Jamie couldn’t believe his luck. He had limped into the alley between Tooting Public Library and the Subway sandwich shop so that he could relieve his bursting bladder when he saw the grey coat lying crumpled in the library’s side doorway.
Although it had been raining for most of the afternoon, the coat had been sheltered by the doorway and when he picked it up, Jamie found that it was only slightly damp. He could see that it was a woman’s coat, from the way it buttoned up, but he was narrow-shouldered and skeletally thin, apart from his swollen belly, and he could tell that it would easily fit him.
The temperature had dropped below 5 degrees now, and Jamie was wearing only a thin green cotton sweater and a faded denim jacket and jeans with holes in the knees. He had tried to go into the Long Room pub to warm himself up, but the barman had refused to serve him and told him to sling his hook. It had been a long time now since Jamie had been aware of how badly he smelled, and he hardly recognised himself when he saw himself reflected in shop windows, because he had never grown a full ginger beard when he was younger.
There had been a time when he had been a barman himself, at the Castle. But then Damon had moved into the flat that he had been sharing, and Damon had been a smack addict. Within only a few weeks, he had tempted Jamie into trying smack, too, and after that Jamie’s life had swiftly and progressively fallen apart. Now he could barely remember the days when he used to have a job, and money, and a car, and a pretty blonde fiancée called Carole.
He had managed to find a room for three months at the Thames Reach homeless centre but then he had scrapped with another addict over drugs and he had been forced to leave. Since then he had been sleeping in shop doorways and begging and shoplifting in branches of Maplin’s to raise the £100 he needed every day for smack. Most days he wasn’t able to raise enough, and he would spend hours sitting in the library quaking with cold and hunger and withdrawal symptoms.
But now – God must have looked down from Heaven and seen how cold he was, and sent him this thick grey coat.
He shrugged it on, and after he taken a long piss against one of the library’s dustbins, he buttoned it up, and raised the collar, too. He looked up at the narrow strip of grey sky in between the buildings and said, ‘Thank you, Lord. I always knew that You hadn’t forgotten me.’
He walked back out onto Mitcham Road. His coat would not only keep him warm, it would enable him to go into the Carphone Warehouse shop on the corner of Tooting Broadway and slip three or four new mobile phones in its pockets. God was not only protecting him from the cold, He was helping him to feed his habit.
He had only been shuffling along the pavement for two or three minutes, though, when he began to feel as if this new coat was prickling his back. It wasn’t a pleasant prickling, either – it felt as if lice were crawling all over his skin, and he had experienced that often enough since he had been sleeping in hostels and homeless shelters and out on the streets.
He was passing the Primark store so he went into the doorway and unbuttoned the coat, with the intention of taking it off and giving it a shake. Maybe the coat had been left in the alley because it was infested. If it was, he could take it into the launderette and put it in a tumble dryer for fifteen minutes or so. That would be enough to kill the lice. He had done it before after he had shared a bed with a girl he had picked up on Oxford Street. His friend Marcus had warned him that she was ‘a lousy lay’ and he hadn’t realised that he meant it literally.
As hard as he tried, though, he found that he couldn’t pull the coat off. It wasn’t too tight, but it felt as if it were stuck to his skin, and his sweater was stuck to his skin, too. He pulled at each of the cuffs to see if he could drag the sleeves off, but the coat was firmly stuck to his arms. Two women paused before they entered the store to watch him in amusement as he twisted and turned and tried to reach over his shoulders to pull the coat off his back.
‘Having trouble, love?’ one of them asked him. ‘Not practising for Strictly Come Dancing, are you?’
He gritted his teeth and shook his head. He tugged at the coat even harder, but when he did that, he felt as if he were going to rip off a whole layer of skin, and it hurt so much that he had to stop. He stood in the shop doorway panting with pain and frustration, and with every second that passed, the prickling sensation across his back and his shoulders grew worse.
A few more passers-by stared at him, but he looked so dirty and scruffy that none of them stopped to ask him what was wrong.
Jesus, this wasn’t lice. Lice were bad enough, but this was worse. Maybe the coat was infected with scabies, or infused with some kind of corrosive chemical. It was only about ten minutes’ walk to St George’s Hospital. Maybe he should go to A&E and ask for a doctor to help him to peel it off.
He sat down for a while with his back against the shop window, hoping that if he relaxed and calmed down the prickling sensation would fade. Very gradually, it did. At the same time, though, he began to feel light-headed, as if he might faint. He looked around at the street – at the shoppers walking past, and the cars, and the buses – and for a few seconds they all looked like a photographic negative. The clouds in the sky and people’s faces all appeared to be black, while the road and the pavement and all the shop windows had turned a foggy white.
He felt different inside himself, too, as if his whole body had been emptied out through his feet, and he had been filled up with somebody else altogether.
Why are you so surprised? You’re not Jamie. Why did you always believe that you were? You kept on thinking that you were Jamie and look what happened to you. Now you’re back to being yourself and everything’s going to be better. Not only better, but wonderful.
He managed to lever himself onto his feet. Leaning against Primark’s window he stared at his reflection and he was baffled but also fascinated by what he saw. He thought he looked more like a woman than a man, even though he still had his ginger beard. In fact, somehow, he knew that he was a woman. His irises were normally pale green, but now they were dark and glittering, and his eyes were much wider. His eyebrows were finely plucked and uptilted. His sweater felt tighter, and when he lifted up both hands and felt his chest, he discovered that he had breasts. He squeezed them, again and again. I have breasts. I have breasts? What am I? Who am I?
