“I said I could house two girls at the most and you've only got one!” Mrs Postlethwaite retorted. “I don't like boys, I don't trust boys, and I have no intention of housing one... especially a scratty little street urchin like that!” she says as a well manicured nail points directly at Billy.
An unwelcome lump grows in the poor boy's throat as he feels unloved and unwanted by anyone but his mother, but the billeting officer doesn't give up. He pleads with the lady's 'charitable' nature and reminds her she's a church goer, reiterates that it will all be over by Christmas and looks down on the scruffy boy with his tangled hair and tatty clothes. “Look at him... yes he's tatty but all he needs is a good bath and some clean clothes...”
“I'm expected to clothe him too!” Mrs Postlethwaite blurts. “Have you any idea how expensive decent clothes are these days?”
The billeting officer considers taking the boy himself, but with four children of his own and two evacuees already, he simply doesn't have the space. He reminds himself that his role is to allocate 'all' of the children and with one host left and one unallocated child, he continues to press the seemingly immovable Mrs Postlethwaite. He reminds her about the weekly allowance she'll receive for taking one evacuee and points out that taking two will double the allowance, “...and if you're clothing them too, there's an additional allowance to cover any expenses.” he informs her. “Look at him... a poor little lamb... there's not a hint malice in his eyes... and I'm sure he'll try his very best to not get under your feet.”
The lady begins to soften a little and addresses the boy directly. “How old are you!”
“Ma'am.” he peeps.
“And you'll pull your weight? I don't want you expecting to be waited on hand and foot... you'll have chores, you'll be expected to be quiet, to only speak when spoken to, to not make a mess, to not touch anything, to be polite and courteous, to do as you're told when you're told.”
“Yes Miss... Ma'am.” the boy promised.
She sighs and raises her hand. “Give me your tag!” she grumbles as she gives in and agrees to take the boy. Poor Billy removed the tag from the collar of his overcoat and hands it to Mrs Postlethwaite. She writes her name on the blank dotted line marked 'host' and hands it to the billeting officer. “I hope I won't regret this.” she says, grimacing at the boy. All the while young Alice has been stood nervously at Mrs Postlethwaite's side. Alice sympathises with the boy as she too was one of the last to be chosen and just like Billy, feels equally unwanted. Alice feels her host's eyes on her and looks up at the staunch lady. Mrs Postlethwaite forces a smile and tells Alice to give the boy her case. “We may as well put him to good use sooner rather than later.”
“Yes Ma'am.” Alice nervously says as she hands her case to Billy. She'd rather carry it herself and feels it completely unfair that the boy is expected to carry her case too, but she's not going to argue with Mrs Postlethwaite.
“Oh you can call me Miss.” Mrs Postlethwaite says in a sickly sugary tone. Her false smile becomes slightly sinister as she turns and sneers at the boy. “Come!” she says, taking Alice by the hand and expecting the boy to follow. Her large house is about a mile out of the small town and poor Billy is exhausted as they crest the hill on which it's perched. “Hurry up boy!” Mrs Postlethwaite barks. “Don't dawdle! And don't drag them... carry them!”
His little arms struggle to keep the two big cases off the ground but he tries his best. When they finally enter the house, he puts the cases down and his unburdened arms almost float upwards. Mrs Postlethwaite stands the children in the hallway and barks, “Right... let's have a look at you both!” The children stand silent and still as the woman looks them up and down. She shakes her head and frowns, “A red head and an urchin wasn't exactly what I envisaged.” she moaned before asking the children what they'd brought with them. Billy listed two pairs of socks, two pairs of underpants two vest, a pair of trousers, a jumper, and his gas mask. Alice listed far more items of clothing which explains why her case was so much heavier than Billy's. “No corset?” Mrs Postlethwaite asks, sounding somewhat astonished.
“No Miss.” Alice replied. Mrs Postlethwaite asks her age and Alice replies, “Nine and a half.... Miss.”
“At you're age you should be wearing one... I'll get you fitted tomorrow.” Mrs Postlethwaite states. She looks down on Billy and says, “You boy... take Alice's case to her room.”
“Yes Miss...Ma'am.” Billy meekly replied. She directs him upstairs to the first room on the left and berates him for being clumsy as he bundles the bulky case up the narrow steps.
The small room has a single bed, a small chest of drawers and a wardrobe. On the wall hangs a picture of a rural scene which echoes the view from the small window. He puts the case down and returns to the hallway where Alice stands silent as Mrs Postlethwaite talks 'at' her. She looks at Billy as he ascends the stairs and points to the floor next to Alice. Obediently, Billy takes his place and asks where he should take his case, but the stern lady silences him. “Speak only when spoken to boy.” she barks. “Before either of you go anywhere you need to be scrubbed... heaven knows what lice live in your hair or what detritus you've brought from the city.” she says before leading them into the back room. She sends Billy to fetch the tin bath from the scullery, then to fill the coal scuttle. She forces the children to stand whilst she lays the fire and lights it, before having the boy fetch a large pan of water which she places on the range. When the pan is sufficiently heated she pours its contents into the bath tub and sends the boy to refill it. Pan by pan the tub slowly fills and when almost full, she instructs Alice to remove her clothes. Alice is initially shy since a boy is present, but Mrs Postlethwaite tells her not to be stupid or shy. Alice undresses and steps in the bath where their brutal host scrubs her from head to toe. “I've a good mind to chop this off!” she barks as she washes the girl's thick red locks. Then she tells the boy to fetch his case from the hallway and when he returns, she instructs him to undress. Alice is removed from the tub and given a towel and Billy gets in. He's never been scrubbed so hard in his whole life and fears the hard bristled brush might actually remove his skin. The brutal host puts a large bar of green soap in his hand and tells him to wash his hair. As he does so, Mrs Postlethwaite opens his case and roots through the few tatty items of clothing he's brought. “I assumed you'd worn your old clothes for the journey but it appears they were your best.” she sneers as she pokes her finger through the hole in his spare jumper and frowns at the patches that hide the wear and tear on the back of his shorts. “These won't do... they won't do at all!” she says as the boy rinses the soap from his eyes.
“Hey what are you doing!” the boy yells as she tosses his socks and underpants on the fire.
“Something your mother should have done a long time ago.” Mrs Postlethwaite said as she pulled the buttons off his shorts and tossed both pairs on the fire. He watched in horror as the smoke and flames enveloped them. Mrs Postlethwaite plunged the vests into the tub and rinsed them. “These will do for cleaning cloths.” she said as she rung them out and hung them to dry before grabbing his tatty old jumper and saying that it's only good for the wool. She takes hold of a loose strand and pulls it. She winds the ever growing strand of wool into a ball around her hand and Billy just watches, open mouthed as the hole in his jumper gets bigger and bigger.
“But that's my only jumper!” he says as it gradually disappears before his eyes. Alice remains silent as she stands wrapped in a towel by the fire. She's clearly just as petrified of their domineering host as Billy is but Alice knows that Mrs Postlethwaite doesn't despise her in the same way as she does the boy. Alice felt sorry for Billy as he watches in baffled bemusement from the tepid bath tub. “What am I going to wear now!” he whines as Mrs Postlethwaite rips the the buttons from his off-white shirt and telling him that it's far too tatty.
“One of Alice's dresses will do for the time being.” she suggests.
“But...!” the boy gasps.
“But nothing boy!” Mrs Postlethwaite barks as she grabs his head and starts rooting through his hair. “You clothes were filthy and lice ridden so you'll have to make do until we get you some decent clothes of your own.” she says. “Your hair isn't much better either!” she says as she begins pulling a fine toothed comb through it.
