but it was a chaste and solemn kiss which she planted on his cheek.

“Shit,” she murmured, shaking her head.

“What?”

“How am I going to explain to the girls that I've been sleeping with a man?” She met his puzzled gaze with a deadpan face, then they both broke into laughter which didn't quite carry the distance. “Goodbye, Danny. Good luck. You know where I am, sweetheart.”

The tampon disposal unit dug into his hip - his rounded, chubby hip - as he sat forlornly in a toilet with a female symbol on the door, hiding away from an office peopled with women he couldn't relate to and men he couldn't join. He'd worn the pattern off the tiles, staring at the space between his boots.

“Danny?” Little footsteps approaching, a light knock against the cubicle. “Danny? You okay?” It was Marijke.

“Yeah. Just feeling ... you know.”

“Is it...?”

“Yeah.”

For just a second the artificial sincerity in her voice gave way to something more genuine. “Let me get my bag. I've got some---”

“I'm okay. Really. Just go away. Please.”

Her click-clack high heels tapped away and he heard her speak again, unnaturally bright and helpful, She's okay, Mr B, upset stomach, I think, then the door swung closed. He gave it another five minutes before standing, pulled up his jeans and, with a resigned sigh, buttoned them right over left, then stepped back out into the office. No flying under the radar today; every pair of eyes, sympathetic, malicious, or indifferent, flicked up at least momentarily; Danny neither saw nor cared. The customary dip in the girls' chatter didn't register either, conscious was he only of the gnawing ache that went far deeper than flesh. Mr Bellinger had to call him twice, follow him to his desk, quietly ask him to step into the glass-walled office for a chat.

“Danny---”

“It's just a frigging--- an upset stomach!” His voice sounded harsh in the enclosed space.

“Danny...” The boss paused, and Danny knew without looking that he had his most sincere and kindly expression on, that he was about to show how concerned he was by using that name. “Diane, it's not just today. You've been ... well, you've been looking peaky for weeks now, and I don't like to say it,” - he was the kind of man who in a less litigious era would have placed a fatherly arm around an ailing employee's shoulder - “but it's beginning to affect your work. Now, is there anything you need to talk about?”

Danny flushed, squirmed, muttered some waffle about an infection, an ulcer, something, it didn't matter; they both knew it was a lie.

“Look, why don't you take the rest of the afternoon off, maybe see a doctor tomorrow. That gives you the weekend to rest up. Call me on Monday if you have to, okay?”

Bag collected, time sheet signed off, Danny stood waiting for a lift, stabbing at the button again and again, just wanting to get outside and into the fresh air.

“Going home early?” said a despised voice. “Thank Christ I won't have to look at your sourpuss mug the rest of the day.”

“Back off, Sanford.”

Sanford's mouth pouted into a mocking little cat's-bum circle. “Oooo, growing balls, are you?”

“Back off or I'll report you to the boss.”

“Hey, you filthy lezzo, don't take it out on me just because you're on your rags.”

The backpack swung in a wild half-circle, collected the side of Sanford's head, then Danny was running, fleeing for the stairwell, shouts of "Fucking bitch!" chasing him downwards.

The train was out of the station and halfway through the railyards before he even realised they were moving. He rummaged in his pack for a book, tried to read away the hollow feeling, but the words wouldn't stick in his brain. Someone sat down on the seat opposite him, banging into his knees: an old woman, head to foot dressed in black like a thousand other migrant grandmothers. She settled her various shopping bags then squinted out of the window with rheumy eyes, muttering. The chin trembling above the black knot of her headscarf sprouted a fine collection of steel grey whiskers. What was the old joke? Why do Italian men grow moustaches? So they look like their mamas. Wait long enough, Danny, and you can have one too, won't matter what you are, we all end up at the same destination in the end.

Wait long enough and no girl will care about your wrong plumbing because no girl will pay you the slightest attention. Wait long enough and you'll just be some queer old woman, alone and lonely, in a houseful of stinking cats, and everyone will smile at you with one side of their mouth and gossip about you with the other. If they talk at all. If they care. And when you die, Danny boy, they'll note you down as female on your death certificate, as Diane Halligan, and no-one will ever know. You'll be buried as a fraud, a freak, just the way you lived your whole miserable life. And no-one will ever know.

The stations blurred by; masses of schoolkids entered and exited the carriage at each stop, like swarms of coloured beetles; their shrieks and yells filled the air. Somewhere between their noise and the drone of the engines came another rhythmic sound. Danny realised it came from the old woman seated opposite him; she was reciting station names, Morristown, Morley, Whittlesea, South Beyer, Hartmont. As the train slowed again she began gathering her belongings.

"Hartmont?" she said abruptly. Danny nodded. She nodded back, dropped a string bag of oranges. When he picked it up and returned it to her cluttered seat she leaned forward and patted his knee.

“Good boy, thank you. Good boy.”

He flushed, didn't dare look up at the other passengers, knew there would be odd looks, embarrassed ignorings; he heard a schoolboy snigger cut short. The woman started making her uncertain way through the thicket of bodies. Danny jumped up, grabbed her bags, pushed a clear path to the door. As she stepped onto the platform and took her shopping from him, she said, loud and clear for the benefit of all:

“This is good boy!”

And within his chest his heart leapt in response.

He didn't get back onto the train, just stood a while as the bells chimed, the doors slammed shut, and the carriages drew away, taking the anonymous mob to their own destinations. Then he pulled his phone from his shirt pocket, entered a number he knew by heart, and said, “Hello? I think I need to talk to someone. My name ... my name is Dan.”

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