Only a few minutes after the news breaks that some restrictions are being lifted, Tom’s phone buzzes with a text.
Sam: come visit? ❤️
Tom fires back a response.
Tom: Not even a question – tomorrow?
Sam: of course
Tom tightens his grip on the steering wheel of the car. He hasn’t even left the driveway yet, but-
After so long at home, only venturing out once a fortnight to the local shop, the very thought of travelling two hundred miles to Bath is paralysing.
He’s used to his limited surroundings now, with only his twin for company. Anything past that seems wrong, almost.
He looks at the rucksack on the passenger seat. He’s packed a few days’ worth of clothes, pyjamas, his washbag – the usual toothbrush, toothpaste – the unusual mascara, lipstick.
Over the past months, Sam has been nothing but supportive to him, from that first disastrous video call until now.
It’s been an unspoken kind of I’ve got your back, not anything verbal. Tom knows it’s the elephant in the Zoom meeting room, but he can’t force the words out.
That’s why the makeup is safely stowed at the bottom of his bag, wrapped in a T-shirt and plausible deniability.
(That, and the inevitable stop at the services on the way – he doesn’t want any funny looks, let alone an interrogation by his employers when it gets out on social media.)
(He’s not famous famous, but he is a rugby player. There are standards, however shitty, to uphold.)
A few raindrops had splattered on to the windscreen while he was prevaricating, and he flicks on the wipers before turning on the engine.
It would be fine. Sam was one of his closer friends before lockdown, and he could probably break the top three now.
It would be fine.
It’s harder to convince himself when he passes the welcome to Somerset sign.
Sam’s a great guy, but they went from four months spending almost every waking moment together, to nothing for a month, then straight back to England camp for six weeks, and now they haven’t seen each other for almost half a year.
What if it’s weird? Tom’s weird enough for the two of them, he knows that, but what if their online friendship doesn’t stand up to real life?
The satnav instructs him to take the next left and he obediently turns on the indicator.
His breathing syncs to the rhythmic tick, tock, tick, tock of the signal.
There’s a gap in the oncoming traffic – maybe bigger than he would have taken, before – and he heads onto Sam’s road.
He’d looked it up on Google Earth last night, just to make sure. Enough things could go wrong without getting lost on the way.
“You have arrived at your destination,” the satnav informs him in clipped tones.
“Thanks,” he murmurs, and parks the car on the end of the drive, a few metres back from the road.
He undoes his seatbelt, feels the grounding weight of the rucksack in his hand. He checks his hair is still tied in its neat bun in the rear-view mirror and pulls up the hood of his jacket against the rain – it’s heavier now than when he set off in the morning.
He forces a deep breath in and out before getting out of the car. He locks it and starts to trudge across the gravel to the house, heart pounding, when the door opens.
“Tom!” He looks up at his name.
Sam’s standing there, beaming, the biggest grin on his face.
“Sammy,” he mumbles, choked up. He walks faster, almost breaking into a jog.
“God, mate, I missed you,” Sam says as he gathers Tom up in a hug. “You don’t know how much.”
“I just might,” Tom laughs wetly, dropping his bag in favour of wrapping his arms around Sam’s shoulders.
They cling to each other. Tom can feel the cool rain on his back and the warmth of Sam in front of him.
Sam’s about the same size as his twin, so that doesn’t account for how much calmer he feels in his arms.
“You been working out?” he asks finally, pulling back and poking at Sam’s shoulders. “You could crush me with those things.”
“Like I couldn’t before,” Sam teases, eyes bright. He picks up Tom’s bag and leads them inside.
For all Tom’s discomfort on the journey here, this is the most in his comfort zone he’s been for ages, even though his actual house is hundreds of miles away.
The warm, squirmy excitement in his stomach doesn’t subside when he sees Josie, either.
“It’s good to see you,” he says, before deciding what the hell and hugging her as well.
“You too,” she says from somewhere around his chest. She stretches up to press a quick kiss to her boyfriend’s cheek, chirps out a “I’ll leave you boys to it!”, and leaves the kitchen.
Tom sees Sam flinch and, for all he’s grateful for it, he wanted more than five minutes before they had to talk about – about it.
The problem is, thinking about it is one thing, but saying the words out loud is a whole other challenge; union and league.
“Not now,” he blurts out, before Sam starts to speak. “Let’s catch up first, yeah? We can talk about it later, but I can’t, right now.”
“That’s fine,” Sam says with a gentle smile, sounding relieved himself. “Cup of tea? Traffic must have been hell, everyone starting to move around again. And the weather too – can’t have been a fun journey.”
Tom relaxes into the mundane conversation, leaning against one of the cabinets as Sam potters around with their drinks. There’s a bubbling unease under the surface, but it doesn’t feel like it’s going to erupt.
Although – you never do know when it’s going to erupt. It could be a small explosion, or a once-in-a-lifetime supervolcano.
Tom crosses his fingers that it won’t be the latter. He’s had enough crying breakdowns on Sam in the last year – the poor man doesn’t deserve any more.
Sam hands him his tea and he takes it with thanks. They walk to the living room and take up seats at opposite ends of the sofa. Feeling brave, Tom presses his socked feet against Sam’s calf.
His friend looks at the contact and smiles. It’s the confidence boost he needs. Trust Sam, always there to steady the ship.
“If you want to talk about – it,” he says meaningfully, “we can. I think I’m ready.”
“Only if you’re sure,” Sam replies, squeezing Tom’s ankle briefly before pulling back.
Tom smiles at him, stomach churning.
It doesn’t have to be now.
But it does: he’s already made that promise to himself.
Not now though… Five minutes?
