When we first moved to the cul-de-sac I thought that meant we’d made it. Over the years we had levelled up through all types of living situation (age one: bedsit, age five: basement studio, age nine: rental flat) and beaten the final boss, a private landlord who refused to admit the damp on the ceiling was a result of dicey bathroom tiling and not us ‘pouring oil down the sink, clogging my drains’. Eventually, Mum told Sam either we left the flat or she’d leave the marriage, so he found a job with a company car in a coastal village fifteen miles west of the city, and that’s when we arrived. Age twelve: Cul de sac.
(‘But you know what it means, don’t you?’ Lara had said when she was meant to be apologising.
Lara’s dad owned an ice cream truck which was always parked on the patio outside their house. The day we moved in had been the second or third of a mid-March heatwave, and Lara’s dad had opened it up, one day only, solely for the children on the cul-de-sac. I thought we’d arrived in utopia, where there wererows of semi-detached beige houses with artificial green lawns, where the sun always shone and the ice cream truck never disappeared at the end of the day.
Jesse doddled over immediately, pulling on Sam’s sleeve. He was young enough to still have that toddler confidence which never feels awkward demanding anything. Something I’d lost and since forgotten. Puberty had started running its fingers through my systems and I swung helplessly between wanting to hide behind walls and wanting to bash my head through them. I hung back by the car with Mum, my cap pulled low, and watched Jesse jump up and down so his podgy little hands could reach the cone. Lara was out on the patio too, sunbathing in an orange bikini and flip flops. The thought of Mum or Sam seeing that much of my body at once made me want to be sick twice over, but if I grew to learn anything about Lara it was that she actually preferred an audience.
‘Marley, go and say hello to your neighbours,’ Mum said, and she pinched me round the back of the neck like a lion disciplining its cub so I knew I didn’t have a choice. Too shy to ask for an ice cream, I hovered behind Sam as he wiped gunk from Jesse’s cheeks and made small talk with Lara’s dad. I just watched Lara. She had sunglasses on but was watching music videos on a tablet. An open bottle of sun cream leaked onto the ground next to her. Her skin seemed too pale to tan, really, but her arms and torso were covered in small pink and amber freckles that stopped abruptly at her legs. It looked unusual and I couldn’t decide whether I found it strange or beautiful. Didn’t have the chance to, either. She’d stopped reading and, though it took me a second to realise because she had sunglasses on, she was looking straight at me. She opened her lips and mouthed one word, slowly, to make sure I took in every consonant: p-e-r-v-e-r-t.
It was later that she found me at the bus stop to apologise.
‘I’d never have called you that if I’d known you were a girl,’ she said. She was wearing shorts
now and shivering, probably more for performance than for cold, because the air was heavy and the heat from the afternoon was still trapped around us. ‘But look,’ Lara said, ‘you can’t exactly blame me for getting it wrong.’
She gestured vaguely towards my hat and my clothes and shrugged. I knew what she meant, saw the same thick jaw as everyone else, the same hair my mum plaited into straight-back cane rows like the boys so she wouldn’t have to battle it with a comb every morning. I knew how my clothes hung baggy and boyish, hid any kind of shape I might have. But we couldn’t all wear girl like Lara could: openly, without shame, with straight blonde hair and limbs that seemed to move elegantly with whatever purpose Lara commanded of them. It was these small things about her I’d envied instantly, craved to possess myself with such a ferocity it almost felt like rage. Existing looked so easy, so uncomplicated for Lara.
In contrast, I seemed out of place. Always. Especially since Mum had remarried and they’d had Jesse. Now I was the black sheep of the family, literally. A thing misplaced. My body didn’t look like the rest of them. My skin was shades too dark and my hair too curly and now, my new body felt like it was growing to spite me, hips fighting outwards, chest battling forwards, and there I was, stuck inside, watching it happen but helpless to it all.
‘If you’re trying to run away, you’ll be waiting a long time,’ Lara had said, trying to gauge in my expression why I’d just been sitting there. ‘Buses haven’t stopped here since they closed the through road and built the cul-de-sac.’
