The school corridors drifted gently sideways, blurring as they did. Peter leaned against the wall to steady himself and shifted the weight from his crutches. His hands and arms ached. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. The doctor had been right, it was too early after the coma to return to school. But Peter had insisted.
“Are you all right?” someone asked.
He opened his eyes cautiously, hoping the world had righted itself, and saw a schoolboy standing in front of him, a worried look on his face.
“You dropped this,” the boy said holding up a tattered copy of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey.
Peter propped one of the crutches against the wall and stretched out his hand for the book. The coma had left him clumsy and their fingers touched momentarily as the boy handed over Wilde’s novel. Peter couldn’t help flinching, causing the boy to take a step backwards, his pale blue eyes fixing Peter with a questioning look. Like many others, the boy seemed to expect something from him, but Peter had no idea what.
“I’m Andrew. You must be Peter,” the boy said, his voice soft and musical. “I heard you’d been ill.”
Peter studied the slender youth more closely. Andrew’s tentative smile echoed the caution in his eyes. His lips were full and sensuous contrasting with a willful chin. He wore his carefully combed short brown hair parted on the right. Yet no amount of combing could conceal his natural waves. Peter’s hair in comparison was much longer and never looked so tidy. Andrew seemed younger, his head barely reaching Peter’s shoulders.
Mmmm, he’s delicious, a girl’s voice purred deep in Peter’s head. It was Kate, the independent-minded young girl’s spirit that lodged permanently in Peter’s mind. He’d offered her his body as a refuge when she had brutally lost her own.
Cut it out, Kate. Are you trying to embarrass me? he asked, his silent words laced with affection.
It’s not because you don’t like boys that I have to pretend I’m not interested, she scoffed.
It’s confusing enough having a girl in my head all the time, Peter told her, without you muddling my emotions with your liking for a boy.
She burst out laughing, sending an unbearable wave of shivers down his spine.
That’s unfair, he told her, trying to shield himself from her emotions.
He’s talking to you, Kate warned.
“… do you like Wilde’s book?” Andrew asked.
“Haven’t begun it yet,” Peter muttered, not wishing to get drawn into a conversation. “It’s been difficult with the illness and everything…”
Kate was right. He didn’t like boys. They made him uneasy, what with their bragging, their rough ways and their dirty habits. He preferred girls. Luckily his step-sister Fi came waltzing down the corridor at that moment, saving him from answering further questions.
Short and slim, but strong, with high cheek bones, sparkling blue eyes and shoulder-length hair auburn, Fi always reminded him of a pixie. She had ditched her school blazer and tie, donning an airman’s dark brown leather jacket she’d recently uncovered at a jumble sale. She had such a way with clothes that she could even make a pleated, bottle-green school skirt look fashionable with the right accessories. On her head was her green beret, aslant as always, matching the green silk scarf tied loosely around her neck.
Even Kate had to admit she looked good, although she did comment: I hope the headmaster doesn’t see her dressed like that at school.
Peter chuckled mentally. The headmaster was also Fi’s step father and Peter’s guardian.
Fi flung one arm around Peter’s shoulders, almost knocking him off his feet, and kissed him noisily on the cheek. Then she turned to greet Andrew.
“Hi Andy. You chatting up Peter?”
Andrew blushed bright red.
That was Fi for you; not an ounce of diplomacy in her. Every young man who took an interest in Peter, not that there were many of them, was his potential lover in her eyes. She would have been delighted if Peter, her ‘pretty boy’ as she called him, finally found himself a boyfriend. She herself preferred girls.
“Oie Andy!” a burly youth bellowed from the end of an otherwise deserted corridor. “Quit keeping us waiting.”
“Blasted brother,” Andrew muttered under his breath, his smile replaced by a worried look.
Thick-set and muscular, the youth swaggered down the corridor. A typical rugby player, Peter thought, head down, ready to charge into the scrum. He’d also removed his tie, but unlike Fi, it made the youth look scruffy. Planting himself squarely in front of Andrew, his back turned on Fi and Peter, he shoved Andrew back against the wall.
“Are you deaf?” he shouted.
Peter sensed Kate readying for a fight. She was a genius at unarmed combat, the author of those spectacular moves people thought were his. How could they possibly know he mentally stepped aside to let her use his body?
