Yes, that’s me. Temporarily at least. Regular readers may recall me writing about my old friends Pete and Nicky, to whom I tried and failed to come out aaages ago, then successfully came out via Facebook Messenger just before Christmas 2016, and then who finally met the real me at a restaurant in Belfast earlier this year. Yes, those two. Pete was my best friend in school and through into my mid-20’s when he left Northern Ireland only to return for a few brief interludes, albeit one of those interludes was long enough to meet and marry Nicky. So I have known Pete for around 35 years, and I have known Nicky for close to 20 years. Old friends, as I say.
They now live in Essex, in the town of Witham (pronounced Wittam) and for quite a while there had been an open invitation for me to go over and stay with them for a few days. Finally, I have been able to take them up on their offer and I have to say I am so glad I did. What a lovely few days I had with them and their three children. Strap in, this is going to be a long post, mainly because I have so much else to write about that I can’t linger over this too long, tempting as it is to give it the multi-post treatment.
Although I wasn’t flying over until Thursday evening, I booked the whole day off work in order to get ready. I had planned to pack on Wednesday night, but as the agenda for the long weekend was somewhat nebulous, it was hard to work out what to bring to cover all eventualities so I spent such a long time planning what to pack that by the time I was ready to pack for real it was bedtime. I think I was slightly startled when I asked Pete where we might be going as I didn’t want to overdress or indeed underdress. His reply?
“This is Essex, love. It’s impossible to overdress.”
OK then. But I still brought jeans, jumpers and trainers too.
As it happened, Pete had been at a conference with work in Barcelona all week, and his flight to Stansted was due to arrive five minutes after my flight from Belfast. After a visit to the lovely Danielle to get my nails done (sparkly pink, it is Essex after all) and for the first time, my eyebrows shaped and waxed (ow!), I was collected by my sister Patsy around 4pm to be dropped up to Belfast International Airport, which is only a 20-minute drive from my house. As I was en route, Pete texted me from Barcelona to say that he was boarding his flight. He also texted a photo of his beer glass. He was starting early.
I arrived at the airport in plenty of time, dropped my bag at the check-in desk, where I was able to use my new driving licence as ID. Then it was off to security where I had to remove my boots due to the block heel (men and flat-shoed women got to keep their footwear on), but for all that I got through quickly and with little fuss. Although I have used this airport on many occasions, it was the first time as the real me, and it felt rather different. I was slightly nervous about being scanned or frisked, but there was no problem whatsoever. My flight wasn’t due to be called for another hour, so I made my way to one of the airport bars where I got myself a bottle of lager and found an unoccupied table where I could read a little of my book for a while.
We boarded the flight with no delays, and I am happy to report that I didn’t detect any unusual looks or glances from any of my fellow passengers. After another hour of book-reading, the flight touched down at Stansted. As soon as the cabin crew announced that we could turn off flight safe mode on our phones, I did just that to receive a text from Pete advising that he had just landed and his plane was still moving. I think he must have landed right in front of me! However he had the joys of passport control to negotiate, whereas I was on a UK domestic flight so I got through the domestic arrivals very quickly. It then turned into a bizarre role reversal, where I had come to England as Pete’s guest, and yet it was me who ended up meeting him off the plane.
When he arrived, it became immediately apparent that the beer glass that he had texted me earlier might not have been the only one. He was in fact in a fairly advanced state of “relaxation”. Despite this, we made our way to the airport Marks & Spencer, where we purchased two cans each of gin and tonic to sustain us on the 40-minute taxi ride back to his house. We had a good chat during the ride back, although I felt unable to speak completely freely due to the presence of the taxi driver.