But I hadn’t been trying to run away. I’d been waiting there for Lara, in case she came onto the patio again. Just to see. Just out of curiosity. She blew emphatically into her hands so I gave her my jacket. She took it without saying thank you, wrapped it around her shoulders like we were playing high school jocks and cheerleaders. We sat in silence for a while, and I watched her collarbone delicately rise and fall as she breathed, how effortless she made it look.
‘Why does it matter?’ I asked into the silence. ‘If I’m a boy or a girl.’
Lara laughed. ‘Because,’ she said, flicking her head and whipping hair out of her eyes to make a clear path for her to look straight into mine. ‘That’s what makes all the difference, silly.’
I could never really tell if Lara liked me or whether I was just a convenience, but after that encounter, the bus stop became our meeting place. Lara wanted to be a hairstylist, for films and music videos, and had known instantly that she wanted to practise on me. She knew how to do all these styles like braids and twists that my mum had never been able to do but which I’d always envied when I’d seen other girls wear them on TV.
‘You have to know how to do it all these days,’ Lara had told me. ‘Otherwise you’re just a racist.’ Lara knew all the things I felt I should know but didn’t, like that to buy hair extensions or creams for Afro-hair you’d have to go to the African beauty supply store out in the city (the only one in the city), and she was intimately acquainted with every R&B artist you could think of from the 90s until now. She could harmonise like it was nothing and perfected every viral dance long before I’d ever even come across them. When I asked her how, she’d shrug and say ‘internet’, as if was really that simple. She was glad we’d met. Said she’d felt like a prick trying to practise black hairstyles on her little sister Amy but there had never been anyone else in the town who was an appropriate muse before now. The one time she did give me long thick box braids, I felt like I’d disappointed her. I could hardly keep them in. I didn’t know how to style them and felt embarrassed at school, like I was drawing too much attention to myself. It seemed like they belonged to someone else’s head. When I took them out after a few days, Lara didn’t mind. In fact, she helped me. And she’d always do my cane rows for me instead, with perfectlystraight partings that sometimes went zig-zagged when she could be bothered. ‘I’d kill for hair like yours,’ she’d tell me. ‘If you saw it the way I see it, nobody would be able to tell you nothing.’
Mostly Lara would talk at me, tell me tales about older boys from the city that her and her friends would skip lessons to meet, or bitch about the girls in her class. She was thirteen but two school years above me, and often would stress the fact that she was a teenager and I wasn’t, the gulf between us meaning there were certain things I wouldn’t understand. She laughed at me when I asked her if she kissed boys. ‘Obviously,’ she said, rolling her eyes with drama. ‘Sometimes, Marley, I even let them do more.’
One day, I found her at the bus stop in dramatic tears, wailing so loudly I wondered if she’d just been trying to get my attention. I let her rest her head on my lap whilst she sobbed out a vague storyline about how boys were all the same and screw them all, and she let me twirl a strand of her hair around my fingers, both of us comforted, until she’d run out of energy for the charade.
Then she turned and looked up at me, stretching an arm out to drape over my shoulder, dramatically, like a Shakespearean character about to die.
‘Not like you,’ she said, ‘you’d make a much better boyfriend’.
‘Don’t you mean girlfriend?’ I asked. Lara pondered the question for a second, then shook her head decisively.
‘No,’ she said, ‘you’re much more boyfriend material.’
And then she giggled, and I giggled, both of us feeling validated, but maybe in different ways, by the word.
We’d make it a game sometimes, playing boyfriend and girlfriend, arms linked, strolling elaborately around the cul-de-sac faking posh olden-time accents from a period drama. ‘I do hope it’s not too forward of me to say you look ravishing, my dear.’
‘Kind sir, your commitment to honesty only makes you all the more attractive.’
Lara was always better at it than I was, and I always played the boy. On other days, we’d wonder how far we could push it. Whether we could convince a local shopkeeper, strangers in the street, that we were together.
‘What about your school friends? Would they believe it?’ I asked her, trying to raise the stakes. We were bored, restless, sitting on each end of the bus stop waggling our legs. Lara squinted, made a viewfinder with her fingers to look at me through, and clicked her tongue.
‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘But not with all that hair. It was a mission statement. We bounded back to hers immediately. Lara took her dad’s razor from the bathroom cabinet and I sat between her knees as she shaved my hair right down to the scalp. It felt itchy on my neck as it fell away, but landed ticklish around my bare feet.
Finished, Lara told me to close my eyes and maneuvered me to the mirror by my shoulders. ‘Open,’ she said, hugging me from behind and beaming at my reflection. Transformed, I made eyes at the stranger next to her, a handsome young gentleman with high cheekbones and a big, wide grin. She’d given me a smart shape up, with a neat curved line at the corner of my
hairline. It looked good. It seemed to make some kind of sense. ‘That’s me,’ I said, bewildered, starstruck.
‘Not bad,’ Lara replied.
Mum hated it, swore at me, said I’d ruined my beautiful head. Blamed my dad, blamed herself, but mostly blamed Lara. I would hear her mutter to Sam in the kitchen, ‘I don’t know about that one over the road, she’s changing my little girl. That’s not Marley. I know Marley.’
The next day, I came down to breakfast in a pretty summer dress my Mum had gifted me a Christmas earlier, and several bracelets I’d had stacked in the back of my dresser.
‘You look nice,’ Mum smiled, pouring juice into my mug as she passed by. Then she kissed me on top of my naked head, the lack of hair no longer an issue, all seemingly forgotten.
Alone, with my hair now gone, without even Lara there, I started playing the game by myself. With a muslin scarf I’d wrap layers and layers around my chest until breathing felt tight, until it looked like nothing was there. Then I’d put on a T-shirt and sneer, flexing my arms and shadow boxing with my reflection. It was in these moments that I could almost convince myself.
Lara started feeling guilty about the game soon after.
‘You shouldn’t let me bully you into stuff, cutting your hair and that,’ Lara said. ‘My dad says I don’t know how much power I have over you.’
‘I didn’t feel bullied,’ I said. ‘I like it.’ ‘Good.’ she sai., ‘It suits you.’
Lara had started smoking at this point, I’d seen her. But she’d been trying to hide it from me. Her fingers would start twitching restlessly and she’d excuse herself to disappear off towards the cliffs behind our houses and later, if I saw her again, she’d be followed by an aura of drugstore body spray and spearmint gum.
It wasn’t until the very end of summer, a few weeks after she’d turned fourteen, that she invited me with her.
‘Come, Marley,’ she said. ‘Let’s go to the other bus stop.’
The other bus stop was a nickname for Pur Dhu Porth, a collection of rocks high up on one of the cliffs separating the city from the coastal villages. So called because they’d been carved and placed carefully, purposefully, in such a way that they looked like a modern day bus stop: one tall thin rock stood straight like a sign post, next to a lower, flat, table-like slab, balanced across two others, perfectly designed for sitting. Dating back to the bronze ages, it was the closest the town got to a tourist attraction and had been lazily incorporated into a national trust path. Mostly, though, it was used by local kids who went there to smoke weed.
I knew this, because that’s why Lara had brought me. It was only about a half hour walk away from the cul-de-sac, but cigarette butts and sodden roaches littered the path for most of the way. A rare silence had hovered over us as we walked, so Lara made us pretend we were honeymooning and that our plane had crashed on an exotic island, stranding us in some foreign woods where we needed to find shelter before nightfall. We gripped each other’s hands for protection the rest of the way.
‘Look, there, my dear, respite from the treacherous elements,’ she said suddenly, pointing to the bus stop. I wasn’t sure what respite meant, but played my part gallantly, lifting her up and
shakily piggybacking her to the rock like a true heroic husband, not quite strong enough to hold her weight. We collapsed onto it, giggling.
Lying back onto the stone, Lara pulled out a spliff from behind her ear and lit it, blowing plumes directly above her like a volcano. Her t-shirt had wriggled up her torso and her stomach was out, the freckles I’d noticed when we’d moved to the cul-de-sac now dark bronze from the summer sun. She’d pierced her belly button since then. I wondered if her parents knew. I traced a finger around it, her skin cold but clammy.
