A Transvestite Story
She did not have many visitors these days. Her contemporaries were already deceased or equally as immobile as herself.
She gazed down wryly at her fingers, twisted and and gnarled with arthritis. Sixty-odd years ago those fingers had been white and soft, deft enough to make her own dresses for the County Ball, deft to apply the powder and lipstick artfully; soft to touch the hands of handsome young men, to stroke their hair, to wrap around their shoulders as their lips met in a passionate kiss.
Those days were long gone. Her fiance shot down in a dog fight over the Channel in the darkest days of the war, she had devoted herself to nursing until, after the war when she could somehow no longer face the prospect of courtship and marriage with someone else, she had settled back to help her older brother, back from the war with a substantial gratuity which he had invested in purchasing a run-down boys’ prep school in the quitest part of the Lincolnshire Wolds.
Together they had built up a reputation for the school, expanding its accommodation so that in its heyday it took ninety boarders and almost as many day boys.
But her brother too was now dead, and the school buildings long since sold to a major international company intent on relocating outside the metropolis. She had lived quietly in retirement until she was no longer physically able to look after herself properly, and now she lived in this retirement home in the country, a large mansion accommodating some thirty folk like herself.
Comfortable and well looked after as she was, she still regretted the loss of her valued independance. But she was a realist – she accepted her lot and her constrictions philosophically, although sometimes she wished for company. For despite her immobility, her mind was as acute as ever.
Today was special: she had been wheeled out onto the terrace to her favourite spot. From here she had a good view out over the lawns to the distant lake with its fringe of trees. Their leaves were just beginning to turn in the early autumn sunlight.
Late September was her favourite time of year. It had been, for her, the beginning of a new school year with all the promise it contained for the new intake of boarders. She had taught English at the school – she had been a good teacher, capable of inspiring her charges with a love of poetry and literature, and especially of drama. Sometimes she mused that had life turned out differently for her, she might have gone on stage herself.
At school she contented herself with staging the annual play production, and the beginning of the school year was the time when she enjoyed the excitement of choosing the production of the year, and planning and casting.
Even now as she sat at the end of the terrace, she had asked the nurse to bring her one of her favourite plays to dip into and sample the pleasure of its language. Her hand trembled as her fingers grappled with the book on the table beside her, her favourite collected edition of the plays of Shakespeare, heavily marked with her own editing now faded and blurred. The book fell heavily into her lap, opening out at the middle of one of her favourite plays: “As You Like It”.
She began to read a little, but she found it difficult without her glasses. She would have to wait until one of the nursing staff came outside , and ask her to retrieve them from the cabinet beside her bed., Still with the book open upon her lap she fell to musing about the message she had been given that morning: someone was coming to visit her.
There had been a telephone call the previous afternoon. The caller had told the staff that she was an old friend who happened to be in tha area, staying in a nearby town, and would visit if convenient at around eleven in the morning. Was there anything she could bring as a present for the old lady?
The line had not been good – it had not been easy to hear against the background of a vacuum cleaner in operation, but it was thought that the caller had given her name as Linda something or other, perhaps Linda Price. Did she know anyone of that name?
As she at in the morning sunshine she thought long and hard about that name. It meant nothing to her. She was very surprised as her memory for names and faces was still surprisingly good, but the name rang no bells and no face came to mind.
It troubled her, but when at last one of the staff emerged onto the terrace she was able to ask for her glasses, and soon she dismissed the puzzle from her mind and began to read the play where the book had fallen open: Rosalind, banished into exile, resolves to seek her likewise banished father in the Forest of Arden, in the guise of a young man to escape the attentions of thieves and robbers.
“Were it not better, Because that I am more than common tall, That I did suit me all points like a man? A gallant curtle-axe upon my thigh, A boar spear in my hand; and – in my heart, Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will. We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside, As many other Mannish cowards have, That do outface it with their semblances…”
What a delicious ambiguity is there. In Shakespeare’s day boys played women’s parts. Here was a boy playing a woman playing a man. In school productions boys perforce had to play the female parts, usually with extremem reluctance, never quite managing the feminine touch. That is, all except one…
She remembered him now, a new boy, in her last production at the school before it closed down – this very play, her favourite, chosen as her swan song. This boy, she had sensed, was likely to be the best Rosalind she had ever coached, and she had been right.
