Talking about Painted Ladies in Malvern
Well that’s it. The Festival is over and I’ve completed the fifth Jasmine Frame prequel. Actually the Leominster Festival was good fun, Jasper Fforde was brilliant and we had good audiences for all the events. We could have done with more booklovers at the Bookfair but we learn… I also made my debut (?!) in an open mike event giving a very short “Jasmine & Me” talk. Got a few laughs in the right places.
Anyway with no more ado, here is the concluding episode of Soft Focus. It’s a bit longer than usual, as it rounds off the story. As always, I’d love some comments. There will be a new story starting in due course.
Soft Focus: Part 14
More people were leaving Debenhams than entering when Jasmine and Angela reached the store, heading home after a day’s shopping. They went inside and found the place almost empty. Upstairs at the café, the servers were tidying and cleaning in preparation for shutting down for the day. A young woman served Jasmine, nevertheless, with a couple of glasses of cola. Jasmine picked up the drinks and followed Angela to one of the many vacant tables. She looked around the brightly lit, empty space, examining the few customers remaining. Was Patricia here already? None of the people seemed to fit the image that Jasmine had in her mind.
Jasmine sat opposite Angela and took a sip of the sweet fizzy drink. Over the top of her glass she saw Angela look up. A soft voice came for behind her.
‘Hello. Are you Jasmine?’
Jasmine looked up and saw a middle-aged lady in a red raincoat and rain hat standing beside her. She jumped to her feet. Her chair scraped against the floor as it was pushed backwards.
‘Patricia?’ Jasmine held out her hand and looked at the woman. She was a similar height to herself, with wispy strands of grey hair poking out from below the hat. Her face was heavily made up with red lipstick that matched her coat and hat.
‘Yes,’ she said, pulling out the chair beside Jasmine and sitting down. ‘And you must be Angela.’ She held out her hand across the table to Angela. Angela shook it and smiled.
‘Can I get you a drink?’ Angela said.
‘No, thank you,’ Patricia replied, ‘I haven’t got long. I’ve got to get to work soon.’
Jasmine was intrigued. ‘What do you do?’
‘Just cleaning. I work in a nursing home. That kind of place always needs staff. They were the only jobs I could get after I transitioned.’
‘How long has it been since, er…’ Jasmine asked.
‘My op? Gender reassignment they call it now. It was a sex-change in my time. It’s coming up to ten years since I had the surgery. Of course it’s never really over – I still have to take the pills.’
‘Ten years? So you were quite, um …’
‘Old? Is that what you mean, young lady?’
Jasmine blushed. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude.’
Patricia chuckled. ‘Oh, don’t worry, I know you didn’t mean it. You’re young. Anyone over twenty five is old to you I expect.’ Jasmine shook her head to deny the charge but she knew that Patricia was correct. ‘You’re right. I was in my forties when I completed the transition, but it took years. My former employer got rid of me when I started so I had no money to hurry the process and had to wait patiently for the NHS to deal with me.’ Jasmine noted the hint of bitterness in Patricia’s voice.
‘You got the sack for wanting to be a woman?’ Angela said.
‘Yes. It wasn’t unusual in those days,’ Patricia said. ‘It’s a long story, but we didn’t meet to talk about me. You want to know about Silla.’ Patricia’s voice cracked as she said the name.
Jasmine nodded. ‘Yes, please. You said you knew her well.’
Patricia shrugged. ‘I did say that but I wonder if anyone knew her really well. She was very protective of herself. She had to reason to.’
‘Oh, why? Did you know her long?’ Jasmine asked. Angela leaned forward to catch Patricia’s soft voice.
Patricia took a deep breath. ‘It’s about a year. She contacted me when she started at the university. How much do you know about Silla?’
Jasmine shook her head slowly. ‘Not a lot. We met,’ she didn’t add, once. ‘I know she was waiting for her treatment but that’s about it.’ Angela nodded her agreement.
Patricia looked from Jasmine to Angela and back. She seemed to make a decision. ‘Well, I think it will do me good to tell you. Silla’s dead and perhaps her story will come out so I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets.’ Patricia took a hanky from the handbag cradled on her lap and dabbed her eyes. ‘As I said, it was a year ago when she called the number on my website, like you did and asked for help in transitioning. We talked for a long time then, over an hour, and then many, many times since.’
