Noise. People. Placards and banners waving in the chilly air. Betty Armstrong looked aghast at the noisy scene that met her as she rounded the corner into the town square. She’d been visiting her son’s house for the afternoon, taking round a casserole that would give him and the children a good traditional hot meal, for this evening at least. Betty’s daughter-in-law was bed-bound with a recurrence of the back trouble that had plagued her in recent years. Betty was not over-sympathetic to the younger woman, although she never let these feelings show. If she’d just lose a bit of weight the pressure on her weak back would surely lessen. It wasn’t up to her to stir up trouble though. She always bit her lip when Nicole complained about all her aches and pains. As far as Betty was concerned, the younger generation had it easy. They didn’t really know what real hardship was.
Betty had stayed later than she intended, playing a game of cards with Roger and the grandchildren. By the time she’d left the minimarket with a few odds and ends, dusk had already started to fall, along with a fine drizzle. She’d hoped for a quick five-minute walk to her own small house followed by a cup of tea and a biscuit. Then she’d heat up the single portion of casserole that she’d kept back for herself and settle down to watch the TV. But now? She looked at the crowds with trepidation. They were chanting something about trans. What was that? A transport protest? It was about time the bus service was improved. It was so unreliable. There were huge gaps that left people standing in the cold and wet for ages and then two buses would come at once.
Betty slid around the edge of the crowd, trying to stay as close to the buildings as possible. Crowds frightened her, noisy ones even more so. There was a group of women across the other side shouting at the speaker. The police were across there too, though they were standing back and watching. She was more than halfway down the side of the square and feeling a little more at ease when she realised that trouble was breaking out close to her. Some rough-looking youths who’d moved to the edge of the crowd started to yell and shout horrible things at the speaker, then they suddenly threw eggs and bags of flour into the masses.
‘Perverts,’ they yelled. ‘Poofy weirdos!’
A few of the police officers saw the trouble erupt but they were still on the opposite side of the square and had to push their way through all the people.
Betty hurried on, glancing around in fear. She reached the junction with her own street and turned the corner. Nearly home. She heard the clatter of running feet and turned as a group of the troublemakers fled down the main road past her. Was she safe? She suddenly felt herself lurch forward as a scruffy lad in torn jeans cannoned into her and continued running. She hit the pavement with a thud. She’d fallen close to one of the trees that lined the road. She was vaguely aware of the noise of a chase continuing down the main road but no one else had turned into the side street. Betty was only a few yards away from her front door, but she’d somehow become tangled with her shopping bag and couldn’t get up.
A woman suddenly appeared from behind her. ‘Are you alright?’ she asked. She held out a hand. Betty grabbed it and struggled to her feet.
‘I think so,’ she panted. ‘No bones broken.’
‘I saw that young yob shoot round the corner and just caught sight of you as you fell. I thought I’d come and check up on you.’ She seemed genuinely concerned.
‘I only live three doors down from here,’ Betty gasped. ’I’ll be fine once I get in.’ She took a few unsteady steps and managed to stay upright.
‘Here. Let me give you a hand.’
The woman held out her arm and Betty grabbed it. She was quite tall, probably about the same height as Roger. Betty clung to her arm and allowed herself to be led further along the pavement.
‘This is me,’ she said as they reached the familiar red door.
She tried to extract a key from her bag, but her hand was shaking, and she seemed to be incapable of gripping anything. She suddenly felt faint.
‘Here. Let me do it,’ the woman said. ‘I’m Sue, by the way.’
She took the keyring from Betty’s hand and opened the door.
‘You’ve gone very pale,’ she added. ‘Let’s get you inside and onto a chair.’
Betty allowed herself to be led through the front door and into her hallway. She leaned heavily against Sue’s side, and the younger woman put an arm around her.
‘In here?’ she asked as they reached the first door.
It was all Betty could do to nod her head. She felt dizzy and sick. She allowed herself to be lowered into one of the armchairs. She heard Sue muttering about something to do with her head, but she couldn’t make out the words clearly enough to understand them. She felt herself drifting away.
The next thing Betty was aware of was of a green-uniformed person crouched down beside her, holding her hand.
‘Ambulance crew,’ this new woman said. ‘We just need to check you’re okay, Betty. That is your name, isn’t it?’
‘We wonder if you banged your head when you fell, so we need to check for concussion.’
Betty realised that Sue was still there. She spoke quietly. ‘Is there anyone I can call, Betty? Family? Friends?’
‘Roger, my son,’ she whispered. She closed her eyes again.
When Sue called in at the hospital next day, she found Betty sitting up in bed, sipping a cup of tea.
‘I think it was you who helped me yesterday,’ she said. ‘Is that right?’
Sue shrugged. ‘I don’t think I did any more than anyone else would have done. I saw you were in trouble. You look better today.’
‘A bit of a muzzy head but the doctor says I’ll be fine. They kept me in for observation. They probably think an oldie like me is just about to pop my clogs.’
Sue laughed. ‘That’s an interesting expression. And are you? About to pop your clogs, I mean.’
‘Well, who knows?’ She eyed Sue carefully. ‘You’re one of the trans lot, aren’t you? Roger was in this morning and told me. Though I don’t understand the half of it, even though he tried to tell me what you were. I could tell he was upset about something. He was getting all hot and bothered about it.’
Sue smiled. ‘Don’t let it worry you.’
Betty giggled in turn. ‘I thought you were all demonstrating about public transport. How silly is that? I couldn’t understand why those women across the other side were so angry with you all. Then the louts started hurling stuff.’
‘It was Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s when we think of trans people who have been murdered across the world.’
‘So, you really are a trans person, are you? One of the nurses explained a bit more to me once Roger had gone and did a better job of it. He said it was a lot more common than people realise.’
‘I think that’s probably true.’
‘I thought, good on you. All those people being killed just because they’re a bit different. Someone should remember them, that’s what I think.’ She paused and eyed Sue keenly. ‘My brother did it when he was small. He used to put on my dresses. I tried to help him. I taught him how to use make-up and lipstick. And we’d pretend he was Sally. He was the loveliest brother you could ever imagine.’
She fell silent and Sue realised that long-forgotten memories must have surfaced in Betty’s mind.
‘What happened to him?’ she asked.
Betty’s eyes were damp. ‘He was called up into the army and was killed in action. That was in Malaya. Much later, that was. He was grown up and had a girlfriend by then, though she didn’t know about Sally. I don’t think she’d have coped.’ She took a sip of tea as if to help her remain calm. ‘I think he was in despair. That was before he set out on that last tour of duty. In a way I wasn’t surprised at what happened. I’ve always wondered if he had a bit of a death wish.’ She paused for another sip of tea. ‘I’ve never told a soul. You’re the first. No one else knew about him being Sally and wearing girl’s clothes, only me. I’ve always wondered if he should have told someone else, but it wasn’t done in those days. Our parents would have half-killed him. So we kept quiet.’
Sue reached across and gripped Betty’s hand. ‘Bless you, Betty. I feel privileged that you’ve told me.’
Betty smiled tiredly then went on. ‘We were so close. I never felt the same for anyone else, not even my husband.’ She tightened her hold on Sue’s hand. ‘Will you be my friend, Sue? I’d really like that.’ She closed her eyes and her breathing got heavier. Her shoulders relaxed back into the pillow.
Sue took the cup that was about to fall from Betty’s fingers.
‘Of course, Betty.’ She leant across and kissed her brow. ‘Of course I will.’