by Yvonne Sinclair
Being a transvestite has, for me, never been a "problem"; nor, may I add, a "condition". After many years of wearing `the silk', so to speak, dressing is more of a way of life than an act of one's social calling.
So, during the winter evenings at the Group a few years back, at times when we, "the Few", would be having the wine to ourselves, and warming our tootsies before the fire; I would relate a few of life's peculiars' which have happened to me - and, believe me, I’ve had a few!
One story that I told near one Christmas time is appropriate again now; this time of year having come around once again. Here then is the story of a ghost of Christmas past in the year . . . oh, what the hell does it matter what year it was! Here then is the story of: A Merry Ferry Christmas
During my varied career of trying to set a world's record of jobs, at one stage I worked on the River Thames, on the old Woolwich ferries. Steam, and paddles, then, fore and aft. Engines that shone; one could imagine that many a ship's engineer first stood in short pants watching the pistons sweep up and down, driving the shafts that sent the paddles either full ahead, or astern, each with the engineer kicking in the levers at the sound of the bells of the ship's repeater dial.
Some, I know, stood every day watching; yearning to rise to the heights of glory, to step over the transom and sit with the donkeyman, grasping a knot of cotton waste in one hand; hopefully watching the engineer, who just might let him open the steamgate valve with the giant bronze wheel, which whooshed steam into the blocks that rocked, gently at first, then began the first uplift of four tons of steel which arced, reached its zenith, and brought its twin piston to play follow-my-leader until the ferry reached the other side.
The smell of hot oil and steam became the perfume that entered their blood for life.
Me? Well, it was fine to watch, but I liked the outdoor life; directing the traffic, chatting to all who sailed the half mile from north to south, or vice-versa; and at night, many a young man's hopes were dashed as he reached under a skirt, only to find that the bump as we came alongside spoiled the romantic overtures he intended; a squeal as fingers were jarred in tender places that deserved gentler handling!
The ferries then used to work on Christmas day until three-thirty and then tie up; with a shipkeeper to watch the mooring ropes on the turn of the tide and to light the oil riding lights.
Silent ships are eerie ships; and cold. The river can gurgle under the flat bottom, and we would often say that "The River's talking to you". The engines cooling down made very odd sounds, clicking and moaning as though they were dying.
You could spend all night looking for the ship's stowaway that you heard walking on the deck; yet never did you find the one that passed over your head. No matter who you were, you called "Good evening" and left it at that. In fact, if you were on the buoys, alone up there, you welcomed the company.
Each ferry had its own `Ship's Friend', and, whatever you may believe, you see many strange sights at sea which at the time you accept. In some cases, they change your life, or if you heeded the warning, saved it. Men who have sailed the seas in deep water will know what I mean, I can only write of these things, not explain them. It is different for each man, yet the same; I leave it at that.
Shipkeeping is a lonely day and night. None of the crew ever wanted to work the Christmas break; too far from shore be a part of the singing and caroling, but close enough to hear it. Many a call of "Merry Christmas" would sound over the water as though they were standing just a few yards away, you'd yell back the same, never receiving an answer; but at least it broke your own silence.
By 6 pm the traffic rush dwindled, and the twinkling lights ashore were all that could be seen. A calm, oily river flowed by and a hush settled, unlike any other day - 'Christmas Day in the evening'.
That was my lot, upstream on a cold boat, a tilley lamp for light and a coke boiler for warmth, Christmas dinner - bacon and eggs, tea till it came out of your ears, a book, a wireless that you switched off because everybody was having a damn good time except you, a bottle of Scotch (which was the crew's right to buy the watch man), and that went the way a drink should not-in the tea, tea which you drank in gulps before going up on deck to see the same thing you saw only twenty minutes before, but hoped that something would be happening to pass the time quicker. Well, for me, there was something I could do, and you can guess what-get dressed. After all, time seems to fly when you have a chance at a stolen hour or two. We all know that strange illness which can affect the most healthy person, at death's door when 'phoning in `sick', yet a few seconds later discovering the need to bath, shave and splash perfume around the body as though some plague had broken out, and then swishing around with a sudden spring in the step as though floating on air.
