by Emma Green
It started off with an old jumper of Martha’s. He hadn’t realised it was hers at first, but it was comfortable and smelt reassuringly of her and it seemed pointless to change, so Ian left it on. He missed her to an extent that was beyond painful. He was almost giddy with it.
He looked out at the garden. The vegetable patch, the raised beds and the chickens had always been her domain. She would spend hours out there, clipping and trimming whilst he busied himself in the office. Usually working, but also spending hour after wasted hour checking the weather, the news or just scrolling through pages of stuff. Stuff that meant nothing. Stuff he couldn’t even remember.
He should have spent more time with her, paid more attention to the flowers she’d loved, taken joy in the herbs that she’d cultivated so patiently. But Martha was gone now, and the garden seemed to miss her as much as he did.
Nothing was growing. The veggies refused to take. The roses refused to bloom. And now the hens weren’t laying and he wasn’t sure what to do.
Ian was explaining this to Hilary – Martha’s favourite chicken – when he noticed something unusual in the hedge, just by the shed. He crept closer as Hilary let out a series of encouraging clucks and saw that it wasn’t an unusually shaped pebble as he had suspected, but an egg. Not just any old egg but the first egg the chickens had produced since Martha had died. Ian dropped to his knees and cradled it, still warm, as if it was the most precious thing in the world. And later, over the smallest, most delicious omelette he had ever eaten in his life, found himself wondering if the fact he was wearing Martha’s clothes – comfortable and smelling reassuringly of her – that had prompted the chickens to lay.
The next morning, feeling slightly self-conscious but also strangely liberated, Ian slipped on one of her favourite blouses. Martha had never been into particularly feminine or fussy clothes, but the blouse had a frilly collar that Ian thought was rather pleasing to the touch. The buttons strained a bit in places, and gaped in others (Martha had been a big woman – often described as handsome) but it felt much nicer than the stiff collared shirts he normally wore. Ian twinned it with a pair of linen trousers in a clashing shade of blue and made his way cheerfully to the chicken run.
At first Hilary, Heather and Hatty eyed him reproachfully – their clucks seemed less gleeful than before, almost mocking – but his outfit seemed to work. Each morning, Ian would slip on one of Martha’s dresses or sensible skirts and be greeted with not one egg, but two, three, sometimes four.
And not only that, but the Wisteria, which had previously seemed withered and woody and very much dead, seemed to be springing back to life. Ian revelled in their vibrant violet colour and for the next couple of days wore a nail varnish in ‘Luscious Lilac’ to match.
He found he wasn’t just wearing Martha’s outfits for the gardening or to feed the chickens but around the house, too. On one daring occasion he’d worn a silky vest under a sensible jumper to run a few errands in town. Another time, when he was making his weekly visit to the local supermarket, he spotted a lacy cardigan and on impulse bought it. He’d been terrified he’d bump into someone from the bowls club or worse still one of the children, and tried to think of what he might say. Would pretending to be buying it for a lady friend be worse than the truth, he wondered? But it felt thrilling, too – Ian began to understand why people might shoplift, or jump from planes, or rob banks – the sense of getting away with something was life enhancing. Addictive.
The garden continued to blossom, the chickens continued to lay. He found he was smiling more and frowning less. As his outfits became more outré, the vegetables grew bigger and tasted better than ever. His previous attitude of ‘what would people say?’ turned into something quite different. He had an irresistible urge to tell everyone. He practised on the chickens first, telling Hilary in a loud voice, ‘I like wearing women’s clothes.’
Hilary took it very well – much better than his son David. David could not believe his unremarkable, stoic and, let’s face it, rather boring father was a cross-dresser. He’d obviously lost his mind, after the sudden death of Martha who, let’s face it, was the interesting, fun one. He advised him to seek help, maybe some sort of medication.
‘Let’s face it, Dad, it’s not normal.’
His daughter took it much better. She had always been the more laid-back one. She asked if he wanted her to look out for a few stretchy numbers from the charity shop where she worked and they had a nice chat about colour combinations.
When Ian said, ‘I must say Carol, you’re taking this very well…’ Carol had replied that as long as he was happy she was happy, and besides, as she knew only too well from years spent working with the public, there was no such thing as normal.
“He missed her to an extent that was beyond painful. He was almost giddy with it.”
However, the real surprise was the neighbours – it had been Martha’s idea to move here and even though they lived in the hippiest part of town – a place that boasted two yoga studios, a vegan café and a gong therapist on the corner, as well as an artist neighbour who created art with her menstrual secretions, he had rather assumed people would find the whole thing laughable.
But once word got out that Ian at number 11 was fond of wearing women’s clothes, people – well, women actually – were surprisingly kind. Bags of clothes started to appear, mostly anonymously but sometimes with notes attached.
Whatever gets you through the night. Love from Paula (P.S. Let me know if you’d like a session with the gongs – they are incredibly soothing!)
Wondered if these might fit you – since Weight Watchers, I’ve dropped down a size or two. Regards, Jill (number 13)
And best of all:
Martha would be proud of you. From Liv (at the Café) xx
Liv’s first husband Keith had been a glam rocker in the 70s and a new romantic in the 80s so hadn’t been adverse to a floaty top and a touch of eyeliner. Similarly, her second husband Rik had got into Druidism, not – she suspected – out of any great affinity to nature or mysticism, but because he loved the costumes. And Liv had to admit he had looked good in a cloak. So, when she’d heard that Ian at number 11 – Ian, the husband of her dear friend Martha, had taken to wearing women’s clothes, she had felt rather intrigued.
Liv had bagged up a few chiffon numbers – because it wasn’t like she was going to get a chance to wear them anytime soon – and coupled them with loose trousers she thought might fit him and had dropped them off with an encouraging note. And that she thought, was that.
Liv and Ian laughed about it still, enjoying the look on people’s faces when they explained how they’d first met. Sometimes filling in each other’s sentences in that chummy way they had. Liv would place a hand on a vibrantly coloured knee and explain that a love of pretty fabric had brought them together.
They would talk fondly of their first ‘date’ – how Ian had turned up on her doorstep with eyeshadow that he hoped made his eyes pop (that’s what the nice girl at the Bodyshop had promised anyway) and a bunch of daffodils from the garden. They would reminisce about the cake they’d shared and how, when Liv had said in hushed tones that there was something she had to say and that it was a deal breaker, Ian had assumed it was to do with the dresses, the silky undies, the off-the-shoulder numbers. But no, she had explained that she was more concerned about the chickens.
‘Martha always said that when they got too old and stopped laying she was going to eat them. I think she was joking, but I just wanted to be sure.’
Ian had felt relief wash over him – felt submerged in it.
‘Oh of course not Liv. I would never dare.’