She saw him now in her mind’s eye as clearly as if he were standing in front of her. He was of slight build, soft skinned, fair haired. For a twelve year old he carried himself with an amazing maturity, his movements were graceful, almost feminine. He was quiet, reserved, self sufficient, unpeturbed by the ribbing of his peers. He had an air of authority about him which enabled him to ride any difficulty with the other boys without appearing to be in any way affected by it. In a word, he was unruffled.
When she told him that she would like him to play the part of Rosalind in the forthcoming production, there was no show of reluctance, no questioning. He seemed to regard it as the most obvious and proper role for him. She had never known such a reaction from any boy before in the like circumstances.
He was quick to learn his lines, he seemed to be even quicker in understanding the demands of his role. She had never before seen a boy get so quickly into the mind and the character of a girl. It was uncanny. She found she had little to teach him about deportment. In character he moved and walked like a girl although out of character there was nothing in his manner to suggest effeminacy.
When it came to the dress rehearsal and he donned female garments for the first time, she could have easily mistaken him for a girl, and, surprisingly, when he was called upon to wear boy’s clothes again as part of Rosalind’s travesty in the play, he seemed to be just that: a girl in boy’s clothing.
“Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak. Sweet, say on.”
She could hear him now saying those lines as naturally as if he were indeed Rosalind herself. And when adjured to be good of heart and counterfeit to be a man, “so I do: but i’faith I should have been a woman by right.”, the double ambiguity which would have been apparent to the Elizabethan playgoer was as lacking when he played the part as it would be to a modern playgoer seeing a female in the part.
She remembered in particular one little incident which had surprised her at the time. It was the first performance of the three scheduled for parents at the school. A small army of women teachers and male teachers’ wives were assisting the boys into their costumes and with the stage make-up. She hereself went to help ‘Rosalind’ with his make-up for the part.
To her surprise she saw him before the mirror applying his own make-up with professional skill and competence. After dusting powder powder over the foundation cream designed to give a natural appearance under the powerful stage lamps hired for the occasion, she watched him expertly wielding the lipstick and admiring himself in the mirror.
He had already taken on the persona of the heroine and he walked gracefully, head held high, to the stage door to await his entrance alongside his companion, another boy playing the part of Celia. The contrast between the two was remarkable.
On the last night came the greatest surprise of all. Shakespeare wrote his Epilogue for the heroine to speak, and in Shakespeare’s time the boy actor would doubtlessly have doffed his wig to reveal the urchin beneath and speak the cheeky lines: “If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me…” – words more than likely to excite ribald comments from the groundlings.
But this Rosalind changed without warning and without the slightest embarrassment to “As I am a woman, I would kiss…”
And incredibly, the words sounded absolutely right coming from him in his character as the woman Rosalind…
For September, the sun was now quite strong, and as she sat musing on her last production, the old lady began to doze. She awoke with a start at the chime of a distant church bell, she counted eleven strokes and then she heard the sound of a car on the gravel in front of the entrance to the nursing home.
A few moments later there was the sound of footsteps behind her, and the voice of a nurse calling out cheerily “Here’s your visitor”.
She turned in her chair to see a tall young woman approaching, bearing in her arms an enormous bouquet of flowers. She was wearing a navy blue pencil-slim skirt and open matching jacket. Firm pointed breasts were concealed behind a white cotton blouse open at the throat to reveal a thin gold cross and chain.
Her long, shapely legs were encased in sheer nylon stockings and she wore navy high-heeled shoes. Her hair was tied back into a tight bun wrapped in a chiffon scarf at the back of her head, and her lips were parted in a smile as she approached.
“How lovely to see you again after all these years. I hope you remember who I am?”
“Of course I do,” the old lady replied. “In fact, I was just thinking about you. How are you, my dear, darling Rosalind?”