Penny’s not exactly flush for cash, being an unemployed teenager and all, so Michelle takes her to a charity shop on the high street, an outlet of the British Heart Foundation. The glamour Penny’s wearing is holding up fairly well — at least so far as she can tell from the subtle cues in the way people are behaving around her — though the real test will come when they go somewhere with gendered changing rooms. For now, she’s just trying to maintain enough situational awareness to avoid anyone who might recognise her.
The BHF charity shop sits sandwiched between a chain bookshop and some kind of patisserie, consisting of a single cramped room that carries a mildly musty smell. It has a fair selection of clothes and accessories, and most of what’s on display looks like it was thrown out for bucking fashion trends rather than any practical reason. Not that Penny would know much about fashion, much to her own regret. She browses through a rack of skirts nervously, feeling like a petty criminal.
“What size are you?” asks Michelle, quietly.
Penny’s got no idea. She knows her waist size in inches, but women’s clothing seems to have ascended from the lower plane of anthropometric measurements into some kind of abstract numbering system she lacks the expertise to interpret. She shrugs.
“Okay, um,” says Michelle, sizing Penny up like she’s a piece of wood. “I think you’d be about a twelve?”
Penny thinks twelve is as good a number as any other, so she nods. Gingerly, she picks up a skirt from the rack: a forest green thing with a bit of white floral embroidery near the bottom. By the shape of it, it looks like it ought to hang fairly loosely, which suits Penny fine; all the better to mask her undesired anatomy. When Michelle sees it, she nods in silent approval, holding up a white blouse she’s got from a nearby rack. So far, so good.
“Do you want to try it on here?” Michelle asks.
Penny swallows nervously. The glamour ought to make this easier than it otherwise would be — she has flashes of being dragged out of the shop by armed police, which she thinks is an overreaction — but there’s no way to be sure until she tries. Taking both items of clothing to the woman at the till (greying, but friendly-looking), she clears her throat before speaking.
“Um,” she says, wincing at her own voice. Next time she’ll have to glamour that, too. “Could I try these on?”
“Certainly, love,” the old woman says. She’s got a bit of a Northern accent, but not much of one, and Penny’d be hard pressed to say which bit of the North she’s from. “Right this way.”
She takes Penny all of the two-and-a-half metres to the back of the shop, where two changing booths sit next to a shelf of second-hand DVDs. The booths aren’t the most rigorous constructions: they’re basically thin plywood with a heavy curtain in front. Penny enters the left-hand booth and carefully pulls the curtain shut.
From the inside of the booth, Penny’s acutely aware of its flimsy construction. The inner walls are unpainted, decorated only by the occasional screw head buried in the bare plywood. A single full-length mirror stands on the far wall, opposite the curtain. There’s nowhere to sit, so Penny has to balance on one leg at a time as she takes off her shoes.
Once she’s out of her school uniform, clad only in black socks and navy blue boxer shorts, Penny immediately starts to dress in the outfit she’s picked out. It’s not like she’s not nervous about the whole thing, but the idea of spending any more time than necessary looking at her mostly-naked body in the mirror makes her heart flutter in an even more unpleasant manner than the clothes do. The skirt goes on pretty easily — it just pulls up — but the blouse throws her off by having the buttons on the wrong side. She hears the shop door open a couple of times, the sudden wind blowing at the curtain, and each time it takes a few seconds for her to convince herself that her privacy’s secure. Still, she manages to get dressed without major incident, which is something.
Penny looks in the mirror. She’s avoided doing so up to this point, but she probably ought to sooner rather than later. She needs to make sure it all fits and looks okay. “Okay” seems more achievable than “good”, at least.
The skirt fits like a charm, hanging off her admittedly narrow hips in such a way to completely conceal the shape of the lower half of her body and coming to a halt just above the knee. Penny pretends not to notice the boniness of those knees, or the hairs on her lower legs. The blouse, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired: two somethings, to be precise. Penny puts her left hand inside it, trying to mimic the shape of breasts to see how they’d affect the fit. She tries not to blush. It could work, she concludes to herself.
“How’re you doing in there?” asks Michelle, from the other side of the curtain.
Penny’s not so enthusiastic about the prospect of using her traitor voice, but she sets those feelings aside, reminding herself of the glamour that’s masking her maleness.
“It all fits,” she says, her voice a little wobbly. “I think it looks good?”
“Can I see?” Michelle responds.
“Um,” Penny says, swallowing her nerves. “Okay?”
She pulls the curtain aside to reveal her expectant friend. Glamour, do your thing.
“Wow,” says Michelle.
Penny’s not sure if that’s a good “wow” or a bad “wow”.
“How do I look?” she asks, with intense trepidation. She glances at the woman at the till; she’s looking back at Penny, smiling. Assuming she’s not just used to the sissy crowd, the glamour’s definitely working.