Billy is eventually pulled from the bath, given a towel but isn't granted the luxury of drying off by the fire. Instead, he and Alice are carted up stairs where Alice is sent to her room and Billy is taken to his. Billy's room is small and dank. A wrought iron bed sits in the corner and that's pretty much all there is in there. He is told to wait whilst Mrs Postlethwaite tends to the girl. A lump emerges in his throat as he thinks about his mother and the tears she shed when he left. His lower lip swells and his chin begins the wither whilst a tear develops in his eye. He peers out of the tiny dirty window and looks at the hill and track he'd carried the cases up. Then he turns as he hears Mrs Postlethwaite return. She appears with a pale yellow dress hung over her arm and a set of girl's undergarments in her hand. “Please don't make me wear those.” he mumbles as she lays the items on his bed.
“When I offered to take you in you promised you'd be obedient.” she reminded him. “Anything less and you'll be sleeping outside.” she stated. “Do you understand?”
Billy hung his head and said “Yes.” adding “Ma'am” when prompted. Reluctantly, he donned the clothes provided before being sheepishly herded down stairs. Alice was already there, her damp hair hung lankly around her pale freckled face. Billy is prompted to thank Alice for the clothes he's wearing and reluctantly he does. Alice says he's welcome and tries to reassure him by telling him that he looks nice, but her heart goes out to him as Mrs Postlethwaite takes a pair of scissors to his shirts and vests, cutting them into square clothes to be used for cleaning and dusting and thus leaving him with virtually no possessions of his own.
They sit in absolute silence, too scared to speak as their host potters about, although they do have the occasional quick quiet chat when Mrs Postlethwaite is in another room. Billy says he can't believe she's destroyed all of his clothes and has made him wear one of Alice's dresses. “At least you'll get some new clothes tomorrow. I can't believe she's going to make me wear a corset!” Alice replies. “My mother says they're very uncomfort...” Alice stops speaking as she hears their host's heels on the hardwood floor of the hallway.
“They're only uncomfortable at first girl.” Mrs Postlethwaite says, clearly having overheard what Alice was saying. “You'll soon get used to it.” she states before telling the boy to stand. Billy nervously rises from his seat and says nothing as she ties a length of broad yellow ribbon in his hair. “That's better... the less like a boy you look the more tolerable you'll be.” she said. Billy can't help but stuck his lip out as he feels the big floppy bow on his head. He sits, gulps and looks at Alice. She smiles reassuringly at Billy, pitying him more and more with every passing moment.
The next day, Billy wears the same yellow dress and the same yellow ribbon in his hair. Both are humiliating to wear but nothing prepared him for the sense of shame he feels when they're taken down to the small town and all the folk look and stare with bemused expressions on their faces. Mrs Postlethwaite seems to be well known and well respected by the towns-folk and shamelessly tells all & sundry that the clothes that Billy had brought with him were simply too filthy and lice ridden and had to be disposed of. “Like the rest of us he'll have to make do with what he's given.” she tells them. Billy's hopes are raised when a kindly woman offers to deliver a bundle of boy's hand-me-downs for poor Billy to wear, but Mrs Postlethwaite respectfully declines the offer. “There's needier boys in the world than this one.” she states before assuring the woman that he won't go without.
“Well... if you change your mind you know where I am.” the woman says as she looks down on the boy and smiles. Billy looks up at her with pleaful eyes, silently begging her bring him some boy's clothes to wear. “He does actually look very pretty... for a boy.” the woman adds before bidding them farewell and going on her way.
Mrs Postlethwaite takes them to a corsetière where Alice is to be fitted with her first corset. The window is filled with mannequins clad in a variety of brutal undergarments; mostly modern girdles, panties and brassieres, but there's the occasional corset too. It's dark inside the shop and every inch is filled with either display stands or storage, housing numerous styles of knickers and brassieres, stockings, suspenders, girdles and corsets. A smart looking lady is fitting a brassiere to a small bust mannequin and Mrs Postlethwaite tells her that Alice needs a corset fitting. “Isn't she a bit young?” the lady says.
“Absolutely not.” Mrs Postlethwaite insists before claiming that she began her corset training on her eighth birthday. Alice is taken to a back room and told to undress and young Billy can only listen as his fellow evacuee is laced into her first corset. Judging by her high pitched yelps and pained groans, it doesn't sound like Alice is having a very nice time and now it's Billy's turn to feel pity for her. When Alice emerges from the back room, Billy instantly sees that her waist is noticeably narrower than before. A strained expression is fixated on her face, her rosy red cheeks appear damp from the tears she'd shed. He casts Alice a reassuring smile, just like the ones she'd previously cast him. “Right...” Mrs Postlethwaite announces. Billy stands and prepares himself for the strange looks he'll receive when they exit the shop. She beckons him with her index and middle finger. “You next.” she says.
“B... but...” Billy stammers when he realises that he too is to go in to the back room.
“You may be a boy child... but if you're to stay under my roof then you have to do as you're told.” she sternly states. “Now come... before I drag you.”
Reluctantly Billy steps into the back room where he's stripped down to his knickers, given a silk chemise and is slowly and securely laced into a corset of his own. Tears silently stream down his cheeks as the air is squeezed out of him. He fears he might feint, then wishes he'll do just that as he hopes he'll soon wake up and discover this experience to be nothing more than a really bad dream. As they leave the corsetière, both Billy and Alice have a look of utter misery on their faces and just as Billy thinks he can't feel any worse than he already does, he's taken into a boutique where Mrs Postlethwaite has him measured and fitted with some clothes of his own; a pretty pink 'day' dress, a plain green 'play' dress and a pure white Sunday dress. In addition, he is bought two pairs of shoes (one black, one cream, both heeled), several pairs of stockings and socks, several sets of knickers and vests and a white knitted cardigan with little heart shaped pockets which served no practical purpose. “But these are all girl's clothes.” he whines.
“Of course they are... the less you look like a boy the better in my book.” Mrs Postlethwaite told him before asking to see the boutique's selection of children's nightdresses. “I suppose I'd better buy the girl one too.” she grimaced. “Can't have you feeling left out can we?”
Alice politely thanked her guardian for the gift of a new nightie, which prompted Mrs Postlethwaite to look to the boy for his appreciation. But Billy can't bring himself to thank her for putting him in girl's clothes. With a mournful gaze, he simply asks why she she's doing this to him. “Because I can't abide boys and whilst I'm your guardian, you won't be one... do you understand?”
“But I am a boy!” Billy insisted. “You can't do this to me.”
“Oh but I can young man, and I have.” she said as she looked him up and down. “Now you can either carry on as you are, sulking like a little girl, or follow Alice's example and act like a pleasant, well behaved young lady... what's it going to be?”
Billy didn't reply but he did screw up his nose in defiance. Both he and Alice are shepherded back onto the busy main street where they follow Mrs Postlethwaite as she visits the butchers and bakers, greengrocers, haberdashers and hardware shops. For Billy it's an awful experience being paraded around the town wearing Alice's dress and a bright yellow ribbon in his hair... dressed as a girl but still clearly a boy, he's certainly turning some heads. On the upside, this is happening a long way from his home town of Denton, but on the downside, he's one of about thirty kids from his corner of the northern powerhouse that is Manchester and plenty of them attend the same school as Billy. At least three times today he's overheard the words 'billy', 'dress' and 'girl' as some of the other evacuees clap their eyes on him. On more than a few occasions an adult has questioned Mrs Postlethwaite about the manner in which she's dressed young Billy, and each time she claims that boy's cannot be trusted, are too boisterous and are generally a nuisance. “I never asked for a boy but since I've been given one it's a case of my house, my rules.” is her stubborn retort to those who don't accept her misandrous reasoning.
Mrs Postlethwaite calls in on Mr Brown, the billeting officer on their way out of town and gives him the receipts for the clothes she's purchased. “What in heaven's name have you don't to him!?” Mr Brown blurts when he recognises Billy as one of the two 'girls' waiting by the garden gate.
“I told you I'd willingly take two girls and since you only had one, I had to compromise.” Mrs Postlethwaite sternly stated.