I arrived to a welcome hug from Nicky, and greetings from the two older of their three children (the youngest and only girl being already asleep). She had prepared a very tasty chilli for our arrival, and it was very welcome as I hadn’t eaten since a cheese and ham toastie at lunchtime. More gin followed, and while Pete continued to be relaxed, Nicky and I sat on the settee and talked. And talked some more. Followed by a bit of chat. At one point, around 10.30, I was telling her the rather upsetting news of a member of the Belfast trans community (nobody I have ever mentioned on this blog, but I knew her) who very sadly passed away a few weeks ago. At this point, Pete raised his relaxed head and exclaimed “You can’t do that in the airport!” while Nicky and I looked utterly bewildered. He had become so relaxed he was asleep and so went off to bed, while Nicky and I continued talking. Honestly I have known her for nearly 20 years, I was best man (hah!) at her wedding and we talked more that evening than we had done in the rest of the time we had known each other. Suddenly it was approaching 1am and I hadn’t even carried my case up to my room, never mind unpacked it. So it was bedtime day 1 when I realised I had spent so much time thinking about what to wear each day, I didn’t think about what to wear at night and so had forgotten my pyjamas. Vest and pants to bed then!
FridayPete was working on Friday, so once the kids had been shipped off to school Nicky and I jumped into the car and made our way to Freeport, a shopping outlet centre in Braintree, for a girly shopping trip. First priority for me – buy pyjamas! I found a nice warm
fluffy pair in M&S, should keep me warm in Winter. I also got myself a nice white jumper while I was in there. We went round lots of shops, trying on a few items and comparing likes and dislikes. I came close to buying a beautiful cream sleeveless blouse for work in Phase Eight, but they didn’t have my size. I tried on a 14 and it was too tight across the chest, and I tried on an 18 and it sagged under the arms. Still, £30 saved. We went for lunch together just after 1pm in Wildwood, where I had a delicious bowl of mussels, and we continued the chat from the previous evening. We sat there nattering away until after 3pm, by which time we thought we had better return home.
We had originally intended to go to the pub on Friday evening, but by the time we had had a couple of early evening gins and devoured an Indian takeaway along with son number 1, it was gone 9.30 and we decided to just stay in. We stuck on some music and sat up drinking and talking till the early hours. In fact, while Nicky passed out around 3am, Pete and I were still talking after 4! One thing he did ask was if I fancied going to the cinema the next evening. OK, I thought. Depends on the film. Then he casually dropped into the conversation that the film had been directed by a friend of his. Wait what? Turns out said director’s son and Pete & Nicky’s no2 son are best friends at school, and this is how they know each other. Well it will be interesting if nothing else. It’s a small independent British film and only has a limited release, so we would have an hour’s drive to go to a cinema in Barking to see it. And the director would be there. So I’m going to see a film with its director? Well how often do you get to do that? Count me in.
SaturdayAfter a long lie-in on Saturday morning, we went out for a stroll around Hylands Park with the kids and the family dog Ginger, a Jack Russell / Pomeranian cross, who had taken a bit of a shine to me. It was cold. No more to add than that. So Saturday evening approached, I put on something a bit more glamorous (although still casual) and we were ready to go. Pete had mentioned going for dinner first, and as Nicky was staying at home with the kids, I had assumed that it would be just the two of us. No, Pete told me
“John and Jo are coming too”
John is the film director, John Adams. Jo is his wife. And they were driving. So not only am I going to see a film with its director, I’m having dinner with him first and he’s driving! Wow! I never get this treatment from Steven Spielberg. After a bit of searching on Trip Advisor, I discovered that their No1 ranked restaurant in Barking was a steakhouse called Cristina’s, so I reserved a table for 4. Pete let John know, and came back to say that I should cancel the booking, because they had now made their own booking for the same restaurant, but for 6 people this time. John’s parents were coming too. Pete then mentioned
“Oh yes, John’s dad wrote the film”
Hang on! I’m going out for dinner with the director and the screenwriter of a new film before they drive me to the cinema to watch it. Talk about surreal!