I don’t think my body will hold up to a fight, he warned her.
Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” Peter warned Andrew’s brother, his voice trembling slightly as he spoke.
“Who says?” the youth asked, spinning round to face Peter.
Andrew laid a hand on his brother’s arm and tried to pull him back, only to be shoved away. “Come on, Brian,” Andrew pleaded, “Let’s go. Mum will be worried.”
“You wait till Mum hears you’ve been hanging out with these pansies. She’ll be furious.” Brian spat on the ground, as if to underscore his words.
“Please, Brian,” Andrew beseeched, tears forming in his eyes.
Brian face twisted in rage and swore, “Poof!”
His fists clenched, he lunged at Andrew. Kate sprang into action. Taking over Peter’s body, she slammed one of the crutches between Brian’s ankles and twisted sharply. Catching him off balance, the move sent him sprawling across the floor, his arms and legs splayed in every direction, until he slithered to a halt inches short of a row of filling cabinets.
“Leave him,” Andrew whimpered, tears streaming down his cheeks. “You’ll only make things worse.”
Brian struggled to his feet and stood swaying for a moment. He glared at Peter, leaning unsteadily in Peter’s direction then abruptly charged, growling like an infuriated boar.
These people never learn, Kate thought.
Using the crutches as a lever, she hopped sideways at the last moment, causing Brian to collide head-first with the brick wall. A resounding thud rang out, followed by a muffled grunt and Brian sank in slow motion to a heap on the ground.
“Stop!” Fi ordered. “Stop, both of you!”
Brian knelt on one knee nursing the side of his head as Peter took back control of his body and edged along the wall out of reach.
“Enough,” Fi continued. “Andrew, take your brother to the infirmary. The nurse is still there. Get him patched up and go home, both of you.”
Brian looked game to fight on. When Andrew tried to help him to his feet, the youth shook him off. Putting his hand to his head, it came away soaked in blood. “I’ll get you back for this, poof,” he said glaring at Peter and staggered off down the corridor ignoring Andrew who scurried after him.
Why did Fi have to stop me? Kate complained to Peter. He was alarmed at how shaken she sounded.
“Kate says you’re a monster for spoiling her fun,” Peter told Fi, trying to make light of what was happening.
No I didn’t! Kate protested.
“I bet she didn’t,” Fi said.
“I wish we could still talk mind-to-mind. All this would be so much easier.”
“I agree. If Brian bears a grudge, which seems highly likely, not being able to call each other mind-to-mind could be a disaster,” Fi pointed out soberly.
Peter sighed, remembering how the three of them had been able to outwit enemies far more dangerous than Brian before Kate’s ordeal.
Oh no! Kate gasped.
Like thunder clap, a blast of vivid memories exploded in Peter’s mind.
A man dressed in black leather, his face masked, towered over Kate, an axe grasped in his hand. All around, a sinister crowd of priests robbed in black, pressed ever closer, their enflamed eyes boring into her. And over it all, a powerful voice rang out, “Kill her”. Kate’s head was slammed onto the chopping block and the deadly axe whooshed down towards her neck…
Horrific memories of his own clamoured for attention, leaving Peter desperately struggling to keep a tight grip on his own emotions.
It’s all lost, Kate wailed in Peter’s head sparking a searing pain between his ears.
She had always been so level headed and dependable. Even confronted with her own execution, she had remained stoic. Now the brunt of her accumulated misery crashed over him. His back slithered down the wall till he landed on the cold floor, his head gripped between his hands.
“What’s the matter?” Fi asked, her face pinched in alarm.
“It’s Kate,” he gasped. “The mention of talking mind-to-mind had her bursting into sobs.” Better not mention the horror that had gone with it.
Fi knelt next to Peter and took him in her arms, pulling him tight against her. “It’s going to be alright, Kate,” she whispered in Peter’s ear. “We’ll find a way. We’ll sort this out, I promise.”
Fi’s arms around him calmed Peter, even if they did little to assuage Kate’s despair. Nothing would get her body back. A life without a body; he found it hard to imagine. It was a wonder anyone could survive without one.
They stayed a long moment silently in each other’s arms on the floor of the deserted school until Kate’s sobs finally abated.
