We were twelve when Henrietta first asked me to bind her. To prevent the growth, she said. I didn't know what she meant, but it sounded like fun. She'd taken the duvet cover off her bed and cut it into one long length of fabric. She stripped to the waist then made me hold one end of the cloth while she tucked the other under her armpits. She twirled round, slowly, and smiled. Like that woman in the film about Shakespeare, she said. I didn't know what she was talking about. And I didn't know why she wanted to be a man.
A week later, she came round with two bin bags. We hauled them to the river and stood on the bridge looking into the putrid wash below. She ripped them open; they were filled with clothes. It looked like everything she owned. One by one she threw them into the water, making great arcs in the air before – splash. I watched with alarm before giving in, reaching for a pretty pink dress to sacrifice to the depths. We cackled with laughter.
Afterwards, we went back to my place for a Pot Noodle. There was a pile of magazines on the kitchen table; Henrietta started doodling moustaches on all the celebrities while I boiled the kettle. I asked her, why do you want to be a man? It came out as one long slur of words, but she understood. A part of her must have been expecting it. She replied nonchalantly, still drawing. I don't want to be a man. I just don't want to be a woman.
Another time, she asked me to cut her hair. I refused, but she just grabbed a pair of scissors and chopped off a great big piece. She kept going and going, chucking handfuls out of the window, watching the strands float briefly before falling into next door's garden. God knows what they thought had happened to their fish pond. Her Mum cried when she saw what she'd done. When we went to school the next day they all shouted "baldie".
At the age of fifteen, Henrietta James changed their name to James Henry. They texted everyone on their contacts list and wrote a letter to the school. Most people thought it was a joke, but James just calmly corrected them all. One kid kept giving them trouble so they wrote James Henry woz ere on his backpack in thick black permanent marker.
The night before they turned sixteen, James slept with a boy. I only knew what had happened because the next day they fished out the empty condom wrapper and waved it about like a winning lottery ticket. I couldn't tell how James felt after that. Their face was empty, like a book someone's forgotten to write.
The summer after our exams, everything changed. James came round with an old shoe box, the sort of thing you'd hide under your bed full of treasures. Things from my Mum, they said, the last word sticking in their throat. Then I realised what this was. A box of stuff from their other Mum. The one who had left. The one they never talked about.
James opened the lid and took out a few items. A matchbox filled with dried flower petals. A length of yellow ribbon with a coin attached. An ugly flower brooch only old ladies would wear. An ornament of a swan with a deep chip in the base. There was a stack of letters too, held together with an elastic band. They slid out the one on top and handed it to me.
Dearest Angie. I cannot begin to explain how sorry I am. I know that the pain I will cause you is something no amount of words could ever take...
They snatched it out of my hands before I could read more, causing the letter to tear along the crease. James didn't seem to notice. They folded it up and returned it to the pack, then recited the rest of the letter from memory. ...something no amount of words could ever take away. You and Henrietta are the two most valuable people in my life. You have given me so much joy. It breaks my heart to leave you.
I was confused. I waited, expecting an explanation. James remained silent, and handed me something else from the box – a photograph. A man in an old fashioned suit with big curly hair and a thick moustache. That's him, they said. That's my Dad.
Things fell apart after that. We went our separate ways to university, promising and failing to keep in touch. Different priorities, unanswered questions. I thought I saw James a few weeks ago in our home town, but I didn't say or do anything. Like I'd seen a ghost.
I often think about the day we fed the river with rags. Ask me when I was happiest, and that's the moment I'd choose. I wish I'd told James that, but I think they already knew.
Rachel is a freelance writer from York. After graduating with a BA and MA in English she worked in heritage, marketing, human resources and teaching. Rachel has written for several online and print publications as well as launching a music webzine and blog. She is currently working on a second novel and short story collection. You can find her here: racheltyping.wordpress.com and here: twitter.com/rachel_typing.