‘Did it hurt?’ I asked.
‘Like a bitch,’ Lara said. She pulled at me to lie down next to her. There wasn’t really enough space for us both to fit on the stone comfortably, so I had to wriggle into her armpit a bit and rest my head on her chest.
‘Your head is scratchy,’ she said. ‘Sorry,’ I said.
‘Don’t always be sorry, Marls.’
We stared up into the sky. The bus stop was in a small clearing, meaning the trees seemed to make a halo in the sky and there, up and up, one could probably stargaze at the right time of night. This bus stop and the other, the woods and the cul-de-sac, nature’s world and man’s. Like two separate realities knotted to one another.
‘What does it feel like?’ I asked Lara. Her eyes were closed and she’d started playing the chords to an imaginary song with her fingers, smiling lazily when she hit each note.
‘You could find out for yourself, if you like,’ she said, nudging the spliff towards me in offering. I didn’t take it then, scared I might cough in front of her or do it wrong and embarrass myself. But lying there in silence with Lara I was struck with a strange sensation nonetheless, an overwhelming sense of comfort, like returning home after a long trip. The feeling was so potent it felt heavy as fog, surrounding us, wrapping us up inside.
‘We should head back,’ Lara said after a while, gazing down at me. ‘Before the pixie wants its spot back.’
‘You’re high,’ I said, giggling at her. She sat up straight and looked me in the eye. ‘I’m serious,’ she said. ‘You don’t know?’
I didn’t know, so she pulled me close towards her, our noses nearly touching, and spoke to me in almost a whisper so that the trees couldn’t eavesdrop. It was true, she swore, that Pur Dhu Porth was guarded by a pixie who often made itself visible at sundown. Not for no reason either; at full moon, all those who sat at the bus stop and waited for the pixie keeper would find it might deliver them a pregnancy, if they wanted one, or relieve them of another if they didn’t. That’s how it became the stoners’ spot in the first place. Boys would start taking their girls there instead of to the clinic for the morning-after pill. They’d sit and wait, smoking and making out until nightfall, when the pixie would appear and sort them out. But it had to be the full-moon night to work, not a night before or after, otherwise you could never know what might happen. ‘That’s how you could find yourself accidentally pregnant with a changeling baby,’ Lara said.
‘A what?’ I said.
‘A changeling baby. A fairy kid from another realm that might look human but there’s something off about it. Not quite right. Sinister. Doesn’t really fit in and doesn’t know why. Doesn’t know it’s got a whole fairy family somewhere, probably where there’s another human kid just like them confused as to why it don’t look like it’s family either. Imagine! Fuck that,’ Lara said. ‘Nah, we better go.’
She stood up to leave but I pulled at her wrist, my throat suddenly feeling dry, head dizzy. ‘But then what happens?’ I asked.
‘Hmm?’ She said absentmindedly, loosening my grip so it was less tight, less sweaty on her wrist.
‘To the changeling baby and the human one? Do they ever make it back?’ I asked. She smiled at me gently, pityingly, in the way that she did whenever she remembered my age again. ‘Yeah, sure, they make it back, kiddo,’ Lara said. ‘But they have to wait for the day a comet goes past, a specific one. It’s so bright that you can see it easily from Earth. And then, on that
day only, the pixie power is strong enough to switch the babies back. But that comet only comes round every eighty years, or something, so people have been waiting a long time.’
‘So it’s coming round again soon?’ I asked, eager.
‘Oh yeah,’ Lara said. ‘I saw it on the internet. I think it’s maybe even coming this year.’
On the way back home we ran into a group of older girls from Lara’s school. They themselves were on their way up to the bus stop, had the tell-tale long cigarettes hanging out their mouths, but they carried beers and bottles of cider as well, with mean grins hanging off their faces. Lara hurried us past them, but as they we were nearly out of sight one of them shouted down at Lara, calling her a slag. The others repeated it and laughed.
‘Creeps,’ Lara said to me. ‘You know they only come here because these sports guys from the city run this way on their training. It’s pathetic.’