He still felt swimmy and off-balance. In spite of that, he didn’t feel frightened. It seemed as if this metamorphosis had been a long time coming, and it was only confusing him because it had happened so unexpectedly, right in the middle of Tooting on a busy Thursday evening, with so much traffic going past and so many people staring at him.
He started to walk slowly towards the junction with Tooting Broadway, limping slightly with one foot and dragging the other. Across the road he could see the Carphone Warehouse on the corner.
I need to go in there and half-inch some phones.
Ah – that’s what Jamie would have done. But you don’t need to do that. You’re a woman. You don’t need to steal any more. You have other ways of making money.
What other ways? How can I be a woman? I’m Jamie. I’m a man.
You were a man, Jamie. But not now.
I don’t care what I am. If you say I’m a woman, I’m a woman. All I need now is a fix. I have to get myself a fix or else I’m going to have a fucking heart attack and die right here in the street.
I told you. You have other ways of making money. Look around you.
Jamie turned around, tilting so much that he nearly lost his balance and fell over. About a hundred metres along the Mitcham Road he saw a bespectacled black-bearded Sikh man in a blue turban standing by the bus stop. The man was wearing a short beige raincoat and carrying a briefcase.
There you are. A prospective client. I’ll bet he doesn’t get enough of it at home.
What do I say to him? I can’t take him anywhere because I don’t have anywhere to take him.
Just ask him if he’d like to come round the back of Primark with you and you’ll make him happy.
I don’t know. I’m scared. What if he just tells me to get knotted?
He won’t. But if he does, all you have to say to him is OK, it’s your loss. You’ll regret it when you get home and see your big fat ugly wife all wrapped up in her sari.
Jamie’s brain was in a turmoil. He couldn’t believe that he was arguing with himself, and yet the woman inside him was so strong and demanding and his own physical need had reached screaming pitch. He saw dazzling flashes of white light in front of his eyes, and the pavement felt as if it were heaving beneath his feet like the deck of an ocean liner.
He walked up to the Sikh and stood in front of him, swaying. At first the Sikh tried to ignore him, but Jamie was standing so close to him, and grinning at him with such a lewd expression on his face, that at last he said, ‘Go away.’
‘Don’t you fancy some fun?’ Jamie asked him.
‘What are you talking about, fun? Go away.’
‘I thought you might like a quickie.’
‘What? Go away, please.’
‘We could go round the back of the shops. Only a tenner.’
‘Please go and leave me alone. I don’t give money to beggars in the street.’
‘I’m not begging. I’m offering you a service. Only a tenner for the best BJ you’ve ever had. And quick, too. I’ll make sure you don’t miss your bus.’
‘For the last time, please go away,’ the Sikh told him. ‘If this is supposed to be some kind of a joke, it is not at all funny. You smell very bad and I am not interested in anything you have to offer.’
Jamie leaned closer to him, and took hold of the lapels of his raincoat. ‘Don’t you think I’m beautiful? You ought to see me naked. If you saw me naked, you’d be interested.’
The Sikh put down his briefcase and twisted Jamie’s wrists. ‘Get your dirty hands off me and leave me alone!’ he shouted at him.
Jamie let go of his lapels but slapped him hard on the shoulder. ‘You ungrateful bastard!’ he screamed, and his voice was as high as a woman’s. ‘You wait till you get home and see your big fat hideous wife! Then you’ll wish you’d come behind the shops!’
By now, a small crowd had gathered around them, although nobody stepped forward to intervene. The traffic next to the bus stop had been at a standstill, but suddenly it started to move, and a police car came past them. The Sikh stepped off the pavement and rapped on its window.
‘Please – I need some assistance here,’ he said. ‘This fellow is bothering me and making indecent propositions.’
The woman PC in the passenger seat peered across at Jamie, who was swaying and leering and clutching the front of his coat with both hands, as if he had breasts.
‘All right, sir,’ said the WPC. The police car drew in to the side of the road and she climbed out, followed by a burly male officer.
The woman PC went up to Jamie and said, ‘This gentleman says that you’re being a nuisance.’
Jamie pouted at her coquettishly. Her head seemed to grow enormous and then shrink to the size of a tennis-ball. ‘A nuisance? I was offering him a service, that’s all!’
‘What kind of a service?’
Jamie pointed over his shoulder to the shops behind him. ‘A quick BJ, behind Primark. Only a tenner. He didn’t have to get so angry about it. The thing is, the thing is – oh Christ, I need a fix. I really need a fix.’
The male officer looked down at Jamie. He seemed to tower over him, blotting out the sky, and when he spoke his voice boomed and echoed, as if Jamie were down at the bottom of a well.
Maybe that’s where I am – down the bottom of a well, like that girl in The Ring.
‘You offered him a blowjob?’ said the male officer.
‘What’s so funny?’ Jamie challenged him, but then he staggered sideways and it was only because the male officer caught his elbow and held him up straight that he didn’t fall onto the pavement and hit his head.
‘I think you’d best be coming along with us,’ said the WPC. ‘Can you tell me what your name is?’
Jamie frowned at her. ‘My name?’
He thought long and hard but the inside of his head was churning over like wet concrete in a concrete-mixer and the strobe lights kept shimmering in front of his eyes and the WPC kept growing larger and smaller. He began to think that she was repeatedly running away from him and then running back again.
‘No,’ he mumbled. ‘I can’t remember my name. I’m not even sure who I am. It’s the coat.’
The WPC said, ‘I’m arresting you on a charge of importuning for an act of gross indecency in a public place.’ She cautioned him; and then between them, she and the male officer opened up the door of the police car and heaved Jamie onto the back seat.
‘Blimey,’ said the male officer, waving his hand in front of his face. ‘He don’t half pen-and-ink.’