‘Did you meet her?’ Angela asked.
‘Occasionally. Like this, in a public place. I am wary of meeting callers and Silla was always edgy.’
‘You didn’t see her at home?’ Jasmine asked.
‘I don’t give out my address and to be frank I wouldn’t advise trans people to come visiting in my neighbourhood. It’s not the nicest but is the only place I can afford. I wanted to help Silla, like I do my other clients, but self-preservation comes first. Perhaps you haven’t experienced the hate that some people show to trans-people,’ Patricia glared at Jasmine.’
Jasmine shook her head. ‘No, not really. I know it happens.’
‘You’re not full time then?’
‘Think about it very, very carefully. If you do transition you have to be prepared for prejudice.’
‘Yes, I suppose so. Did Silla meet it?’
Patricia laughed. It was more of a grunt. ‘I’ll say. From people she didn’t know and those who should have been looking out for her.’
Jasmine waited patiently. Patricia looked at her. ‘Silla told me her story. Not all at once, but I put it together over the first few conversations we had. She had known that she was different from an early age and experimented dressing up as a girl using her sister’s clothes.’
So far so familiar; Jasmine had done the same.
‘Silla’s father found her dressed one day, beat her black and blue and told her never to do it again. She did of course and eventually got caught again. I don’t know how many beatings she endured. Her mother was no help; scared of her father, I suppose, so told on Silla whenever she found out. But nothing stopped Silla. She knew she was really a girl. A bright girl too. She found out what she had to do to transition and to get the treatment she wanted. But she had to wait. She could have left home at sixteen, but she waited even though it meant more beatings. She knew that to really get away from home she needed a university education. As I said, she was bright. She stayed on at school to take her A levels and got herself a place here. On the day her results came out she told her family she was no longer Kevin John McBride. Her father threw her out and she hasn’t been home since.’
‘That’s awful,’ Angela said.
‘It’s not a unique story,’ Patricia said.
‘Go on,’ Jasmine urged. ‘What happened to her next?’
‘Well, Silla, as Silla, didn’t have any friends up in Liverpool so she got herself down here and camped outside the university offices until they took notice of her and got her into accommodation and registered with the NHS.’
‘Didn’t that make her happy?’ Angela asked, ‘She’d got away from her abusive home life and was being looked after here. Wasn’t that enough?’
Patricia shrugged. ‘You might think so. Perhaps Silla had been damaged by the beatings. She found it difficult making friends because of the years of keeping her true self hidden and she was frustrated by the slowness of the reassignment process and the hoops she had to pass through.’
‘Hoops?’ Angela asked.
‘Such as the psychiatric tests.’ Patricia answered. ‘You have to be judged to be sane to be allowed to go forward through the NHS system. Mind you, how sane are you if you want bits of your body chopped off, surgery that in itself is dangerous and a life where the law doesn’t acknowledge you as the person you feel you are.’
Jasmine shivered. The mention of surgery gave her an image of a knife cutting through flesh. She couldn’t imagine wanting that but if she too wanted to become a woman then that is what she would have to have done to her. Perhaps she was merely a cross-dresser; someone who played at being female from time to time.
‘She got frustrated at the time it was taking,’ Patricia went on.
‘But it’s only been a year,’ Jasmine said. ‘It can take much longer than that.’
‘You know that,’ Patricia agreed, ‘I know that, boy do I know it. But Silla was impatient. And she was having other problems. She fell out with every group she approached – the radical women, the gays, even the other transsexuals she met.’
‘Are there any others?’ Angela asked.
‘Oh yes,’ Patricia replied, ‘But unlike Silla they keep their identities secret. They don’t want the people around them guessing that they’re trans. Silla was annoyed that they wouldn’t take part in action to change the law.’
‘What law?’ Angela asked, with a mystified look on her face.
Jasmine answered. ‘The law the prevents transmen and women from changing their birth certificate when they transition and hence means they can’t marry in their new gender, and employers, and other people can find out who they used to be.’
‘Oh,’ Angela frowned as she took Jasmine’s explanation in. ‘Why don’t trans people fight for a change?’