I wondered if that’s why Lara went there too. She had mentioned these city guys before, said how they were cooler than any of the boys in the villages, had that that kind of swagger about them that you can only get from living in a city. She’d tried to identify what was different exactly but paused abruptly, said it would only make sense when I saw them. I wondered if it was one of them who she’d been crying over at the bus stop that day, and maybe that had been the real reason we’d left before sundown. Perhaps there had been boy drama involving one of those older girls. Perhaps she knew they’d be coming, and the changeling story had just been her cover.
When we got back to the cul-de-sac, we paused next to the bus stop, our original bus stop, and in that lingering moment the last few hours seemed to fashion a dreamlike quality for themselves, as if maybe they hadn’t happened at all. Lara and I looked at each other, her face searching mine, as if both of us were about to say something but still working out which order the words should go in. I became very aware that I didn’t want her to leave. Not one bit. After a while, realising that neither of us was going to punctuate the silence, she smiled at me, that same pitying smile from earlier, and ruffled my bald head.
‘Well, later then,’ she said, and, saying nothing, I watched her walk back towards her house.
In the months that followed, I didn’t see much of Lara. School had started again and she was beginning her GCSEs. Her curfew had been extended, and she’d made some new older friends because of it. One boy in particular was brought up often, and now she spent all her time ‘studying’ which mostly, I began to realise, meant that she was studying with him. She’d invite me along to the library, told me she actively wanted me to meet him, but I’d always decline, selfishly wanting her to myself. I missed her attention impossibly, would spend hours waiting at the bus stop on the cul-de-sac for her to come home after school, only for her to trudge past late into the evening, her eyes sleepy and happy, and say ‘Go home Marley, there’s nothing here to wait for. You know that the bus isn’t coming.’
That I kept refusing to meet Lara’s new friend seemed to irritate her. I felt that she was taking it personally. She’d stopped finding time to shave my hair for me and I’d developed too much pride to nag so I did it myself. I couldn’t style it properly like her, didn’t know to use a razor guard, so I’d end up shaving the whole thing down to my scalp and it would take over a week for me to stop looking like a skinned rat.
It looked silly, and I blamed Lara for that entirely. I hated the looks Mum and Sam would share with each other whenever I came down to eat. Hated myself that I wasn’t interesting enough or old enough or male enough to hold Lara’s attention anymore. Wondered about those guys from the city, the ones she thought were cool, and imagined them as large, hulking beasts with crossed eyes and fat, dribbling mouths. Hated how Lara would probably swoon over them regardless. But mostly I hated how, for reasons I wasn’t sure why, this thought could almost bring me to tears.
More than anything, I couldn’t stop thinking about the comet. After eighty years of absence, it would arrive the same week as my birthday. In fact, I’d looked it up on the internet, and it was to arrive just the day before. The more I thought about it, the more I suspected it was a sign. I kept remembering the yearning I had felt the day Lara had taken me to Pur Dhu Porth the first time, replayed the feelings over and over again like a gif. It was as if home had been calling me back.
I became certain about my suspicions one evening. It was just after I’d shaved my hair. I’d carelessly nicked the back of my ear with the razor and blood had trickled down my neck and onto my collarbone. It was another excuse to be angry with myself, this incapable person, and I felt adrenaline bubbling inside me that needed a release. I bound my chest, and dressed in the most mannish clothes I could find: a man’s hoodie and a pair of basketball shorts I had stolen from Sam. Seething and pumped up, I spent the next hour shadow-boxing with myself in the mirror until the sweat began to rub off the dried blood and my heartbeat pumped in my ears. It was that moment, growling at myself in the mirror, breath heavy and harsh, that I made eye contact with my reflection. I took myself in, and it took me in, our eyes locked, and then there, just for a split second, my reflection’s eyes went entirely black. The pupils grew and engulfed the iris, the whites became shadows, two large holes in my face. Each eye, both of them, pitch black.
And then I realised what I was.
At nights I would toss and turn in bed, my body sweaty, picking and prodding and scratching at the skin I knew wasn’t mine. I was trying to catch myself out, expose what I’d already seen in the mirror, find some secret inhuman flaw that proved what Lara had been trying to make clear to me at the cliffs. The days leading up to the comet’s arrival passed like memories, and I slipped through them hazily, all versions of myself colliding towards their final destination.