“Is that what you call a compromise!” Mr Brown asked her. “He's a little boy for heaven's sake!”
“Like I said, I'm willing to take two girls.” she retorted. “Now these are the receipts for his clothes... I'd like a chitty please.” she tells the billeting officer who'd allocated young Billy into her guardianship. With no laws or written guidelines broken, there's nothing Mr Brown can do but accept the receipts and arrange for Mrs Postlethwaite's expenses to be reimbursed.
Back at the house Billy is put into his new green dress which he wears with a pair of white stockings and his new black shoes. He gives Alice her dress back and she tells him that his new dress is very pretty. “I wished she'd bought me boy's clothes instead.” Billy moaned. “Does your corset hurt as much as mine?” he asked.
Alice nodded and said she couldn't wait for bedtime when she'll finally be free of its vice like grip, even if it's only for a few hours. However come bedtime, it quickly became clear that neither Alice nor Billy would be granted some night-time respite from their constricting corsets. Neither of them gave it a second thought when Mrs Postlethwaite purchased two separate yards of heavy gauge curb chain and two small padlocks from the hardware shop. As Alice undressed and expected to be de-laced from her corset, she quickly realised what the padlock and chain was for. “When I was your age I hated having to sleep in my corset...” Mrs Postlethwaite told the girl. “...so I snook a pair of scissors from my mother's sewing box and cut the laces. My mother whipped me the first time. The second time I was whipped again and went a whole day without food. It didn't happen a third time because I wore a chain, and although that didn't stop me from trying to remove it, it did stop me from succeeding.” she explained. “If you're wise Alice, which I think you are... you'll leave your corset well alone and avoid the additional pain that I endured.” Alice donned her new nightie and politely told Mrs Postlethwaite how pretty it felt before climbing into bed. Their domineering guardian did the same to Billy but spared him the sob story, but she did tell him that if he complained just once, she'd take his corset in another inch. Billy didn't complain as the chain was locked in place around his already narrow waist, nor did he enthuse over his new frilly nightie before climbing into his bed. He sobbed all night long in his creaking metal bed and didn't enjoy a single wink of sleep.
On Sunday he wore his white 'Sunday' dress with white stockings and cream coloured shoes. Alice wore a similar outfit and all three of them walked down to the town and attended church. All the other evacuees were there and every last one of them pointed and giggled and whispered when they saw poor Billy in his Sunday best, complete with a straw bonnet bearing a broad white ribbon. The vicar welcomed the newcomers to the parish and assured them that they'd all have a pleasant stay with their respective host families. “I trust that each and every one of you will offer your guardians the gratitude, courtesy and obedience that they expect.” he said. Billy listened and stared at his rayon clad knees that peeped out from his pure white dress. All the time he could feel the corset biting into him and all he could think of was home. Even with the risk of the Luftwaffe’s bombs raining down on him, he'd rather be there with his mother than here with Mrs Postlethwaite.
As the service draws to a close, the evacuees are beckoned to the alter where the priest gives each of them a Gideon's Bible and a blessing. After the service Mrs Postlethwaite chatted with various members of the congregation, most of whom seemed bemused by what she'd done to the boy yet none of them berated her for it. Some however said that he looked very sweet, “Much nicer than that scruffy urchin in the church hall on Friday.” one said. “If I thought he'd make such a pretty girl I'd have taken him myself.” she added.
Some of the boys and girls from Billy's school sauntered over and asked him why he's wearing a dress. “Mrs Postlethwaite doesn't like boys.” he mournfully informed them. “...and no one else would take me.”
“Are you a girl now?” one of the girls he knew asked him.
“Of course he's not a girl!” one of her acquaintances stated. “He's just a boy in a dress.”
“I know that!” the first girl insisted. “I mean, are you going to dress like a girl all the time?” she asked, adding “Will you be a boy or a girl at school tomorrow?”
“Er... I don't know.” Billy replied. At that moment, Mrs Postlethwaite and another younger lady stepped over to where Billy, Alice and the handful of other evacuees stood chatting and told them to say hello to Miss Wainwright.
“Hello children.” Miss Wainwright smiled, looking at each of their faces. She introduced herself as one of the teachers from the school they'll be attending before looking at Billy, smiling and saying, “And you must be Billy, the young 'lady' Mrs Postlethwaite has been telling me about?”
“I'm not a lady.” Billy grimaced.
“Well you look like one to me.” Miss Wainwright replied. “...and a very pretty one too.” she added in that friendly/patronising tone that teachers often employ. Billy screwed up his nose at her, trying his best to look anything but 'pretty'. She crouched down to his level and told him that he's far too pretty to attend school with the boys, causing the boys and girls to snigger and giggle. Miss Wainwright raised a disapproving eyebrow at them before continuing, “So make sure you go through the girl's entrance tomorrow.” she advised before asking Alice to make sure he does.
“Yes Miss.” Alice replied as the other girls giggled and said 'he is a girl'.
As they walked back up the hill to Mrs Postlethwaite's remote house, lingering a few yards behind their strict and domineering guardian, Alice tried to reassure Billy by saying “Don't worry, I'll look after you... and it's not so bad being a girl.”
“It's horrible.” Billy whimpered. “Everybody laughs at me and I can hardly breathe in this corset.”
Alice agreed that having to wear a corset is horrible, especially at night. “She put a chain around mine to stop me from taking it off.” Alice told him. Billy said she'd done the same to him. “I thought as much.” Alice replied. “But apart from wearing a corset, it's not so bad being a girl.” she assured.
“Even without the corset I think I'd hate it.” Billy replied before claiming that he looks silly in his dress and his bonnet feels stupid and that his shoes hurt his feet.
Alice suggested that he only feels that way because he's not used to looking pretty, “...and new shoes always hurt at first.” she added. Billy confessed to never having worn new shoes before as almost everything he has (or had), has been handed down.
They return to the house and Mrs Postlethwaite puts them in the parlour and instructs them to spend 'the lords day' reading their Bibles in silence. Billy looks at the words but doesn't really read them, instead he thinks of his loving mother back home and how she'd put a stop to his inhumane treatment if she only knew. Being children, they frequently break into chatter only to find them being silenced by their strict guardian within minutes. The only break from Bible study is whilst they eat the Sunday roast Mrs Postlethwaite has prepared and later in the evening when they're being scrubbed in the old tin bath tub in front of the fire. The bristles of the brush are hard and Mrs Postlethwaite isn't shy about using it, but being scrubbed clean also means a brief moment of relief from their constricting corsets. Billy is second in the tub and as he washes his hair, Alice is being put back in her corset and she's not happy about it... in fact she puts up a proper fight which sends Mrs Postlethwaite into a rage. She pins the naked girl over her knee and lashes her bare back with a leather strap until it bleeds. Then, as Alice sobs uncontrollably, she laces her back into the corset, pulls it an inch tighter and fastens the chain around her waist. Billy can't help but cry as he witnesses such cruelty being rained down on poor Alice, and he can't imagine the pain she must be feeling wearing a tightly laced corset over her wounds. When it's his turn, he doesn't fight or moan as the corset is fastened around him and slowly drawn tighter and tighter. Inch by inch it squeezes the air out of him as he sobs as silently as possible, and it's only when the length of chain is finally locked in place around his narrow corseted waist can he even try to relax.
On Monday morning, Billy & Alice walk down the lane towards the town and Billy tells Alice that he's been thinking about running away. Alice confesses to thinking the same thing after being lashed last night, “But we'd only be found and brought straight back here.” she presumed. “She's our legal guardian until we're allowed to return to Manchester and there's nothing we can do about it.”
“But she whipped you with a leather strap... your back was bleeding!” Billy stated. “She can't do that... she's not your parent or a teacher!” he added (those being the people who usually dished out such punishments).