I’m sorry, she told Peter. This is so hard. I try my best … But the fight reminded me of all that violence…
What will become of me? Kate asked, her words trailing off in silent thoughtfulness. Thank heavens they retained the ability to keep their thoughts to themselves.
“I have a suggestion,” Fi said, helping Peter to his feet. She removed her beret and placed it on his head. “Why don’t you loan Kate your body for the weekend? What do you think Kate?”
“She’d like that,” Peter said, relaying Kate’s thoughts. The suggestion made sense, but he cringed at the idea of what it would entail.
“As long as you don’t go running the streets with me dressed as a girl.” It was meant as a joke, but he shuddered at the thought of bumping into someone like Andrew in town.
“Wasn’t that always your secret dream, my pretty boy?” Fi asked, her pixie face sparkling with delight and malice as she slanted the beret on his head and began undoing his school tie. It was easy to forget the drama that had just rolled over them.
Come on, Peter, I’d really like that. Not that I don’t enjoy being in your head, but I feel a bit claustrophobic in here. Peter couldn’t help noticing her brave attempt at humour. Just for me, Kate entreated.
“OK,” Peter conceded.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Dr Grant, the headmaster said as he hurried along the corridor towards them. He was no longer wearing the dark university gown that many teachers wore draped over their everyday clothes, but he still cut an impressive figure with his impeccable, grey suit, his sober floral tie, not to mention his greying hair and his stately handlebar moustache. Seeing the beret on Peter’s head his smile fled and he said: “I trust you won’t make a habit of dressing like that, I might have to give you a detention for breech of school rules.”
Peter hastily pulled off the hat and handed it back to Fi who took it with an exaggerated bow. Dr Grant gave them both a stony look.
Is he angry? Kate asked, sounding perplexed.
I’m not sure, he told Kate. He knows full well I like to wear girl’s clothes, even if he’s never seen me do it.
Of course, he thought to himself, Dr Grant would be furious if he ever went to school dressed up. More than that, Dr Grant would probably feel betrayed. Not that Peter would ever go to school dressed as a girl. He’d surely get locked up if he did and the thought of being mocked by his fellow pupils had him shrinking back in horror.
After all the emotions, Peter felt very tired in the car on the way home and would willingly have slept, but he forced himself to tell Dr Grant about the fight. Unlike many adults who had a bad habit of butting in with their opinions before you’d finished explaining, the headmaster listened in silence, interrupting only when clarification was necessary. Peter went on to describe Kate’s reaction. Dr Grant knew all about the girl in Peter’s head. He’d made her acquaintance when Kate had first visited Peter mind-to-mind.
The headmaster listened, his face grim as he watched the road ahead. “I suspected Andrew was having problems, but he is a good pupil and always puts on a brave face. It would seem you have unwittingly unearthed the real gravity of his situation.”
“Is there nothing we can do?” Peter asked, his own solicitude surprising him.
“You might need to do something for us too,” Fi pointed out. “If Andrew’s brother decides to get revenge.”
I’m so sorry, Kate moaned. I started all this.
“No you didn’t,” Peter replied out loud. “It’s Kate. She thinks it is her fault.”
“Andrew’s brother started it,” Fi pointed out.
“And what about you, Kate?” Dr Grant asked as he turned into the winding drive that led up to their home, a large mansion on the outskirts of town.
“She’s really sorry,” Peter relayed.
“I wish there were something we could do to make you feel better,” Dr Grant said.
“Peter’s agreed to let Kate borrow his body during the weekend. I’m sure that will help,” Fi said, brimming over with enthusiasm. “So you’ll be gaining a daughter.”
“I look forward to meeting you face to face Kate,” he said, sounding a bit uncertain as he brought the car to a halt in front of the house.
Peter blushed. It didn’t make any difference that John Grant knew about and tolerated him dressing up as a girl, Peter was still embarrassed at the prospect of parading in girl’s clothes before his adopted parents, especially as John had never seen him dressed as a girl.
Dr Grant switched off the engine but made no move to get out of the car, instead he turned to Peter, his face grave. “I know you are a cautious boy, but you need to be extremely careful. No one should know what happens here. We might be in 1960, but few people are as tolerant as us. Many would not understand if they knew we let you dress as a girl. They would probably be furious. Some might even call the police. And we can hardly use Kate as an excuse. She’s as much a secret as your dressing up.”