The comet was set to pass on a Wednesday, in the early hours just before sunrise. I was to turn thirteen on the Thursday. I imagined how joyous the celebrations would be, how complete my family would feel, how much love they would be able to extend to the real me once the switch had taken place. When I’d fallen asleep on Tuesday it was the first night I had slept soundly for weeks. I was barely aware that any hours had passed when my alarm went off at midnight, yanking me into Wednesday morning.
I dressed myself again in the hoodie and basketball shorts, the outfit now seeming like a good omen, and carefully tidied my room, putting all my things in their rightful place, and made my bed. I wanted to leave a good impression for whoever slept in it next. I wrote a note to Mum and Sam, who I felt deserved an explanation. ‘I need to go back to where I belong’, it said. ‘All will work out as it should.’ I left it on the kitchen table on my way out.
I had never been to Pur Dhu Porth in the dark before. The trail was harder to follow in the moonlight, almost invisible. But the cliffs seemed alive, the trees guiding me with their rustles in the wind, calling me forward, calling me home. I was sure it should have been cold but I couldn’t feel it. Sweat beaded at the top of my forehead and my heart raced. I wiped my brow, only to realise that my eyes had been watering too, like the changeling inside of me could no longer be kept hidden, like the strangeness about me was starting to leak out.
I arrived at the bus stop feeling exhausted, flopping forward onto the cold stone. I called out to the comet, to the pixie at the stones, and told them, yes, I am here, it is time, take me back, and the trees rustled around me and repeated it back to the sky, whispered look, they are here, it is time, take them back, and the trees opened up their halo and spread themselves, stepping out of the way of the view so that the sky could expand into a canvas of stars, enveloping, engulfing, and I stayed there agape and made peace with my term on earth, and I said goodbye, goodbye, and a light sparked in the centre of the canvas, a large beaming flash that grew and grew, and the comet made its way towards me, dived down, broke earth’s atmosphere and travelled with speed, with elegance, down down and into my open mouth, blinding me totally, and I swallowed it whole.
When my eyes readjusted it had become daylight, and feet were stampeding past me, heading further up the cliff. I squinted, shielding my eyes from the sun, and waited for the commotion to finish. When the footsteps had died out, I saw that one person had remained. He stood so still he was almost motionless, staring at me, his eyes so dark they looked black. I stared back at him. He wore a hoodie and basketball shorts, had brown skin and hair shaved close to the scalp. I stood up, facing him now, and copied his stance. He didn’t move. I cocked my head to the side inquisitively, and almost immediately, he did the same, mirroring me. My breath caught, scared to move again, scared, perhaps, that I was controlling him. That I was him. But then he nodded, as if something had satisfied him. He smiled then, turned on his heel, and ran. Instinctively, I ran after him.
We ran up the cliffs, following the same beaten path the rest of the footsteps had taken. He was faster than me, and I’d fallen behind, unsure exactly where I was going, but following my instincts to wherever they led me. It felt freeing. Eventually, I burst into a wide clearing, the topof the cliff, where you can see out over the villages and the stone beach, where the sea looks knitted to the sky. Nearer the edge, a group of boys in sportswear laughed with each other, drinking water, wiping sweat off their faces and admiring the view. I took them in properly now, saw how much they all looked like me, saw how many of them looked like me, the sunlight idly washing over them, delighted to be illuminating their brown and golden skin.
The boy I’d followed stood by a tree, alone, hugging a punch-bag that had been tied to a branch. When he saw me, he jumped up, animated. He had clearly been waiting for me.I walked towards him.
‘Marley?,’ he said, and held out a hand for me to shake. I shook it, dazed.
‘Lara,’ he said, answering my question before I had asked it. ‘You’re exactly how she described.’ He steadied the punch bag, hit it a few times himself so it swung in a circle, making the branch wiggle a little. Then he steadied it again, stepped back, smiling, and offered a turn to me.
So I took a breath, settled into my stance. And then I raised a fist.