Well, for me there was no bath, but then, be fair, shipkeepers don't normally have the urge to paint their nails either nor, as in those days, put their hair in rollers and wear a mob cap with dainty lace ruffles and a large pink bow at the front. A satin housecoat over the sweetest Baby Doll nightie in creamy nylon with frilly panties to match, trimmed with layers of white lace on the hems and yoke and two large cute satin bows on the shoulders; satin bedroom slippers with two inch heels and a fluffy porn-porn on each toe. It is also not really normal to find a shipkeeper laying out a Christmas present of white silk (which he bought from him to him) - a matching bra, panties, and petticoat, a white satin waspie with frilly suspenders, sheer nylons with seams and pointed heels, a crisp red cotton blouse with angel wing collar and tie to make a pretty bow, pearls and matching earrings, and a slim pencil skirt which hugged the hips and buttocks, with a four inch vent which allowed one to walk but reminded one that the steps had better be dainty or a ripping sound would embarrass you by the large area of display underwear - not very lady-like! The skirt, in red worsted, was warm and went perfectly with the blouse. Finally, black winkle-picker shoes with stiletto heels. No, I doubt if many shipkeepers on any of the world's rivers could have been so busy pressing with a hot iron, taken from the top of the fire and spat on, running it over the skirt to take out the creases from the case. A girl likes to look her best, wherever she may be, and it's not often one can dress at work and get paid for it! So, whatever the rest of the country might be doing after eating far too much, this one was busy airing her underwear with every intention of making the best of Christmas Day - and that meant being properly dressed.
I had also brought along my new white shantung dress which needed full net petticoats to show it to the best effect, and there, hanging up with the dress, was the very thing; two, in fact, each with a satin lining, edged with lace to prevent catching one's nylons, with their own satin overskirt. It seemed a little hard to believe that a few hours ago the mess-room had been filled with six men toasting each other with a noggin or two. It was now more like a girl's bedroom, with pretty-pretties everywhere and the table covered with the lipsticks, powders and paints that girls need to look their best: the articles of war. Every girl dresses for herself first, but with a mind to view. One never knows, and one's underwear could mean all the difference.
So the John Benn, Woolwich free ferry, held its breath a little that night as the ghosts of sailors gone watched in silence when the time came to check the moorings, on the two hour period required. Where had the shipkeeper gone? They could but wonder. The slightly built young woman fussed at the mirror as she mascaraed her lashes from the block damped with spittle, added to thicken the dark long lashes, with black painted eyelids. Then a little colour to the checks and pencilled eyebrows into high arched lines, highlighted with a pale blue that grew darker on the lids. Lipstick on the lips adding a red fullness that looked like velvet, with a glossy sheen, slightly pouting. A study to take it all in, as she looked in the mirror; head tilted slightly to one side, then the other, then a little extra dab of gloss on the lower lip, a fleeting smile, and she was satisfied.
The silent ghosts stood watching as she stood up and checked her wrist watch, which seemed too small to contain works. Picking up the tilley lamp she moved to the companionway stairs, then with a quick flurry of girlish steps she reached the top and stepped over the transom and onto the cold silent deck. If ghosts could gasp, they would have.
This slip of a girl was tripping daintily along to the bows and looking through fairlead at the two mooring ropes that stretched down into the inky blackness to the barrel buoy, whose large iron ring clanked as the swell twisted it this way and that. The running spring rope was a little too tight; half a turn out required a quick removal of the rope from the bollards, ease the strain, a quick twisting of the hawser, and it was done. The ghosts would rub their eyes, if they had them.
This girl knew her way around the ship as any ferryman might. Where did she learn the skill, they may have wondered. Now, she was off down aft, her head held high and the light breeze fluttering her housecoat open, showing her bare legs to the thigh, with just the quick glimpse of the dainty lace of her nightgown. No, it was too small and fluttery to be a nightgown, hardly worth the bother of wearing. The ghosts glided behind and noted that she shivered slightly. They nodded to each other in the ghostly way that ghosts have - it was no job for a young lass to be walking the dark decks, where was this shipkeeper feller-me-lad? It was his job to be checking the moorings. Things indeed seemed strange tonight.