“She's our guardian and she can.” Alice replied. “It's not against the law to punish a child.”
“Well it should be.” Billy retorted. Alice agreed. “Is it against the law to dress a boy as a girl?” Billy asked. Alice said she didn't think so. “Well it should be.” Billy said. He looked down toward the track they tread and the shoes that trod it; black leather Mary Jane’s with a chunky two inch heel. His legs are clad in a pair of white knee socks, the very colour that no boy should ever have to wear. He does wear his own overcoat as that (along with his pair of old hand-me-down shoes) is the only item of clothing that Mrs Postlethwaite hadn't burnt or cut into cleaning cloths... but protruding from beneath his overcoat is the pink day dress. He can feel the broad pink ribbon tied in a big bow flipping and flopping on the top of his head, and the moment he's out of sight of Mrs Postlethwaite's house, he removes it and scrunches it tightly in his fist before preparing to throw it into the hedgerow.
“Please don't Billy... she'll only get angry.” Alice advises. On second thoughts, Billy puts the ribbon in his pocket but Alice tells him to stand still whilst she puts it back where it should be. He moans, and quite rightly so since no boy should have to wear a ribbon in his hair, certainly not a pink one. “I know Billy but, all girl's wear a ribbon.” Alice reminds him, “Even if they're not really a girl.”
As they approach the school gates, both evacuee and local children point and laugh at poor Billy. A hoard of butterflies erupt in his stomach as he looks up at the chiselled words above the entrance; Girls. The echoes of laughing boys fade as he passes through the vestibule where he and all the others remove their overcoats. The walls of the vestibule are home to two staggered rows of coat hooks and from every one hangs a white pinafore apron. The girls don an apron and hang their coat in its place. Alice helps Billy into his pinny as he gets in a right kerfuffle trying to fasten the single button between his shoulder blades and is unable tie the two tapes in a bow at the small of his back. Although the white pinafore apron covers much of his pink dress, Billy feels a trillion times more girlie for wearing it.
Billy gulps and tries to be brave as he follows Alice into the main corridor. First they attend morning assembly where the boys fill one side of the hall and the girls (along with Billy) fill the other. The head teacher welcomes the evacuees in pretty much the same manner as the vicar had at yesterday's church service, and after a prayer and a hymn, the boys and girls go their respective ways to attend class.
Miss Wainwright takes the morning register and shushes the girls when they giggle after Billy's full name, William Thorpe is read out, then she asks Billy to come to the front of the class, compliments his pretty dress and informs the class that they must be nice to him before telling them why. “Billy's guardian, Mrs Postlethwaite, doesn't like boys so Billy has to try to be a girl instead... we all know he's not a proper girl, but I trust you'll all set a good example of how a young lady should conduct herself, and I hope you'll all find it in your hearts to help Billy to learn to act as a young lady should.”
At his old school, Billy and all the other boys used to be intrigued by what it might be like in the girl's half of the school. It was a place they all wanted to see but never wanted to enter. Well now he knows and apart from it being full of girls, it's much the same as the boy's half of the school. They sit through reading, writing and arithmetic; watching and listening to the teacher at the front who addresses the class collectively as 'girls' as in 'pay attention girls' and 'now girls, who can tell me..?' and 'good girl' even when poor Billy sheepishly answered a question. Just like his old school, the morning's lessons are divided by play-time, but unlike his old school where Billy felt largely ignored, here he's the centre of attention. “Do you like being a girl?” they ask. “Are you really a boy?” they query. “Do you always wear dresses?” they quiz.
It's all quite worrying and Billy feels flustered by all the questions and attention. Mrs Wainwright walks over suggests that the girl's don't crowd him and sends most of them to play elsewhere in the yard, leaving Billy with a small handful of girls to deal with. “Why don't you show Billy how to play hop-scotch... that'll be fun won't it.” the teacher suggests.
“Oh god!” Billy thinks as he watches what the girls do, skipping and hopping in their dresses and pinnies, dreading the moment when it's his turn. A couple of the girls giggled at how inept he was whilst the others encouraged him. “It's not easy in heels.” Billy claimed, although he couldn't be sure if he'd be much better at hop scotch if he'd worn boy's shoes. After dinner, a girl called Molly and another called Eunice, along with Alice played clapping games. I think they had more fun than Billy as they tried to teach him the rhymes and the moves. “No wonder boys don't play this...” he said as he struggled to get into the rhythm and routine of it. “...it's really hard.”
“Pat-a-cake pat-a-cake is the easiest one!” Eunice tells him. “You boys are so feeble.” she stated, causing Billy to fold his arms, stick out his lip and have a little sulk.
“Oh don't be mean to him.” Alice said. “He's only been a girl since Friday and he's never played this before today.”
“I'm not a giiiirl.” Billy whined.
“I know Billy... but you've got to learn to be one... you heard what Miss Wainwright said.” Alice reminded him. Billy exhaled long and slow through his nostrils. He gulped before raising his hands. Alice smiled and started slowly from the beginning, “Pat... a... cake... Pat... a cake... bakers... man... bake... me a cake... as fast... as you can... pat it and... shape it and... mark it with B...”
When the school day came to an end, Billy and Alice hung up their white pinafore aprons and donned their overcoats before walking the mile or so out of the town and up the hill. “I don't think any of the other girls have to wear a corset.” Billy said.
“Hardly anyone does any more.” Alice told him. “My mother used to and my grandmother still does and I never expected I'd ever have to wear one.”
“So why do we have to wear them?” Billy asked.
“Because she's mean and likes inflicting pain on us.” Alice quickly replied. “Or maybe because she's always worn one and just thinks all girls still should... although you shouldn't have to wear one because you're not even a girl.” she added.
“It wouldn't be any better if I was.” Billy replied. “I think I've just got to try to be one until our boys take down the Nazis.”
“If they take them down.” Alice replied.
“I don't even want to think about that.” Billy said. “Is your dad in the war?” he asked. Alice nodded and returned the question. “Yes. He's in the RAF.” Billy replied. Alice said she wasn't sure what her father was doing, but she knew he was in the army and is somewhere abroad.
“Have you girls had a nice day at school?” were Mrs Postlethwaite's words when they return to their temporary home.
“Yes.” they replied in unison. Mrs Postlethwaite poured them a glass of milk each, which was gratefully received. Then she told them to change into their play clothes. “Er.. what?” Billy said.
“Your play clothes Billy.” Mrs Postlethwaite restated. “... and please, address me as Ma'am when you speak to me. Your play dress is the green dress I bought you, for wearing when you're not at school.” she reminded him. “Alice will button you into it, won't you Alice?”
“Yes Miss.” Alice obediently replied.
“Now run along... and don't leave your day dress crumpled on the floor Billy!” Mrs Postlethwaite said.
“Yes.. er.. no.. Ma'am.” Billy said as Alice bundled him out of the kitchen and up the stairs. “How come you can call her Miss and I have to call her Ma'am?” he moaned as they reached the landing.
“I don't know Billy.” Alice replied. “Best to just do what she says.” she advised. “I'd hate to see you get a lashing too.” she said.
Billy recalled the previous night's scene and the pain she'd endured. “Does it still hurt?” he asked.
Alice nodded. “Like hell.” she said as she placed her hands on her corseted hips. “But I think my corset's actually helping.” she added. Alice led Billy to his room and helped him change into his green 'play' dress. “There... how does that feel?” she asked as she fastened the final button at the nape of his neck.
“Horrible.” he replied. “But better than my pink one.” he said before turning and thanking her.
“Your welcome.” Alice replied. She cast him the sweetest smile and he blushed. “I hate being here but I'm happy here with you.” she said. “Please don't run away and leave me.” she asked.
“I hate it too but... I'd hate it more if it was just me.” Billy replied as a tear welled up in his eye. They hugged one another until their guardian bellowed up the stairs. “Won't be long Mrs Postlethwaite.” Alice replied before sending Billy down and going to change out of her dress.
