Harriet stood in the stage’s wings, upstage right, and absent-mindedly fiddled with the “glass slipper” in her hand (it was actually a plastic sandal that had been over generously painted with glitter). Downstage, in front of the audience, Sophie (as Cinderella) was rushing around as the sound of a clocking striking midnight rang out. Still wearing the yellow ball-gown, Sophie was obviously preparing for the quick-change needed for when Cinderella’s spell wore off and she returned to being a kitchen maid. The children, playing the coachmen and footmen, were already rolling around the stage pretending to change back into mice and rats. Harriet was waiting to make her own entrance, moments after Sophie’s quick change, mouthing her own lines in preparation.
Before moving to Oakhill, the North London suburb were their new house was, Harriet had never taken part in Amateur Dramatics. She’d thought it was full of failed actors or those with even less talent, she’d thought of it as a sad joke. It was her new neighbour, Janet, who’d introduced her to The Oakhill Community Players, the local Amateur Dramatic society. Janet certainly wasn’t the “artist type” Harriet had always associated with them. To Janet, Amateur Dramatics was part of her social life, something to fill her time.
They had moved to their new house when Kenny, her husband, had been made a senior partner in his solicitor’s firm. It finally meant they could afford the big house Kenny had always promised them. It also meant she no longer needed to work part-time to support their family. So, on a bright September Saturday, Harriet, Kenny, Janie and Lilly (their two daughters) had moved into their new home.
At first, she had been busy simply organising her new home, re-decorating and repairing and getting everything the way they wanted it, but that hadn’t taken her as long as she thought it would. The house had already been in a high standard when they moved in. Suddenly she found herself with a lot of time upon her hands. The girls, at twelve and thirteen, didn’t need her fussing over them anymore and Kenny was increasing caught-up in the demands of his new job. No longer did she have the things in her life that filled up so much of her time, and now that free time hung heavily on her hands. She was bored.
The first time she went with Janet along to The Oakhill Community Players she found the place in turmoil. It was October but they were already preparing for their Christmas pantomime, Cinderella. They had begun auditions for it. Marcia, The Oakhill Community Players’ director, was rushing around in a highly animated manner, almost herding those there to audition.
Harriet had only gone along, that evening, to see what was involved. She told herself that if she got involved it would be in a backstage role, she’d never seen herself as an actor. Marcia, dressed in her trademark black (Harriet never saw her wear any other colour), had other ideas.
“You there, can you sing?” Marcia demanded the moment she set eyes on Harriet.
“Yes, but I can’t act,” she’d replied.
“Nonsense, everyone can act,” Marcia announced.
Suddenly Harriet was next to a piano and singing her heart out. When she’d finished her song Marcia cried out:
“At last, I’ve found our Prince Charming!”
It seemed, as usual, they’d been having trouble casting the pantomime’s principal boy. Harriet, with her short hair and gravely singing voice, was perfect casting, but she wasn’t sure. The idea of dressing up in thigh-length boots and tonic, slapping her thigh and showing plenty of cleavage didn’t appeal to her.
“Nonsense!” Marcia replied when Harriet voiced her objections. “We won’t be having that rubbish. Your costume will be bow-tie and tails, smart pants and a red sash. You’ll be smart not some tart in boots.”
Marcia’s explanation did put her mind at ease and the next moment she found herself cast as Prince Charming in the Christmas pantomime.
The production, even with Marcia’s vision, followed so many of pantomime’s traditions. There were the corny jokes, the pop songs peppered throughout the show, audience participation and even novelty acts. Prince Charming and Dandini (The Prince’s best friend) were both played by women and the Ugly Sisters by men, again as per tradition, but Marcia’s vision was that these performances would be male and female impersonations, rather then over-the-top drag acts. Hence, their costumes were almost normal clothes, the Ugly Sisters wore equally ugly and tasteless off-the-peg cocktail dresses.
It was Harriet’s costume that at first intrigued her and then, the more she had worn it, she had grown very attracted to it. It consisted of a jacket with tails, matching black trousers, white bow-tie with equally white dress-shirt and waistcoat, topped off by a bright scarlet sash.
At first, rehearsals had seemed awkward. Sophie, the very lively strawberry blonde cast as Cinderella, Harriet had found difficult acting against, especially during their romantic scenes together. She found it awkward and even embarrassing to be playing such intimate scenes with another woman. Then, when she was about to give up on the whole pantomime, they had their first of many dress rehearsals. Suddenly, wearing her costume and with her short hair gelled back, all the awkwardness and embracement was gone. She found it easy to strut around the stage, to command attention, and her romantic scenes now seemed so natural.
In her costume she found even her posture changed. Her shoulders would push backwards, straightening her spine, she would hold her hands at her side and even swing them when she walked, even her walk changed as her stride lengthened and became more purposeful. In those clothes she found herself becoming far more masculine, and deep down inside she liked that feeling.
At home she soon stopped wearing skirts and shied away from her floral clothes, instead favouring jeans and plain jumpers. But it was the dress rehearsals she looked forward to. Simply putting on her costume was an attraction in itself. The slightly rough unfinished quality of her woollen trousers, the solid and almost unmoving feeling of the shirt’s collar at her neck, the restriction of the waistcoat across her stomach, the way the jacket’s shoulders pushed her own ones back. This costume made her feel so confident and strong and she loved it.
At first she had just thought it was because she was finally “getting into character”, as Marcia had said she would. But soon she realised it was her costume, the actual clothes she was wearing. Before she’d got involved in The Oakhill Community Players pantomime, she had just thought clothes were simply something you wore. But wearing men’s clothes she’d found her masculine side and she liked it. If she could she would have worn her costume all day long.
Two weeks before the opening night she took herself off into the West End and, on Oxford Street, she went into the large GAP store there. Instead of going into the Women’s Section, worrying that the clothes there looked too “young” for her, she turned right into the Men’s Section. There she bought herself several pairs of jeans and chinos, with a selection of matching shirts. The woman at the Sales Counter, when she paid for them, didn’t bat an eyelid, even though Harriet felt a sudden rush of nerves as she handed her money over.
The next day, when she first tried wearing some of her new clothes, neither Kenny nor the girls made any comment, none of them even noticed they were new clothes; but Harriet did. She felt alive and herself in these clothes, as if by putting them on she had finally found who she really was. She certainly felt a lot more confident in these new clothes.
Since then she wore her new clothes every day, her dresses and skirts and other “soft” clothes being left alone in her wardrobe. It was so liberating to wear such simple and practical clothing, not to have to worry about careful coordination, to have clothes she’d just put on. With these clothes, even in such a short period of time, she found her own confidence growing.
Now, stood in the wings and waiting to make her entrance, Harriet found herself watching Sophie. As Cinderella, Sophie had successfully completed the quick change and was now running around the stage. She noticed how pretty and attractive Sophie was; now she was dressed again in her simple kitchen maid’s costume. Her strawberry blonde hair falling past her shoulders, her pale and almost milky white skin, the blush of freckles across her face, her wide and bright green eyes; Sophie was certainly an attractive woman. Harriet had never noticed this before and, in the briefest of moments, found her eyes dwelling on Sophie’s beauty.
Then Sophie exited the stage and it was Harriet’s turn.
She took a deep breath and, holding the “glass slipper” above her head, she strode across the stage, declaring:
“I swear by the light of the moon, that whoever’s foot this shoe fits I will marry.”