“You look great, Da—” Michelle begins, slightly slow to realise the problem with Penny’s birth name.
“Penny,” the glamoured girl prompts, softly: glamoured in more ways than one, she realises.
Michelle nods, apparently getting the gist. She reiterates: “You look great, Penny.”
It feels good to hear that name from her. With Yarn it’s just a weird ritual thing, just part of their bizarre apprenticeship, and with Garl it hardly even counts to hear it from something so (literally) alien. With Michelle, it actually means something. She smiles at the realisation.
“You look lovely, petal,” says the woman at the till. It feels almost redundant, at this point.
Penny draws the curtain closed again and sets about changing back into her school clothes with less than total enthusiasm. Once she’s decent again, she heads out of the changing room and pays at the counter, accepting the woman’s offer of a plain white plastic bag. She probably doesn’t need one, but it’s part of the script.
The two girls leave the shop together, Penny’s face beaming with a smile she can’t quite shift.
Next, they head to a budget clothing shop to pick up underwear: the charity shop doesn’t seem to stock any, and anyway the idea of pre-owned knickers seems a little rank to Penny. Trying underwear on’s a non-starter, even with a glamour, and no way does she have the guts to go for a fitting, so the bra they end up getting is a best guess at the size. It’s not very exciting — just a simple non-underwired thing that vaguely matches Penny’s skin tone — but the prospect of getting to wear it fills her stomach with butterflies. For knickers they just grab a five-pack of plain colours in the same size as the clothes. Best to keep it simple.
The girls decide to take a rest at a café in a side alley off of the main high street. It’s not a particularly fancy place, and not part of any chain; they sit on the metal chairs outside the front of the café, at a metallic table with a single wide leg that curves off into three at the base. It’s approaching 6:30, when most of the shops shut, but Penny doesn’t want this to end just yet. From the looks of it, neither does Michelle.
“So, um,” Michelle says between sips at a foamy beverage that’s allegedly coffee-based, “what now?”
Penny shrugs: not from a lack of ideas, but from an unwillingness to admit how badly she wants to wear the clothes they’ve bought together. Not just because they’re her first girl clothes, though that’s a big part of it, but also because they’re girl clothes she bought with Michelle. Not all of these feelings are chaste.
Michelle glances at her phone.
“Oh shit,” she says. “Didn’t realise it was so late.” She downs the rest of her drink and stands up from the table. “I’d better get home, sorry.” Apology lingers in her tone.
“Okay,” Penny replies, trying to hide the disappointment in her voice. She adds, in a hopeful tone: “See you tomorrow?”
Her friend nods and mumbles a goodbye as she hurries off in the direction of her home. They will see each other tomorrow, of course: they both have school to endure.
Penny sits on her own for a while, sipping at her own drink — lemonade; she can’t stand coffee — and wonders what to do. There may well be nothing for it but to go home herself, though she’s not exactly delighted at the prospect. Still, she starts to pack the shopping bags into her rucksack: best not to have mum or dad see any of today’s purchases.
Once the bags are all safely packed away, Penny starts to relax a little, sitting back in her seat and drinking the dregs of the lemonade. The straw gurgles in protest: at this point she’s mostly getting melted ice, but she could probably do with the hydration. She peeks at the time on her phone: 6:40 PM. From experience, she knows she can get away with arriving home any time before seven, and home’s only ten minutes walk from here, so there’s no real rush. After five more minutes of procrastination Penny stands up from the table, readying herself to go, but she’s frozen in her tracks by a certain familiar face.
It’s Yarn. He’s wearing a dark blue suit and sky-coloured tie, and his hair’s up in a sort of man-bun. It’s a far cry from his usual overly-casual getup — it makes him look like some kind of geeky entrepreneur — but it’s definitely him: Penny would never mistake that face. He’s sitting about a metre from where Penny and Michelle were sat, at one of the other tables, drinking from a small ceramic cup of dark, foamy liquid. Perhaps espresso.
He gestures wordlessly at the other chair at his table: he wants Penny to sit with him. She gulps nervously, feeling somewhat embarrassed to learn he’s been watching her. How long has he been there? What’s he seen? Still, she doesn’t really feel like she can say no. He is, after all, her boss. Sort of.
Once Penny’s taken her seat, Yarn finishes his drink in one smooth, practised motion that looks like more of an affectation than an act of consumption.
“You’ve been practising your glamours,” he says, flatly. “Good.”
Penny blushes. Of course he’d be the one to notice a glamour, but it feels almost like he’s seen more than that, into some intimate part of her soul. Perhaps it’s silly of her to think of something like that as intimate, but it is a secret she’s not chosen to share with him, so perhaps the feeling is justified.
Yarn seems to be expecting some kind of response to his statement, so she nods silently.
The next thing he says is: “I have a job for you.”