‘Some do,’ Patricia said, ‘Silla was prepared to but few other are. They’re scared of being found out and the consequences of that.’
‘So Silla was angry at everyone,’ Jasmine summarised.
‘Yes, even me. She said I wasn’t doing enough because I keep my identity hidden behind the website and phone number. I’m not about to go marching and carrying a placard around my street. No thank you. But she kept calling for a chat.’
‘But why did she kill herself?’ Jasmine asked.
‘Well, things kept building up. Her treatment had been put on hold while she had more psych tests. The psychologists told her they were concerned by her instability – she shouted at them. That just made her more angry. She was abused by some yobs outside a pub and the police weren’t interested. She had more arguments with other students. She rang my mobile last night when I was at work. I couldn’t talk for long – I’m only allowed a fifteen minute break.’
Jasmine leaned in, eager to learn more. ‘What did she say?’
‘She was upset, rambling, saying, “what is wrong with me? Why can’t I get on with people?” Then she said something about even swearing at a young tranny who felt she needed to wear a wig.’
Jasmine froze, her mouth open.
‘She ended the call then,’ Patricia continued. ’I tried ringing her number when I clocked off an hour or so later, but she didn’t answer.’
‘You didn’t speak to her again?’ Angela asked. Jasmine was still immobile.
‘No. It was late, I was exhausted. I went to bed and didn’t wake up till my phone rang. It was the police saying they wanted to talk to me about Silla’s death.’
Jasmine saw Angela looking at her. ‘What’s the matter Jasmine? You’ve gone white.’
Jasmine managed to whisper three words. ‘It was me.’
‘What do you mean?’ Angela said, her face screwed up in incomprehension.
‘Silla killed herself because of me.’ Jasmine said, sadness tearing a hole in her heart.
‘I don’t understand,’ Patricia said.
Jasmine felt tears forming in her eyes and running down her cheek. ‘It was me she told you about. I was the tranny she had a go at.’
‘But you’re not wearing a wig,’ Patricia said.
Jasmine brushed her hand through her short blonde hair. ‘No. Angela says I don’t need to, but last night I thought I did – to look feminine. I was wearing a long blonde wig when I met Silla. She was friendly enough at first but when I told her I’m not going for GRS she blew up. She must have felt that I wasn’t supporting her; that I was just playing at dressing up and not taking being trans seriously like her.’ Jasmine could feel a sob building in her throat. ‘I…I tipped her over,’ she stuttered.
Patricia reached out an arm and rested her hand on Jasmine’s shoulder. ‘No, Jasmine. You didn’t cause Silla’s death. She killed herself because she was depressed about her slow progress and the damage done to her over the years by her family. None of us, neither me nor her doctors knew how near the edge she was. The point is if she had been diagnosed as depressive she may not have bene allowed to go through with the treatment anyway. Perhaps she realised that and was able to hide it. I told she was bright.’
Angela reached across the table and took Jasmine’s hand. She squeezed it gently. ‘Patricia’s right Jasmine. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything to cause Silla’s death. She was sick.’ She turned to Patricia. ‘Thank you for telling us about Silla. It must have been a shock for you too.’
Patricia nodded. ‘It was. Lots of trans people commit suicide before, during and after their transition but Silla was the first I knew well, or thought I did. Look I’ve got to get to work.’ She rose to her feet. ‘You’ve got my number, Jasmine. Call me some time and we can talk about Silla again, or about yourself.’
‘Thanks,’ Jasmine muttered as Patricia turned and walked away.
Angela also stood up and circled around the table to put her arms around Jasmine’s shoulders. She bent down and kissed her cheek.
‘Come on, let’s go too. You can close your case, Detective Frame. We know what happened to Silla McBride, now.’
Jasmine reached up and took Angela’s hand and pushed herself to her feet. ‘Yes, I suppose so. I don’t want to go through what she did. I guess I’m not transsexual.’
‘Well, I don’t mind whether you’re Jasmine or James, I’d like to get to know you better and I want to cheer you up. You said you like dancing. How about the Union? There’s a DJ tonight.’
Painted Ladies: A Jasmine Frame Story is available as an e-book and paperback from all booksellers including Amazon