What's this, they gasped - that is if they can gasp-the housecoat was undone as she danced around the sponsons with a swirl and a skip. Now the wispiness of her night attire was fully revealed. Where was she to sleep, they might have wondered. No bunks on this boat, only the table top or the wooden benches. It was a mystery indeed how she even came on board. The motor-boat had brought the lad up, then departed with the other shipmates after they'd put the boat to rights. She had nowhere to hide, nor was there a small boat alongside. The lad had been there on deck to wish the crew well; he stood by the rail watching them head downstream as the river turned to gold with the setting sun.
Where then, they might have wondered, had he gone, to be replaced by this young woman, who seemed to glow with pleasure listening to the click of her heels; with a swinging walk that would have made their cold blood race a little through their veins, and remember the girls in other ports who walked as she, in their youth - that is, if they could remember, or have blood in their ghostly bodies; if they have bodies.
She checked the moorings and seemed satisfied, and began the walk back until she reached the stair up to the car deck. She paused, then skipped up the step and crossed the starlit deck. Normally packed car to car, bumper to bumper, lorry drivers standing and stretching their stiff legs, puffing on smokes that covered the smell of petrol and diesel and the stink of the river churned up from the paddles' wash; looking over the side at the dunnage that choked the river then.
No one swam in the Thames without reason. There were those who had reason to taste its bitter water; perhaps because life, for them, was more bitter. One only dived in if they called out; a hard view perhaps, but many a good man lies mouldering in his grave, while the fool who stood by still walks the street bemoaning his lot.
Now the deck was empty, but for the girl who stood looking up at the stars shining above like fairy lights, the full moon highlighting the frosty decking to a crystal sheen. She raised her arms high and wide, standing like a statue, the flickering tilley lamp at her feet casting a pool of light that spread a short distance and sparkled the frost into diamonds.
The watching ghosts held their breath, if they had any to hold, who knows? Would she dance for them? She looked as if she might. She stood on her toes, beginning to dip to one side, then stopped the movement and shook her head; no. She picked up the lamp and, smiling faintly, moved to the stairway to the lower deck. `No, it's not the time', she seemed to say, without speaking.
She turned and slipped off the housecoat, letting it lay where it fell. The nightdress and panties followed, as she stepped forward to pick up the wisps of silk which slithered through her fingers, and she lightly held them. The ghosts, if they were watching, saw her slowly turn and face the fire. If ghosts gasped, then ghosts would have blinked as well, for the sight their eyes beheld was a sight they could never have foreseen. It answered the questions they had asked each other, if they had asked questions: the girl was no girl, she was the watchman. No doubt about where he was or might have been. He was she and she was he. The body of a man, yet the face of a woman.
She began to dress, each item from waspie to bra, adding to the transformation, disguising the body until, with the putting on of the panties and adjusting each suspender to the stockings, one no longer saw the male. Stepping into the slip and the fluid movements no longer jarred on the eye which questioned man? Woman? Yet there was proof of man. She sat now before the mirror, removed the lacey cap and deftly unpinned her hair, which fell in soft waves and bounced as she swept the brush through the crowning glory of woman.
The ghosts could but watch as she buttoned up the blouse and stepped into her skirt and fastened the belt which nipped in the waist. Then the high heels to complete the picture. Not a man; a woman. Perhaps? The dress said so. A wistful smile, as she slipped on a shorty coat and pulled on the grey gloves that matched her bag.
No tilley lamp this time, as she slowly climbed the stairs and stepped out into the moonlight, to walk the empty decks. Decks that were normally crowded with workers crossing the murky Thames. At each step, the pleasure flowed, with the movement of the skirt across her legs as she walked the silent decks. She went to climb the stairs to the upper deck, but stopped and whispered to herself "Later, later".