At this point I suppose I had better talk about the film. It is called Aux, which is short for “Auxiliary Reserve”, a real but previously highly secret part of the British Home Guard in the early part of World War II. The film is in the horror/slasher genre, but doesn’t overdo that aspect and includes a bit of intrigue and investigation too. It stars John Rhys-Davies, best known as Gimli in Lord of the Rings and Sallah in the Indiana Jones films, as a WWII veteran who knows the secret of who or what might be carrying out a series of gruesome murders in an English forest. Here’s the trailer
It was a 10pm start for the film, so we were collected around 7pm for the one hour drive to Barking. John’s parents were coming in their own car, so we had agreed to meet them at the restaurant. However things went a bit awry when we arrived to find that nobody in the restaurant had looked at their online bookings in the last couple of hours, were completely unaware that we had booked, and the restaurant was already full. However to give the staff their due, after about 10 seconds of rabbit-in-the-headlights, they did some speedy table reshuffling and managed to find 6 spaces at a table for 4, where I was introduced to John’s mother Val and his father (and screenwriter), another Pete, whom I will refer to as Peter here in order to differentiate him from “my” Pete.First things first, the food was fantastic. Everyone had steaks and my medium rare rib-eye was excellent. Cooked to perfection, well seasoned, and the cheesy onion ring side was spectactular. Everyone else seemed to feel the same way about their orders too. I learned a lot about the British film industry around that table. John is a partner in a film production company, and while he has a producer credit on a number of films, Aux is his directorial debut. The nature of funding films such as this means that in addition to a small theatrical run, the film is also launched as a digital download to rent from the usual places – Amazon, Sky Store, iTunes, XBox, PlayStation etc. A DVD release will follow in the next few months. Peter also expressed a little concern that Pete and I might think him a bit twisted for thinking up some of the things that happen in the film. I like the sound of that! We got to the cinema for 10pm, I got myself a tub of Ben & Jerry’s and the film came on. It was… well, it’s not going to rival the box office receipts of Avatar, but I enjoyed it greatly. In fact, after 5 minutes I forgot the circumstances of me watching it, and just took it at face value as a film. I genuinely learned things about the UK in WWII, and I wasn’t bored for a second. Yes, the low budget is apparent in a few scenes, but the main actors gave good performances and I would watch it again. In fact, I will be buying the DVD when it comes out. I felt disappointed for John that there were very few people in the cinema, but he didn’t seem too bothered. The theatrical release was more of a contractual obligation, and it’s downloads and DVDs where a film such as this makes its money. I really hope it does well, and I can honestly say that it one of the most memorable nights at the cinema I have ever had.
I had planned Sunday as a day to meet some other friends. The first of these is someone who until recently was another WordPress trans blogger. At least until she took it down because, well that’s her business. I’m talking about Nour, who began blogging in Cairo around the same time as I did here just outside Belfast. We had become friendly through commenting on each other’s blogs, then by email and finally she came over to visit Belfast in June last year to coincide with the 25th Anniversary celebrations of the Belfast Butterfly Club. She has been living in the South of England for the last couple of years, and I had always said that if and when I get over there we would have to meet up. And so on Sunday afternoon, that’s what we did.Pete drove me to Witham train station after a nice late cooked breakfast, and I took the train to Stratford, from where I switched to the tube to take me to Shepherd’s Bush and the huge Westfield London shopping mall. I arrived shortly ahead of the 3.30pm time I had arranged with Nour, and on entering the mall I was immediately struck by how far out of my price range everything was, as the first shops I saw were Prada, Louis Vuitton, Versace and Gucci. Thankfully there were other shops suitable for mortals, although really I didn’t end up going in to any of them. Just as I was milling around in a central concourse area I got a call from Nour to tell me that she and her girlfriend Ada were just looking for a parking space and would be along shortly. I didn’t have to wait too long. The two of them appeared soon enough and there was Nour, as beautiful as ever, and just like before we immediately got on like a house on fire. It was really nice to meet Ada too, they are a lovely couple.