Billy spent a tumultuous few minutes trying to answer his guardian's questions about what he'd learnt at school. At first he tried to recall the maths, the spelling and the reading before telling her about learning to play hop scotch and the clapping game fiasco. “So you're getting along with the other girls?” she asked.
“Yes... Ma'am.” he meekly replied.
“And they're teaching you how to be a nice young lady?” she asked.
“Er.. yes... Ma'am.” he reluctantly admitted.
“Good.” she said. “Who wants to be scruffy little brat of a boy when you can be pretty little girl?” she asked. Billy didn't reply. Even if he wanted to he didn't know what to say that wouldn't anger her. Alice emerged wearing a plain brown frock with long sleeves and a lace trimmed yolk. Both Billy and Mrs Postlethwaite looked her up and down and Billy couldn't help but judge her dress against his own. He admitted to no one but himself that he preferred his own. “I take it you've done cross stitch Alice?” Mrs Postlethwaite asked.
“Yes Miss.” Alice replied. Their host presented them with a book full of cross-stitch patterns, a couple of frames, canvases and a basket full of wool and suggested they occupy themselves doing some craft. For Billy it was awkward and slow going to begin with, but after an hour or two he found his nimble finger and actually began enjoying the process. Heeding Alice's advice, he'd chosen a design that he felt his mother might like. A design he could present as a gift to give her on his return home. He excused himself for willingly undertaking this girlie activity night after night as he poured his heart and soul into creating something for his mother and his mother alone. He longed to be with her again and spent many a moment remembering her smile and her scent, her loving arms as she wrapped them around him and the smell of her hearty home cooking each and every evening.
As the days and weeks passed by, Billy got used to pussyfooting around the domineering Mrs Postlethwaite, aiming to please and never complaining. When she wanted water, he fetched the water. When coal was needed he fetched the coal. He scrubbed the floors and cleaned the fires, washed potatoes, carrots and turnips and whatever else his guardian needed doing. But he wasn't alone as Alice was put to work too and they soon got used to the routine. He also got used to wearing dresses and a big floppy ribbon in his hair day after day after day... but he never got used to being laced back into his corset after his thrice weekly bath each Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. Once on it felt like a familiar yet ill fitting pair of shoes, something that one didn't so much endure but certainly couldn't enjoy... that is until Mrs Postlethwaite stepped up his corset training and took it in another inch, then it was back to square one; sleepless nights, shortened breath and a constant crushing feeling from his hips to his nips.
Billy, Alice and everybody else in the country hoped the war would be over by Christmas but Christmas came and went and the stalemate in Europe continued. Billy sent his mother the cross stitch design he'd made as a Christmas gift, along with a lengthy letter telling her all about his stay with Mrs Postlethwaite. However the letter was written under the watchful eye of his guardian so details were scarce. He wrote about the little town and the big house, the school and of course his fellow evacuee and new best friend Alice. He wrote about his teacher Miss Wainwright, his weekly attendance at church and having to spend all day on a Sunday reading the bible. He mentioned nothing of his Sunday dress, his pretty pink day dress or his plain green play dress, nor did he mention how he's becoming accustomed to wearing a corset both day and night, or the fact that he attends the girl's side of the school and has learned to play hop scotch, skipping and clapping games. His mother sent him a pair of woolly gloves and a Christmas card which also contained a lengthy letter; bombs had fallen but she is safe. She's doing her bit for the war effort by working in the Middleton munitions factory and Dad's still posted down on the south coast, he sends his love. His mother also writes in blissful ignorance about how she's sure he's safe and well and happy in his rural idyll, before signing off and sending a million kisses.
As winter turns to spring, the trees begin to blossom and the bustle of young life chirps and rattles in the hedgerows. After a long cold winter wearing three, sometimes four petticoats beneath their dresses as well as thick itchy woollen stockings, both Billy and Alice are glad to lose a few layers as the weather dictates. Charitable bundles of clothing are donated to the evacuees and both Billy and Alice have a small selection if new dresses to wear. Having spent some six months wearing the same three frocks in steady rotation, Billy feels somewhat overwhelmed now that he has a choice of play and day dresses. It's also nice to wear something other than his pink 'day' dress for school.
As well as attending school as a girl, Billy spends his days fetching and carrying buckets of water, scuttles of coal and baskets of logs whenever needed. He scrubs the kitchen, scullery and hallway floors on a weekly basis as well as helping Alice with the laundry. But it's not all work and no play as they both have plenty of time to read or work on their cross-stitch. They skip, play clapping games or cat's cradle and sometimes play with the dolls which Mrs Postlethwaite kindly gifted them at Christmas. Alice named hers Vivien after the actress Vivien Leigh and Billy names his Deanna after the famous singer and starlet. He feels a bit silly when Alice wants to play dolls but as Alice says, “It's just like a toy soldier really, only it's a girl not a boy... and it doesn't have a gun.”
Billy gets what she's saying and agrees that she's right, but at the end of the day, a doll is nothing like a toy soldier! For one, he's never made a new dress out of old rags for any of his toy soldiers, nor has he fashioned any of them a pretty apron from a tatty old lace doily. Between them, Billy and Alice create a variety of outfits for Vivien and Deanna and spend more time than he'd like dressing them... but if Alice wants to play dolls then Billy will play dolls with her. It's not as if he has a box full of toy soldiers and a toy fort to play with instead. It's a bitter/sweet reality and Billy knows he's only pretending to be a girl, but he can't deny that he enjoys it more than he'd like to admit. One day his reality will be over and he'll go home and everything will go back to normal; no more dolls, no more dresses, no more pretending to act all girlie or learning to be a lady, and no more corset!
Alice celebrated her 10th birthday in early April and Mrs Postlethwaite hosted a party in her honour. She even bought Alice a new dress which Alice described as 'the prettiest she'd ever seen'. With a house full of school friends and various parents, Mrs Postlethwaite was definitely in 'nice' mode for the day, but things quickly went back to normal one the guests had left. The children were put to work clearing up after the party, cleaning the kitchen and reception rooms and scrubbing the floors, before being brutally scrubbed themselves in the small tin bath.
The boys in the village have more or less stopped taunting and teasing him and seemingly all of Mrs Postlethwaite's acquaintances no longer cast poor Billy looks of bemusement and curiosity... so far as the towns-folk are concerned, it seems that young Billy is a girl, but only an honorary one. At school, both the boys and girls get together twice a week to practice country dancing, but none of the boys want to dance with Billy because boys don't dance with boys, even though Billy now looks every bit like the other girls. His shoulder length hair is often curled and bouncy and even his mannerisms; the way he runs, skips and expresses joy, surprise or excitement are evidently more girlish than boyish. Everyone refers to him as a girl but they never say 'she' or 'her'. Young Billy is used to hearing people say things like 'he's such a pretty girl', 'he's a delightful young lady' or 'doesn't he look lovely with his hair in ringlets & ribbons?' ...that being the hairstyle his guardian prefers, probably because the overnight wet-set guarantees him a bad night's sleep. But even Billy is getting used to having his hair set after his thrice weekly bath and being sent to bed with damp hair tightly wrapped in prickly metal rollers, each held in place with a hairpin and covered with a hairnet.
|Vintage 1930s Metal Hair Rollers|
Of all the girls in his class at school, Billy outwardly appears to be one of the girliest and his teacher Miss Wainwright always goes out of her way to say how pretty his dress looks and how nice his ringlet and ribbon clad hair looks. The other girls wear one or maybe two ribbons whilst Billy wears four, five or sometimes six in his hair. Alice is shamefully and secretly envious of Billy as Mrs Postlethwaite never puts her hair in ringlets. She has asked but was told that her hair is too thick, too wiry and too red. “It'll never look nice so there's no point in trying... all it's good for is cutting.” Mrs Postlethwaite tells her. “The only reason I haven't chopped it off is because it'd blunt my scissors!” she callously adds. But Alice's envy is only one side of the coin. She knows how Billy hates having to sleep with his hair bound in the prickly metal rollers and having it pulled and tugged into a myriad of clips and ribbons before going to school, the shops or church. The process might be a pain but the result is very pretty... albeit a little too pretty as far as Billy is concerned. It has crossed his mind on more than a few occasions to take a pair of scissors to it and chop it all off, but he fears the consequences would be far more painful than the annoying yet bearable rollers.
