In my twenties and thirties, I thought about transitioning to another gender, or at least out of masculinity. It really didn’t seem like such a good idea, the masculinity. But the transition seemed impossible. I knew transwomen. I knew what they had been through. Transwomen had told me their stories, and I had read some others. Some of the stories I heard from young transwomen were particularly moving.
I lived in Kings Cross, in Sydney for a while. It is a particularly difficult place to park a car. I got in the habit of parking it in Premier Lane. At the time it was known as Tranny Lane. Trans sex workers sat on the cars there, smoking cigarettes. They sat on my car. I didn’t object. Sometimes we talked. Lives a lot harder than mine would ever be, and yet they were managing at least to live as who they were.
The stories transwomen told me about childhood moments often had things that chimed with me. I remember being naked in my room, acting out superhero characters I made up, based on whatever objects were to hand. I took a plastic child’s bow from a bow and arrow set and put it around my waist, the string at the back, the bow like invisible wings, curved around the belly. With a cartoon flash that went right through me, my gender changed. Bow Girl was a she.
The second worst thing that happened when I was little, aged about six, was that my father took me on his knee and told me that my mother was dead. It was a very different sort of flash that went through me. Not one where I became someone else. One where I became nothing at all. That was the second worst thing I remember.
The worst was a different sort of moment. I hadn’t thought about it for a long time. I told my therapist about it and burst into tears. It is strange what leaves the most impression. In the scale of things that can happen to a child it isn’t all that bad. Except to me.
This happened after my mother had died. I was in the hospital. Royal Newcastle Hospital: In those days it was right on Newcastle beach. Sometimes you could hear the waves. It got sold off. It’s apartments now. I was in the children’s ward. There were maybe thirty other kids in the ward, not counting those out on the balcony. It was after lights out.
The reason I was in hospital is that I was born with clubbed feet. Both feet turned inwards and pointed downwards. I’d had an operation on them as an infant, although I only know this from pictures and stories. I learned to walk with casts on both legs, apparently. There’s a picture of that time. I don’t look terribly happy about it. More like some grim determination to be bipedal.
There were various other attempts to fix these feet. I had to wear a contraption every night that they were strapped into, feet forced to point outwards. My father tried to save money by making the thing out of a toy Meccano building kit, but the nuts and screws kept coming lose, and tore the sheets. So he had to spring for the surgical appliance – and new sheets. That might be when I got the ones with cowboys on them. I wasn’t sure about cowboys.
There were cowboys on television. There’s a story about when my big brother and some other boys were playing cowboys and Indians, they made my big sister be the Indian, and tied her up. I pictured her dressed in fringed leather, bound in ropes. This seemed glamorous, as did bows and arrows. I always wanted the Indians to win. There just seemed something off about cowboys.
The foot-brace thing was a torment. I couldn’t close my eyes to fall asleep on my back. I still can’t. I would lie awake looking at the darkness. My room was very dark. I liked the swirling patterns the darkness made if I kept my eyes open. Everything visible could dissolve and swirl. Images emerged out of the patterns, and out of the images, stories. I still go to sleep this way sometimes.
The scariest show on television was the science fiction serial Dr Who. The most terrifying villains on Dr Who were the alien robot Daleks. I find it hard to believe how scary they seemed now. When my son and I visited the Dr Who Museum in London, not long ago, they had some actual Dalek used on the show, and we had our picture taken as if we were shooting Daleks with ray-guns. The Daleks are made out of bits of plywood, cardboard and glue.
When I was little, one of my favorite stories to tell myself while trying to get to sleep was about Daleks. I am tied up in a blank room. I must go to sleep. If I do not sleep, the Daleks will exterminate me. They come into the room over and over to check on me. I pretend to be asleep. Except there is one Dalek who is not like the others and who is my friend. This one is orange, unlike all the others. I don’t know where the colour came from, as our TV was black and white. This Dalek knows and accepts that I go to sleep with my eyes open, making patterns out of the invisible world.
