Melts us in to a shape

George Johnston

The Fringe Church


I meet Peter on a hot November morning at a popular north side coffee shop. If you were to walk past us you would see him as an ordinary seventy one year old, engaging in quiet conversation. He chats easily and is good company. If you were to get a little closer you may over hear snippets of his extraordinary story. This is a very small slice of that story.

 I think that people can be like ice bergs with most of their true nature hidden from view. It’s not always hidden deliberately; it’s often just not immediately visible. Some have their extraordinary lives on show and appear to tower over others. But of course much lies beneath the water line. Others are like those flat tabular ice bergs. They can be ordinary and unassuming in appearance while possessing an extraordinary depth of character beneath the surface.

The funny thing about ice bergs is that sometimes they can flip over exposing what’s underneath. If you have ever seen footage of a big berg rolling over you will know what that looks like. It’s a huge event. In life there will always be events that turn things upside down. Just ask Peter. His father died in 1960 leaving some unwarranted feelings of guilt for his mother.  In the same year, indeed in the same 48 hour period both Peter and one of his brothers where involved in separate serious accidents. Peter survived his while his brother did not. That in Peter’s words was when his family ended.

The end of one thing is usually the beginning of something else.  For Peter this new beginning would take him and his mother from his native Manchester around the world to Sydney, Australia. He did not want to go for this meant abandoning his job as an apprentice electrician. He would leave behind all that was familiar to him in England.

He speaks positively about his Mum and Dad. On this sunny Brisbane morning he recalls his mother taking him into Manchester where she worked in a little tea shop. When she took him on a much longer journey to Australia it was a difficult transition for he hated the change.  But he made the best of the situation joining the Air Force as soon as he turned 17. It was a good move as he stayed in the military for many years. He also met, married and had two children with a lady who saw him and loved him for who he is.

Life melts us in to a shape. Circumstances change us even as we try to change our lives to match each each challenge. The iceberg analogy comes back to me as I hear Peter speak. I imagine his berg would lie on its side between two worlds for Peter has always struggled with something that most of us take for granted, his gender.

His wife was aware of his struggle. She was compassionate and knew of his propensity to dress differently in the privacy of his own home. Reporting him to the military police seemed like the right thing to do but this was the early seventies when such behavior was less tolerated. Ultimately she supported his decision later in life to finally transition from Male to female. This happened when he was in his forties.

One of his doctors gave him advice which he took to heart.  It was to be plain. To not need to stand out and make himself a target for people who do not understand his story. In our current age this may be seen as hiding but as I listen to Peter it seems more like a healthy strategy to get on with life.

The twist to his story is that much later in life to the extent that he was able to do so he transitioned back.  Unpacking the reasons for this choice would fill a whole book and that is not my purpose here.
It would cover so many things like his faith and variety of life experiences. Remember I am just giving you with his permission a slice of his life. He has no regrets about his original choice to transition and knows that it is a difficult complex decision that people will make for themselves.

As I leave the coffee shop the street is a little busier with people trying not to melt in the midday sun. I wonder if they are all trying to pass as someone else. Maybe as someone braver or more confident, it may even be the other way around. Either way the possibilities are as endless as the range of lived experience.  I guess everyone is a mix of the ordinary and extraordinary. 

 Listening to a small portion of someone’s story, especially when it is different to ours can melt any of our preconceived ideas and expectations away.  I am not sure what I expected to hear before I met Peter. I guess I just expected to hear from the authentic person that he is today. I did.

 Peter speaks fondly of the warmth of his wife’s embrace as they slept at night, holding him as dreams and nightmares came and went.  We all have dreams and nightmares.  We all need to hold each other’s stories gently. It was a pleasure to listen to him. The open silence of listening sounds like love to me. So come a little closer and listen up.

19 November, 2022

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