“Hey, hey, Tommy,” he hears Sam murmuring distantly. “It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything you’re not comfortable with.”
He forces himself back into his body, swiping at the tears that had appeared on his face.
“I know. Thanks,” he says miserably, accepting the tissue Sam offers to him.
He opens his mouth to speak. The words are backing up in his mouth like the traffic on the M6 toll road.
Come on, Tom, for fuck’s sake. He already knows. Just say it.
But say what, though?
Some days I’m fine with the way I look and the way people talk about me, and some days I would rather scratch my own face off than hear Ben call me his brother one more time.
Some days, I like wearing makeup and being pretty. Other days, I think it’s weird and I hate it, hate me.
I’ve been thinking like this for years, that I’m some flavour of trans, or non-binary, or gender non-conforming.
But what if I’m just fucked in the head?
A sob rips from Tom’s throat. His hands are clenched into fists, and his eyes are squeezed shut. He can’t stop the tears pushing their way out, rolling down his face.
Why did he ever think this was a good idea?
“Tom,” Sam says. It sounds like he’s been saying it for a while. “Tom, can you breathe more slowly for me? Tom?”
He latches on to the words, a rope to a drowning swimmer.
“That’s good, mate, well done. Keep breathing with me. Just like that.”
When his breathing is slow enough that he’s not gasping for air, the tears return with a vengeance. He presses his face to the sofa in a futile effort to hide them from Sam.
He hears Sam start to speak again and he jumps in, has to forestall the inevitable sympathy.
“I don’t know where to start. I don’t talk to people about this sort of thing, ever.”
Sam is a steadying presence in the periphery. Sitting, waiting, letting Tom come to him.
“It’s always been a kind of private thing in my head, but these last few months… I started exploring it for the first time, in real life.”
“I like it. But I literally can’t get the words out. Even-” trans, he fills in mentally, shaping the sound with his lips- “it’s just stuck. I want to be more open, like this, talking to you, but words don’t work, not out loud.”
He stops, looking at Sam almost desperately. He’d be able to help, surely. That was why Tom had accepted the call all those weeks ago instead of cutting all communication until Sam forgot.
“That sounds really tough,” Sam says softly, meeting his eyes. “I can’t imagine what it must feel like for you.”
“I want you to know,” Tom bursts out, surprising them both. “I want to tell you, but the stupid words – it’s like some self-protection mechanism. My brain’s just stopping the signal, or something.”
“You could try writing it down, or texting?” Sam suggests. “If you know what you want to say. I could always leave the room and come back when you’ve sent the messages.”
Tom shuffles round until his head is resting on Sam’s shoulder. “That’s – yeah. That would probably work.”
He shifts, pulling his phone out and making sure Sam can’t leave. If he can’t communicate this verbally – audibly? – then he can at least show that he needs the physical connection.
Opening up their text conversation, he presses his head back into Sam for a second before starting to type.
Tom: I’ve known for ages that ‘being a man’ isn’t for me
Tom: like pretty much a decade, but no one knows
Tom: not even Ben
Tom: but I trust you, and I guess you already know most of it
He pauses. “Are you reading these?”
“Do you want me to now, or should I wait?” Sam asks, voice rumbling against his back.
He considers, touched. “Now, I suppose. Get it over with.”
Tom: I’m sometimes fine with being a guy and I might be non-binary (kind of in the middle/outside the Venn diagram) but then I don’t know if that’s because I’m scared of being a girl
Tom: it’s just aaaaargh and I don’t know what I think and I’m scared to tell anyone in case I change my mind or it turns out I’ve been cis all along
He clicks off the phone screen. It’s not everything; not all the messy feelings he could spew out onto Sam via satellite, but it’s enough for now.
It buzzes in his clammy hands.
Sam: I can’t pretend to know what all those words mean to you, but thank you for telling me – I’ll do some reading
Sam: I hope you feel better now
Sam: love you kid 👨👦
“Is that okay?” Tom asks, hating the quiver in his voice. He needs to be more assertive about this (that’s what all the websites say), but at the same time he just wants a hug.
“It’s absolutely fine, mate,” Sam tightens his arms around his friend and kisses the top of his head. “I’m really proud of you. And if you ever want – different pronouns, or to try out a new name, you only have to ask.”
Tom wriggles round to return the hug. “Thanks, Sammy. So much.”
“Anytime, kid.” His stomach gurgles, surprising a laugh out of Tom. “It’s nearly dinner – do you want to go and see Josie in the kitchen together? You can stay here, too: whatever you’re comfortable with.”
“Are you going to tell her?” he asks. He doesn’t know if he wants that or not. It would be easier for Sam to do it, but then he doesn’t know Josie as well, doesn’t know if he can trust her.
“Only if you ask me to,” Sam says steadily, ruffling at Tom’s hair.
“Maybe tomorrow,” he murmurs. With all the upheaval of the day – he was at home and closeted that morning, like the previous God-knows-how-many months – he could easily fall asleep right there on the sofa.
Sam eases himself out from under Tom. “I’m going to go through for a few minutes, okay? I’ll tell her that you’re a bit-” he wiggles his hand- “emotionally fraught at the moment, but nothing else. I can call you through when it’s ready?”
“Sounds good,” Tom mumbles in reply. He shifts into the warm spot Sam left behind, curling in on himself.
He can hear Sam’s low tones contrasting with Josie’s bright laugh and the clink of cutlery.
The sun had come out at some point during their conversation. It shines on a vase of flowers, sending refracted rainbows spiralling around the room.
He stretches out his legs and yawns. This is the most relaxed he has felt in years.
From somewhere in the depths of his brain, one of his first coach’s catchphrases surfaces.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Tom smiles to himself; a private, small thing.
The journey has begun.