Twenty minutes passed as she sat in the sponson watching the lights dance on the water. Downstream, she saw the other ferry, dark and forbidding. She wondered what her shipkeeper was doing to pass the time. Reading, she guessed. The cold air made her shiver and standing up; she moved to the forepeak and looked down at the other ferry. A light bobbed as she saw the shipkeeper moving towards the stem, doing his rounds. She stood watching as he moved about, then lowering his light; he stared back at her ferry.
A faint call reached her, he was calling to her. The moonlight had picked out the faint gleam of her face, as she could see his. Again he called. "That you, Mike?"
She smiled to herself and answered silently, `No, it's not Mike at all'. She wondered if she should move. She felt compelled to answer as he strained his eyes to see across the two hundred yards of water. "Mike" he called again, "Is everything OX?"
The unwritten law was to show that all was well. She raised her hand slowly and lowered it again. `Make of that what you will, my friend ', she thought and turned and walked back to the warmth of the mess room. As she opened the door, the light of the tilley brightened her outline, so that even from distance he stood, he could see it was a woman.
She sat reading for a few hours, aware of the feel of the clothes she wore, at times losing her concentration, as the thought of how she was dressed, and where, came back to her. She checked the time. Time to change and check the boat.
A few moments later the skirt was discarded and she reached for the flouncy petticoats. Perhaps two was one too many, but how wonderful. She zipped the dress up and then lifted the skirt out over her petticoats. The purse and the fur stole. White shoes with lower heels, white lace gloves. As she went up the stairs, her skirts billowed out and she gathered them to her front to get through the narrow door. Then, with a swirl and a spin, she lifted them to swish into neatness.
As she took her first steps the skirts flirted into a flurry of movement that delighted her. This was the joy of being dressed. This made one glow. A dress to dance in, to whirl across the floor filled with grace and softness.
She went to the upper deck and felt the wind blow her hair across her face. The moon was right above her head, the stars lit the heavens, there was magic in the air.
"Watch me, you old ghosts", she cried, "Watch me now, you fools that laugh", and she swayed; and the ghosts, if they were there, were her partners as she swept onto the deck. She span, she danced, she ran over the frost with her dress billowing as she span faster and faster. The purse flew from her hands and skidded across the deck leaving a trail of frost that danced in the air, sparkling like a blaze of white fire.
Then she danced with her mind released in the memories of what she had known; until she had no breath left. She sank into a final curtsey near the middle of the deck, her head bursting and her body heaving. The want of air, her legs aching as the pain that ended a dream some years ago reminded her why. The icy cold from the deck seeped into her thighs as she sat there knowing that this was Yvonne's last dance. The ghosts knew. They had been the only witnesses.
I cried that night under the stars. What I cried for I will not say, that I leave you to ponder on, you that know yourself.
I have never danced since, beyond a shuffle at a Drag Ball and on a certain lawn but not danced with my heart in my head. There is an ending that you will enjoy. When morning came, my relief found only the cold decks to greet him, and the rain in the night that had turned to snow covered the dance of the fool. The fire was stoked and my locker held my Ferry Christmas case inside. I left him the book and a bottle of brandy. I left for home and slept until dinner time, when I had my Christmas dinner one day late.
Returning to work the following day I walked the same decks, now crowded with young 'erberts who had all the cheek in the world; until I gave them that rather famous look I have become known for. It happens that in a reefer coat, twill cords, and a roll neck jumper, with a peaked cap on the back of my head, it can be rather frightening - the look, that is.
But, the watchman had reported that he had seen a woman on the John Benn on Christmas night, and so had a Pier Master. He said that he had seen a woman dancing in a white frock. I was told to report to the office, where I was asked if I had seen or heard anything.
I shook my head and reckoned that they were both drunk, or had seen a ghost. It was left at that. After all, how could I have had a woman on board?
There was one more report. The river police reported that while ferrying some `Johnny Dutchmen' back to their ship, one of them said he "Seed a voman dancing in der air on der verry boot" and insisted that he did not drink.