The second operation on my feet was when I was about seven. I was in the public ward. They did one foot, then the other. The first time it was all a bit disorienting. Wheeled on a gurney about the hospital, which seemed an endless maze. Nurses in white uniforms and white hats. All very white. The gas that put me under, while I counted, the second before losing consciousness, not wanting to go. Later I imagined this is what it is like to die.
I woke up not knowing where I was. I was not back in the ward. They wheeled me back to the ward. Where my right leg was supposed to be was some truly strange and disturbing sensation. Like it wasn’t there but something else was. It was supposed to be a better version of my foot but it felt like a giant claw that I could touch on the outside but not feel on the inside.
The afternoon wasn’t so bad. My brother and sister came to see me. They were teenagers by now. After our mother died, they became surrogate parents. Our dad was an OK dad, but he worked a lot. He was loving but remote, and with a hair-trigger temper. I was mostly raised by teenagers. They brought food and treats and a book of stories about mythical and magical beasts. After they left I did not feel like reading but I looked at the pictures. I felt like some kind of beast in a chrysalis. There was a barrel-vaulted wire frame over my legs to keep the covers up. I hid the book and the treats in there.
When it was time for lights out, I knew the drill, as this was my second night. Sleep would be difficult, lying on my back. It was not quite dark enough to stare at nothing, but I tried. Over and over, the nurse kept pestering me to close my eyes. I tried to make up stories about Daleks and Indians, where the good Dalek helps the Indians fight the cowboys, shooting arrows and death rays at them as they fall back.
As it was my second night on the ward, I knew I could endure all this. New situations were alarming to me, like a death. The ward was not so new to me now. Not so with the new kid on the ward. He was on the other side. I could not see much of him. He was younger than me, so already I regarded him with a certain amount of contempt. It seemed like he had gone to sleep. Then he woke up, disoriented, frightened, alone. He called out for his mother.
And wouldn’t stop. The nurse on night duty did her best to calm him. He wouldn’t stop. Over and over, he kept calling and calling for her. A voice so desperate, so lost, a wail of absolute need. Nothing would placate him. At first his cries had been animated, urgent. That cut me. But then his cries settled into a rhythm of relentless hopeless pleading. As if he was pacing himself, as if he knew he would have to cry all night. And he did. That gutted me.
He woke up most of the ward, calling and calling. Some of the other kids tried to calm him, but some yelled at him, told him to shut up. The nurse was driven to distraction, trying to deal now both with this bereft child and with the rest of the ward, awake. I was mad at him, but I said nothing.
This is one of three things it took me fifty years to figure out. It came out with my therapist. I was mad at that kid, and later I was ashamed of myself for not being sympathetic to him. I was supposed to be on the side of the Indians, but that night I wasn’t. The feeling of shame about this took over the memory. I forgot why I was mad at him in the first place.
I was mad at him not for keeping me awake. I expected to spend the night staring at the ceiling making up stories about Daleks, protected by the odd orange Dalek in revolt against all the others who would not exterminate me for being awake. I was mad at him because his mother would eventually come and my mother would not. I was mad at him for having a mother to call out for when I did not. I was mad at the world that had exterminated her.
The second thing I figured out, after fifty years, is that what made it worse is not just that this boy alone in a hospital could call his mother and I could not. It was also that it was in a hospital that I had last seen my mother. She died there. The hospital was like a Dalek, a grey and technical thing. And it had taken her. This is why this night was worse than that one where my father told me my mother was dead. Here was this boy calling for a mother I could not call, in the place that had taken her. If I called out I might be swallowed up in the void that took her, too.
Actually, it wasn’t this hospital. She was in the care of cancer specialists, down in Sydney. I had forgotten that there was a long car ride to see her that last time. I had made cardboard princesses, cones of cardboard with paper heads stuck on. I remember when I showed them that there was a flaw in my colouring-in of one of the faces, but I did not have my coloured pencils to fix it. I showed her anyway, something I had made, but was not my best work.