Much to the disappointment of the local girls it is announced that this year's May Queen will be selected from the evacuee girls rather than from the girls who sing in the church choir (as is the norm). And much to Billy's disappointment, he's one of the twelve names on the list. The May Queen is chosen a week before May Day and Billy's relief is two fold... it's not going to be him but it is going to be Alice, the one girl who really deserves a moment in the limelight. However Billy is chosen as one of the May Queen's four subjects which means he's going to be a prominent part of the procession and crowning ceremony. He'd rather try to hide himself away in the background but at least he doesn't have to dance around the May Pole. He and the other 'subjects' sit at Alice's feet wearing pure white dresses and flowers in their hair and are tasked with arranging the many bouquets the May Queen was presented with as she sits on her throne. All in all May Day wasn't a bad day for Billy and for Alice it was like a dream come true. There was even a big photograph of the May Queen and her subjects in the weekly newspaper and Mrs Postlethwaite purchased a framed print of it. Although more or less completely accustomed to dressing like a girl and seeing his girlie reflection, seeing an actual photograph of himself dressed as a girl is beyond strange. No matter how hard he looks at it, he can barely see the boy he knows he is.
When the flora really bursts into bloom, Billy and Alice spend some of their free time walking the lanes and the woods picking wild flowers. They arrange some into little bouquets with which to appease their guardian and press others to put in a scrap book. Alice shows Billy how to make a daisy chain and they spend many a day on the lawn making each other garlands, headbands, necklaces and bracelets. They also spend many a stuffy summery day paddling in the secluded beck wearing only their underwear (knickers, silk chemise and corsets) whilst their dresses lay neatly folded beneath their shoes on the grassy bank. Getting their underwear wet is inevitable which means they spend an hour or so sunbathing on the rocks until they're dry enough to don their dresses. “I wish Mrs P wouldn't lock our corsets on.” Alice says as she fiddles with the lose end of the chain that dangles from her waist. “It'd dry far quicker if I could lay it out in the sun.” she suggests.
By now they're both completely accustomed to living (and sleeping) in their corsets, so much so that they happily lace each other back in to their corsets after their thrice weekly bath and find it's taught support more comforting than cumbersome. But Mrs Postlethwaite still doesn't fully trust them so their corsets remain permanently secured with the yard long curb chain and small brass padlock. “I think I'd feel positively naked if I didn't at least have my corset on.” Billy said as he ran his hands over his damp yet drying corset. “I think if I do go back to being a boy, I'd rather do so with my corset than without it.” he added before wondering if he'd like to be a boy again or not.
Billy casts his mind back to the previous summer on the outskirts of Manchester; playing in the streets and alleyways and trying his best to fit in with the others. He recalls trying and failing to impress the other kids by climbing walls, bounding gates and fences and generally being a monkey... but he'd always lacked the agility and mettle of the others and found himself at the blunt end of their taunts more often than not. Spending his days playing with Alice or the girls at school is different; less aggressive and boisterous but equally competitive, if not more so. Little things such as how he's tied his ribbon or how he wears his ankle socks seem significant whilst bigger things such as excelling in a game of hop scotch or beating his opponent in a competitive clapping game are played down. There's some things he likes about being one of the girls, and plenty of things he doesn't. He enjoys skipping with a rope, cross-stitch and learning the names of all the different flowers, but since his hair has grown considerably, he hates having it put in ringlets or tight bunches that bounce and bob around his ears. Once every few days, maybe even once a week. he tries to recall being a normal boy who wore short pants and brown socks, a shirt, sometimes a tie and a jacket & cap. But as the days and weeks stroll on by, that image is becoming increasingly vague.
Even his dreams are changing. Sometimes he dreams that he's back home with his mother and father and more often than not, he's presented with a vision of himself wearing one of his dresses whilst acting like and being treated like a girl. It's nice to wake up after dreaming of his loving mother and heroic father, but its strange knowing that he dreamt of himself as a girl... but at least he knows they're only dreams.
Billy celebrated his eleventh birthday on the 12th June, 1941 and Mrs Postlethwaite throws a party for Billy and some of his school friends. She also buys him a new party dress which Alice described as 'even prettier than her birthday dress'. Alice gifted him a cross-stitch design she's made bearing the name William in ornate lettering and surrounded with flowers and butterflies. Billy graciously receives the gift and Mrs Postlethwaite hangs it above his bed. He also receives a birthday card and lengthy letter from his mother. All is well with her and father is doing well in hospital after catching a few bullets during a low altitude bombing raid over Nazi occupied Belgium; his father's leg is badly damaged but he may walk again. She wishes Billy a happy birthday and hopes he's still having a lovely time living in the countryside. She finishes the letter by apologising for not being with her son on his birthday and hopes he likes the gift she's sent, before begging him to write soon and sending a billion kisses.
Billy puts the card alongside his others on the mantle before opening the gift from his mother. “Ohh.” he says as he peels away the wrapping paper to reveal a Deanna Durbin paper doll dress up book. Although grateful, Billy is unsure why his mother has given him a paper doll book; is it because she knows he likes Deanna Durbin, the famous singer and cinema starlet whom all the boys and most of their fathers adore, or because she knows he's living as a girl? It is after all a girl's gift and not something one would normally give to a boy.
|1941 Paper Doll 'cut out' Book showing front & back cover and a selection of pages|
The day after his birthday, Billy begins to write a letter to his mother thanking her for the gift and telling her about his modest yet enjoyable birthday party. He also tells her about Alice being crowned May Queen and says that he was chosen as one of her 'subjects', but left out any details regarding his outfit. As with the other letters he'd written, Mrs Postlethwaite reads through it before allowing him to send it. She claims it's so she can check his spelling and handwriting, but Billy suspects it's to make sure he's not spilling the beans about having to be a girl. “Your handwriting's lovely Billy.” Mrs Postlethwaite compliments, “Very elegant!” she adds before pointing out a couple of minor grammatical errors. “I see you've told her about taking part in the May Queen ceremony.” she says. Billy gulps and nods, fully expecting to be told to rewrite the letter with such details removed... but much to his surprise she routes out the old newspaper and suggests sending her the cutting of the May Queen photograph and its accompanying article.
A couple of weeks later, Billy receives a return letter from his mother and it's not good news. Father had contracted gangrene in hospital which meant his leg had to be amputated, and unfortunately his father didn't make it through the operation. Through tearful eyes, Billy read the letter to the end before sobbing uncontrollably in Mrs Postlethwaite's arms. Alice watched from the staircase, her heart sank as she imagined the pain that Billy must be going through. Alice also felt a rare soft spot for their domineering guardian as she consoles the boy, she can be nice and caring when she wants to be... it's just a pitty it's not very often. Later that evening after weeping in Alice's arms, Billy reads her the last bit of the letter where his mother says “Alice looks very pretty and is most deserving to be crowned May Queen, and you look very pretty too Billy. I can't believe you wore a dress for the day but I'm very glad you did.'” Billy read, before hesitantly asking Alice's opinion as to whether or not his mother may or may not know that he's living as a girl.
“I expect not.” Alice replied. “She says that she can't believe you wore a dress for 'the day'... if she'd written 'I can't believe you're wearing dresses now' then it'd be obvious she knows, but I’m quite certain she thinks it was just for May Day.”