We milled around for a while looking for a coffee shop to sit in, but all seemed full, so we grabbed a take away coffee and took a seat in the general seating area, and we stayed there for a couple of hours catching up on what has been going on in our lives over the last year or so. I think we both recognise that it’s quite an unusual friendship, in that we come from such different places, and it’s only the second time we have met, but I feel sure we will meet again. However as the time approached 5.45 I had to go and catch the tube to my next destination…
If you read the story of how I ended up coming out to Pete you will have read that another friend called Caroline kind of played a part in that. Caroline is the person to whom yet another friend Vin, who had known about my trans nature from quite early on, had drunkenly blabbed something along the lines of “shssdfBOBlfkkfbkkfSPENDINGTIMEkjuikfbfbjsjKIRSTYnvfbleeeurrghhhh”, which had resulted in Caroline believing that Bob was having an affair with a woman called Kirsty, which Caroline then informed Pete about. So when I told Pete my chosen name nearly a year ago, everything slotted into place. So I had had to contact Caroline to clear up any misunderstandings. Caroline and her partner Chris (whom I have also known from various social gatherings for nearly 20 years) live in London, and are longstanding friends of Pete as well as of me, so when I knew I was coming over to visit Pete, I made sure to arrange some time to meet up with Caroline and Chris too.After leaving Nour it was back on the tube again to Holborn, from where I made the short-ish walk to Covent Garden and the pub in which we had arranged to meet, the Marquess Of Anglesey. I walked in to see Chris at the bar, so I got my order in and went to greet Caroline. Pete arrived direct from Witham about a minute after me. It was great for the four of us to meet up again and do you know the best thing of all? Caroline and Chris just treated me as me, there was no probing about my transition, no slightly patronising “Oh, you look so amazing” or anything like that. I was just their old friend that they hadn’t seen for a while, and although I look fairly different I’m still the same person. After a couple of drinks in the pub, which was busy but not claustrophobically so, we took a very short walk to the restaurant of choice, the Boulevard Brasserie, for some French cuisine. For the second night in a row, a magnificent meal. Baked brie in filo pastry, confit duck leg with lentils, shallots and dauphinoise, and a spectactular apple tarte tatin to finish, along with a couple of bottles of wine between us.
But it wasn’t really about the food, it was about catching up with old friends and it was such a fun and enjoyable evening. They are all very interesting people and the conversation was stimulating and enjoyable. Then back to the Marquess Of Anglesey for a final drink before heading off our separate ways. Except Pete and I managed to sneak into a Wetherspoon’s for one more G&T before our train was due to leave. And then another nightcap G&T before bed once we got back home. A lot of G&Ts on this trip!
Time to go home. However, there was still time for a quick trip out with the girls. After the cinema trip on Saturday Jo had suggested that she, Nicky and I go for a Saturday morning coffee before I had to leave. By the time we set off, Nicky had also invited a neighbour, Carol, and so the four of us headed out to a picture-postcard quintessentially English village by the name of Little Braxted to the Braxted Bakery. Quaint wouldn’t even begin to describe it. It was a fun and enjoyable way to round off the trip. And a nice lunch and a bit of a giggle too.
My final significant experience was yet to come. Although the significance might depend upon how much you like Game of Thrones. Pete drove me to Stansted airport, and after getting checked in and going through security (again fairly painless) I made my way to the airport Starbucks franchise for a coffee. As is the way with Starbucks, they ask you your name so they can misspell it on your cup. And so I became Carsty. Or possibly Cersty. I had only just got my coffee when the flight was called, so I made my way down to the gate to await boarding. I was sitting there in the seating area (I don’t see the point in queuing for boarding when you have a reserved seat on the plane anyway) and I was observing my Starbucks cup. I was looking at my misspelled name, and the thought occurred to me that Cersty was getting perilously close to Cersei, the not-very-nice queen of Westeros in Game of Thrones. Just as I had my mind drifted on to GoT I looked up and there standing about six feet away from me in the queue for speedy boarding was Jon Snow himself, Kit Harington. Really.Well a lot of GoT is filmed in Northern Ireland, including the studio sets, and someone else I know had sat next to Hodor on a plane before, and I had seen Theon in Belfast City Centre once. But this was Jon flipping Snow! Jon. Snow. Right in front of me. I was all a-flutter. Although really, without the big fur collars and costumes that he wears in the show, he’s just a short-ish skinny beardy bloke. But still, Jon Snow!
The flight home was fairly uneventful apart from the fact that I left my favourite purple scarf on the plane. As I was waiting for Patsy to arrive to collect me, Kit Harington walked past again, and I was pleased to see that he wasn’t too big of a star to carry his own case despite having a couple of flunkeys with him. But Patsy arrived soon enough and before I knew it I was home again. And after no heating for four days my house was freezing. But you don’t need to hear about that.
What a wonderful few days I had had with great people doing fun and sometimes unexpected things.
And Jon Snow!