Clearing out a storage unit not so long ago, I found a box of letters, mostly from former boyfriends and girlfriends. In it was a postcard my mother sent me from that last hospital. There was a picture of the hospital on the front, and I recognised it. The card was written in her elegant hand. A card written to a child, just a few lines about everyday things, I imagine she thought it soothing to be so ordinary, maybe for herself as much as for her child. I have no memory of this postcard, of receiving it, or having it, or keeping it safe all these years.
The operation on the left leg did not go as well as the operation on the right. My surgeon, Gordon Kerridge, came in the middle of the night to the ward. For one thing, blood was seeping through the cast. A nurse had drawn around the spreading stain with a marker. It kept spreading. The nurse put the Nil By Mouth sign over my bed again. The next morning, I went back to surgery and they corrected whatever had not quite gone right.
After that, I was to stay in hospital for some months. My legs in casts. A time of boredom. They moved me onto the balcony where at least there was sunlight and the sound of the sea. The other kids out there were mostly in for the long haul too. I made friends with a boy my age. I would visit on his bed; he would visit on mine. We tried to hide out in the barrel vaulted cage over my bed, but it was not quite big enough for the two of us and my crab claw casts. We sang each other our favorite songs. I forget mine. His was ‘Wheels of Fire.’ He sang it quietly so the others wouldn’t hear.
He was in hospital for something to do with kidneys. He said that one day they would probably take him out of the hospital in a black box, forever. Nobody came with a black box. But one day he was gone and didn’t come back. Nobody would tell me if the box they put him in was black, or not.
A doctor cut the casts off with an electric saw. The skin inside was dark, scaly, reptilian. The feet did not look like my feet but some alien graft. Now began the long process of learning to walk. First on crutches. The ground seemed to swim under me. It was as if I was a sea creature trying to evolve to be on land all in one go. Day after day more exercises, to make me make the transition back into upright life.
It seemed to take forever, but then I was walking again. My walk was different. Odd at first, but as walking got easier, walking itself changed into something a bit more fluid. Running was still difficult. I could do a quick sprint but that was it. My feet still had no arches. My ankles barely rotate. To this day I don’t really have calves as there’s nothing for the muscle to pull on. The walking was better, however. The operations declared a successful experiment.
Gordon Kerridge made my feet. I feel like they are little sculptures of flesh that he and his team made for me. They kept me upright for a long time. Fifty years later it is getting hard to walk again. I can’t roam about and discover the spaces of cities like I used to do. Still, fifty years is a pretty good run for any work of human art or artifice.
The third and last thing that I figured out, as much as anyone ever figures anything out, is this: I did not want to transition when I was in my twenties or thirties, because I already had. My therapist was a bit shocked by this statement, which probably sounded crazy. That I was in a rather emotional state when I said it didn’t really help make it clear. My transition happened when I was seven. A transition to being a biped.
I went into that place, that place that had killed my mother. I had the worst night of my little life. Not the night when I was told that she had died. But the night when I was reminded that she would always be gone to me, and was reminded in the place that took her. That it was pointless to even cry out.
I had been put in the care of experts who had done their best to change my body with surgery. And it worked. But where usually knowing what something is like makes it less threatening and difficult for me, in this case, it’s the opposite. I never wanted anything like it to ever happen again.
The good thing about being in one’s fifties is that nobody really cares anymore about your physical presence in the world, as any gender. It just doesn’t matter all that much which gender you are. My wardrobe is mixed. The way I carry myself changes from day to day. Sometimes more male, sometimes more femme. Occasionally I’m asked: are you a man or a woman? Since I can’t really run away, I usually just answer: Yes.
At this age I really don’t care what anyone thinks. Maybe I should just tell them my gender is orange Dalek. They might be made of chipboard and glue, and have an issue with stairs, but they are still the scariest thing in the world.
McKenzie Wark is a Newcastle born, New York based writer, whose books include The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso 2011) and Molecular Red (Verso 2015). He is currently at work on a collection of autobiographical pieces.