“But she did send me a paper doll book for my birthday.” Billy reminded Alice. “...and boy's don't play with paper dolls.” he added, thinking 'apart from me'.
“So... what do you think your mother would do if she knew the truth?” Alice asked.
“I don't know.” Billy replied. “I'd hope she'd come and take me home but with the Luftwaffe threat, she might not be allowed to.” he added. “I think if she did know she'd at least try to stop it so I can go back to being a boy again.”
“Do you want to be a boy again?”
“Of course!” Billy retorted. “Boy's don't have to have their hair put in rollers before bed.” he said.
“They don't wear pretty dresses either.” Alice replied. “Wouldn't you miss those?”
“Yes but... I wasn't meant to wear dresses.” Billy replied. “It's only because Mrs Postlethwaite doesn't like boys that I have to wear them.”
“Maybe when you do go back to being a boy, you could still have a couple of dresses to wear.” Alice suggested. “...and you wouldn't have to wear a corset any more or sleep in rollers.”
“Maybe.” Billy replied. “It'll be strange wearing boy's clothes again.” he said as he looked down at his dress. “...and I can't imagine being without my corset.”
“I can't imagine you dressed as boy... you look so much nicer in girl's clothes.” Alice said.
“Because girl's clothes are nicer.” Billy stated. “I suppose it would be nice have at least one.” he dreamily added.
“What are you girls chattering about?” Mrs Postlethwaite asked as she appeared at the doorway.
“Wearing dresses.” Billy replied.
Mrs Postlethwaite smiled sweetly at the boy as he looked up at her with his tear stained puppy dog eyes. “I've been thinking... since the terrible news today, would like like to stay in Alice's room from now on instead of sleeping on your own?”
“Erm... may I?” Billy asked.
“Oh yes please Miss.” Alice exclaimed.
“Now you're not to stay up chatting all night, otherwise I'll have to separate you.” Mrs Postlethwaite said before helping them move Billy's creaky old wrought iron bed frame, mattress and bedding into Alice's bedroom. She even hammered a nail into the wall so Billy could hang the cross-stitch name plaque above his bed.
“I'll have to make you one to go over your bed.” Billy suggested.
“For my birthday?” Alice excitedly asked. “Oh Billy I’d love that!”
Billy smiled and told her that it wouldn't be for her birthday since that's not until next year. “I just want to make you something.” he said.
Over the following evenings, Billy spent his free time working on Alice's name plaque when he wasn't bawling his eyes out and thinking of his father. He more or less copied the one she'd made him, picking out her name in ornate pink letters and adding a floral surround. In spite of his new found sadness, Billy felt so much happier sleeping in Alice's room, especially when he finds himself dwelling on the loss of his father, missing his mother or waking up from a bad dream... Alice is always there to cuddle and comfort him and he can't imagine ever being without her.
It's mid July and the six week summer break is just around the corner. Billy is just as excited as the other girls when Miss Wainwright tells the class that they can wear their very best dresses on the last day of school. She's also one of the few grown ups who tells the children what's going on in Europe and optimistically suggests that the war may be over sooner rather than later since Hitler began his invasion of Russia. “It's a very large and powerful country and hopefully the Nazis have bitten off more than they can chew.” she tells them. On the way home, Billy and Alice are both in a highly optimistic mood. But it's more due to their excitement of wearing their best dresses for school rather than any real expectation that this seemingly endless war may soon be over.
“Will you come and visit me when the war's over?” Alice asks as she buttons Billy into his very best dress; the one Mrs Postlethwaite gave him for his birthday. It's bright yellow with broad white stripes running down it. It boasts a pair of short puffed sleeves in white voile and a white lace trimmed collar, and beneath its full knee-length skirt he wears a voluminous white petticoat.
“I want you to live with me when the war's over.” Billy replied. “We could all live in a big house like this... but with your mum and dad and my mum and...” he paused to lower his voice, “...no Mrs Postlethwaite.”
“A big house in the countryside.” Alice dreamily added as she tied his broad satin sash in a big fancy bow. “Or a big house in the city?” she asked as she turned him around to face her.
“I don't know.” billy shrugged. “Just one big enough so we can all live together.” he said before looking down at himself and running his hands over the smooth satin fabric. “I can't believe we're going to wear our best dresses for school today.”
“I can't believe it's the last day of term already!” Alice replied. “Have you decided what you're going to take for show and tell?” she asked.
“I suppose I'll have to take Deanna.” Billy replied, picking up his only toy. He considered taking the paper dolls his mother had gifted him but didn't want to risk them getting damaged. Alice suggested he take the cross-stitch name plaque he'd made her, but Billy decided against that for the same reason. So on the last day of school before they break up for summer, Billy walks to school wearing his best and poshest party dress and clutching the doll he calls Deanna. All the other girls wear their best dresses too and some also bring their favourite doll whilst others bring a book, an heirloom, some craft or a toy. Instead of lessons they play games and have lots of fun, until show and tell which is a little tedious. Nervous children take turns standing at the front of the class and talk shyly about whatever item they've brought. When it's Billy's turn, he shyly introduces the class to his doll. “I named her Deanna after Deanna Durbin...” some of the girls giggle whilst others approve. “...and I made her dress out of an old apron...” he says “...and Mrs Postlethwaite gave me her for Christmas.”
“Well done William.” Miss Wainwright says before prompting the class to applaud him. “And that's a lovely dress you've made for your dolly... did you make her apron too?” she asked.
“It used to be a doily.” Billy told her. “But it was a bit tatty so I asked Mrs Postlethwaite if I could turn it into an apron for Deanna.”
“Oh how very clever.” Miss Wainwright said in that warm yet patronising tone that teachers often use. She sent him back to his seat and called the next girl forward who talked for several minutes about her favourite book. The disinterest amongst the class clearly eluded this girl as she talked excitedly about the characters and plot, but they applauded her anyway. After everyone had had their turn at show-and-tell, the girls played more party games until lunchtime and that was it... no more school until September.
Miss Wainwright says farewell to each and everyone of her girls as they leave and asks Alice and Billy if they're looking forward to summer. “Hopefully this awful war will be over soon and you'll both be able to go home which means I won't see you again.” their teacher says with a smile and a frown.
Miss Wainwright says farewell to each and everyone of her girls as they leave and asks Alice and Billy if they're looking forward to summer. “Hopefully this awful war will be over soon and you'll both be able to go home which means I won't see you again.” their teacher says with a smile and a frown.
“I hope we do Miss.” Billy says. “I mean... I want the war to end and I want to go home, but I like being in your class too.” he tells her, adding. “I don't think I’d like to go back to the boy's class.”
Miss Wainwright smiles at Billy and places her hands gently on his shoulders. “And I can see why.” she smiled as she arranged his dainty little sleeves, puffing them out to make them look as pretty as possible. “It's hard to believe there's really a little boy inside this dress.” she said. “You've been every bit the perfect little lady right from the start Billy, but I'm sure when the time comes to be a boy again, you'll quickly realise that you haven't forgotten how.” she told him. “I expect it's a bit like riding a bike... you never really forget how to do it, you just get out of practise.”
Miss Wainwright then turns to Alice and tells her that she was a beautiful May Queen, “The prettiest I've seen.” she claimed, before advising the girl to take no notice of anything anyone says. “You're lucky to have such lovely thick red hair... you're a proper English rose.” she told her. Alice tells Miss Wainwright that she's the nicest teacher she's ever had, and if the war doesn't end soon, at least she'll have her class too look forward to. “Oh thank you Alice. That's a lovely thing to say.” their teacher smiles before turning back to Billy. “And you'll be off the secondary school in September... are you looking forward to it?” she asked.
“Not really.” he replied. “If the war does end I'll have to go back to boy's school and if it doesn't I'll have to go to the girl's secondary school here.”
“Well wherever you end up, I'm sure you'll fit in perfectly.” Miss Wainwright assured.
Billy isn't so sure. He felt like an outsider at his junior school in Denton and he'll still be an outsider at the secondary school there... more so when they find out that he's been a girl for so long. Then there's the girl's secondary school here... he'll be in an environment where most people won't know he's really a boy but they'll quickly find out, and that could go either way. He and Alice discuss their hopes and fears for the future as they walk back up the hill. Will the war end or wont it? Will they be allowed to go home or won't they? All they can do is sit things out and see what the future brings. At least Mrs Postlethwaite isn't as mean as she used to be... she is very much still firm with the children in her care but since Billy lost his father she has softened a little.
They're only two weeks into their summer break when Mrs Postlethwaite takes Billy into to town to get his new school uniform. “But, what if the war ends and I can go back home?” he says, thinking it's far too soon to assume he'll still be an evacuee when September comes. Mrs Postlethwaite tells him that the war is unlikely to end any time soon as she puts the black pleated gymslip over his head. “But... what if the bomb threat is lifted?” he asked, knowing that some children have already returned home for that very reason.
Mrs Postlethwaite shuffles his gymslip into position and steps back to have a look at him. “The bomb threat has been lifted.” she tells him.
“So I can go home!” Billy exclaimed.
“You could, but your mother and I have agreed that it's best to keep you here until the war is over.” she tells him.
“Oh.” he whines like an injured puppy. “Why?”
“Because she's busy working in the munitions factory and you're busy becoming a young lady.”
Billy gulps before asking, “Does she know?”
“That you're learning to be a lady?” Mrs Postlethwaite asked as she placed a straw boater on his head. The boy nodded then looked up at the brim of his hat. “Of course. I wrote to her at Christmas and told her all about it.”
“Why didn't you tell me?” Billy asked. Mrs Postlethwaite claimed that she simply assumed that he was aware that his mother knew. She reminded him about the paper dolls he was given for his birthday, and that he'd sent his mother a newspaper clipping that shows him taking part in the May Day celebrations. “What did she say?” he asked in a bemused and whiny voice.
“Well at first she asked lots of questions but she soon came round to my way of thinking.” Mrs Postlethwaite told the boy as she picked a stray thread from his gymslip.
“And what's that?” Billy impatiently asked.
“Well I explained to her how bratty and boisterous boys can be, how much of a handful they are and how I had no intention of housing one.” she told him. “...and I described how pleasant and charming you've become now that you're dressing like a girl, and how pretty you look.” she said. “I told her about your corset training and that I intended to let your hair grow so you could wear ringlets as well as ribbons and you mother said it all sounded very nice and she wished she could be here with you.”
“Oh.” Billy thoughtfully replied. “Does that mean she wants me to be a girl too?” he asked as he looked up at Mrs Postlethwaite. She nodded and smiled through pursed lips. “But I'll never be a real girl.” Billy said.
“No.” Mrs Postlethwaite replied. “...and you'll never be a normal boy either.” she told him. “How does that make you feel?”
Billy gulped and thought for a moment. “I don't know.” he replied. “I don't really want to go back to being a boy, but I'm scared of trying to be a girl too.” he said. He looked down at the black pleated gymslip which hangs like a shapeless sack from his shoulders. “Especially when I go to the big school and they find out I'm really a boy.”
“Oh don't worry about that Billy... the girls at Barton Road are used to boys like you.” she tells him. “Well... not boys quite like you.” she says. “You're a good boy.” she states. Billy gulps and listens with intent, waiting for her to continue. Why the long pause? he thinks. “At Barton Road...” she begins (finally!) “...they send the naughty boys to the girl's wing until they learn to behave, and like you they also have to dress and act like good little girls... so you've nothing to worry about.”
Billy isn't sure whether this revelation is a good or a bad thing. It's a lot to get his head around. Not only has he just discovered that he could go back home, and that his mother knows all about him being a girl... and that his mother is happy for him to stay here, as a girl until at least the end of the war, but also that he's unlikely to ever go back to being a 'normal' boy. And on top of all that, he'll be attending a girl's school where the really naughty kids from the boy's school are sent; all the bullies and the bruisers who thrive off picking on the misfits and weaklings, and Billy knows he's both.
Mrs Postlethwaite tells him he looks very 'smart' in his secondary school uniform, but Billy isn't convinced. “Why can't we wear a nice dress with a pinny like we do at Junior school?” he asks in a whiny tone of voice.
The prospect of wearing the same bland black gymslip day after day after day doesn't sit easy with him, but Mrs Postlethwaite tells Billy that all the girl's will be dressed the same. “And you can always wear one of your pretty dresses after school, so you'll have that to look forward to.”
With his uniform purchased, Billy and his guardian make their way back up the hill to the house. He has plenty on his mind and plenty to talk to Alice about and he wastes no time in bending her ear. Alice listens patiently whilst he tells her that his mother knows all about him being a girl and that she possibly wants him to remain a girl for good... and that the bomb threat has been lifted and he could go home but his mother wants him to stay here with Mrs Postlethwaite! He barely takes a breath as he blurts the information in Alice's direction and when he does finally pause to breathe... “I know.” Alice says with a sigh as she picks up a handwritten letter from her bedside table. “I received a letter from mother this morning and she wants me to go home.” she tells him.
Billy yelps “Nooo!” and thrusts his arms around her. “Please don't leave me, you can't leave me!” he pleads as tears well up in his eyes.
“Believe me Billy, I don't want to leave you here on your own.” Alice tells him. “But I can't stay here if my mother wants me to return home.” she explains. “If it was up to me I'd stay, believe me I would... but it's not my decision Billy.”
Billy knows she's right. She is after all only a ten year old girl, but she's also been his rock, his best and only true friend and in spite of being younger than he, she's his big sister too. Two days later Alice has packed her case and is ready to leave. She wears a pretty yellow dress and Billy says, “That's the first dress I ever wore.”
“Oh yes!” Alice recalls as she looks down at the dress. “I felt so sorry for you that day... sitting in the bath whilst Mrs P put your pants and socks on the fire and cut up your shirts and vests.”
“That was the last time I felt like a normal boy.” Billy commented.
“It was also the last day before we were put in our corsets.” Alice added. “I can't imagine not wearing it now.” she said as she rested her hands on her shapely waist and hips.
Billy agreed. “We'd be clumsy and frumpy like Betty Fletcher.” he said, Betty being a big girl from school who's forever bumping into things and dropping things. She can't skip, can't hop or clap or catch and she certainly can't dance. Miss Wainwright used to say 'if there's ever a girl who needs a corset it's Betty Fletcher'. “You won't have to wear yours any more.” Billy said.
“I know.” Alice replied. “But I hope mother will let me wear it.” she added since both she and Billy can't imagine being without their corsets. “Will you write to me?” she asked, giving him her address written in her best hand writing on her best writing paper.
“Of course.” Billy assured. “I'll write every week!” he claimed.
Billy and Mrs Postlethwaite walk Alice down to the train station. They wait on the platform in silence and as the train comes into view, they share a tearful goodbye. The train blows its whistle and Alice blows Billy as kiss through the window as the train begins to pull away, taking his best and only friend with it.
“It seems like such a shame to tear you two apart after all you've been through together.” Mrs Postlethwaite says. “I'm sure you'll see her again Billy.” she assured before taking him back to her house on the hill.
Billy goes up to his room and sits on Alice's bed. He looks down at his dress and smiles as he smooths it over his lap. It's not one of his favourites but he wore it for Alice; she always said he suited blue best of all and he wanted to look nice for her on their final day together. He looks up at the wall to where the cross-stitch name plaque he'd made her used to hang and sees only a nail. “Oh Alice!” he blubbers before crumpling onto her pillow and sobbing his heart out.
...to be continued (maybe).