It was mid-November, and Hilda Annersley was down with a bad cold. She had struggled through her lessons on the Friday morning, but by early evening her voice was hoarse and she was running a temperature.
Matey, noting her flushed cheeks and small appetite during Abendessen, tracked Hilda down not long after the meal had finished, and chivvied her off to bed.
“But, prayers…” croaked Hilda.
“Ruth and Jeanne will sort those out – I’ve already asked them and they’ve agreed. You’re in no fit state for anything. Bed!”
She escorted Hilda to her room and helped her undress. Hilda shivered violently as she struggled into bed and lay back on her pillows. Matey took her temperature and tutted, fishing in her pocket for a small bottle of paracetamol. “Now – two of these. Down the hatch.”
Hilda grimaced, but swallowed the tablets obediently.
“Good. I’ll be back to check on you later. Don’t worry about the school tonight; Ruth and Jeanne will look after everything. If you’re still this unwell tomorrow, you’re staying in bed then as well. I’m not having you pass this on to the rest of the staff. I don’t want an epidemic on my hands,” said Matey, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
“Oh, you!” said Hilda, hoarsely. “You know just where to get me where it hurts. I’ll be good. Now go and find some other poor soul to harass.” She settled down in her bed with a smile. Matey winked at her colleague and left, closing the door softly behind her.
Hilda sighed and coughed. She really did feel awful, and the temperature was making her ache all over. Eventually she fell into a deep sleep, and Matey, coming back to check on her later, was concerned to see Hilda still looked flushed.
The next morning, Hilda woke early. The light was dim in her room as it was not yet light. She rolled over and nearly fell out of bed. She hadn’t been sleeping that close to the edge, surely? She stretched, and her feet felt as if they were slightly over the end of the bed. That wasn’t right – she was a tall women, but not that tall. Puzzled, Hilda started to sit up, and coughed; not her normal cough but a deep rasping cough that didn’t sound like her at all. Her nightdress felt strangely tight, as if it were several sizes too small…..something was definitely wrong.
She sat on the edge of the bed and tried to make out the room; it looked different somehow, as if she was seeing it from a slightly different angle.
“Must be the temperature,” Hilda thought to herself. “I’m feeling weird and wobbly due to the cold.”
She staggered through to the bathroom and pulled on the light, wincing as she got used to the brightness. She caught a glance of herself in the mirror, and what she saw had her reeling backwards against the wall. She must be hallucinating - she must be. “It’s the high temperature, it has to be,” thought Hilda to herself.
Tentatively she looked in the mirror again….and her eyes widened and she drew in a huge breath of shock. Her usually long hair was now cut short, in a men’s cut – still the same brown with a few strands of grey, but definitely not her usual style. Her eyebrows were bushier than normal, and her face was definitely hers, but was fuller, with a broader, stronger chin.
“Oh god…..” thought Hilda, “I’m definitely hallucinating – or dreaming.”
She pinched herself – hard – to wake herself up from this weird situation.
“Ow!” she exclaimed, and then clapped her hand over her mouth in horror. The voice that she had heard wasn’t hers; it was deeper, more resonant than her usual voice, even taking into account her sore throat.
This was not happening. It had to be an awful dream. Hilda looked down at the rest of herself in the mirror. She was taller and stockier than usual – her hands were bigger and she felt physically different in space. She clapped her hands to her chest in panic.
“I’m……..a man!” she said despairingly. “Oh, this is awful…..how on earth did this happen……this has got to be a terrible nightmare. I just need to wake up somehow.”
She filled the sink with cold water and plunged her head in. The shock of the cold water made her gasp, and woke her up completely. She lifted her head slowly and looked unwillingly into the mirror. She was still male.
Hilda stumbled back through to her bedroom and sat on the bed, rubbing her face, water dripping on to her shoulders. Her mind was whirling. This was just ridiculous; it couldn’t be happening. People didn’t go to bed one night female and wake up the next morning male. It was impossible! Things like this didn’t happen to people like Hilda.
“What an earth am I going to do?! This is just……well I don’t know what it is……oh god, it’s awful.” She groaned and put her head in her hands. How would she explain this to the rest of the staff? She couldn’t stay on at the school……maybe she could discretely leave somehow, and explain to the staff and parents later?
A tap at the door roused her from her thoughts, and she froze in panic. She couldn’t let anyone in – no one could see her like this; they’d never believe what had happened. She rushed over to the door and held the handle upwards so that no one could enter. A fleeting thought passed through her head “Gosh, I’m strong!”
There was another tap at the door, and Hilda cleared her throat and tried to speak in a high voice so that she would sound more like herself.
“Um…. Who’s there?”
A voice answered – a voice that Hilda recognised but that didn’t quite sound as it usually did. “Gwynneth.”
“I……er……I don’t think you should come in. I’m not feeling myself.” Hilda cringed to herself as she spoke – this was the understatement of the year. She wondered how long she could delay Matey’s entrance.
There was a noise outside that sounded suspiciously like sniffing and the clearing of a throat. “I really think I should come in. Though, Hilda, it might be a bit of a shock.”
A sudden thought popped into Hilda’s head – what if it wasn’t just her that had woken up like this? Surely not Matey as well? She released her grip on the door handle and opened the door a crack. Peering through she saw someone that resembled Matey standing outside looking terrified, tears running down their face. Hilda opened the door a wee bit more and her eyes widened. Matey was also sporting a gents haircut and her face was more masculine. She too had broader shoulders and arms that were too long for her nightdress, and had grown by a couple of inches.
“Hilda, let me in, please,” begged Matey, desperately.
Hilda opened the door and Matey quickly entered and shut the door. She staggered back against the wall in shock. The two of them stood staring at each other through wide eyes.
“Oo –hhhhh!!” was all Matey could manage. Hilda now stood well over six foot tall, and her usually elegant frame had been replaced by a lean, athletic looking figure. She held herself still with an unconscious air of authority in spite of her obvious panic.
“You too?” breathed Hilda.
“What the hell is happening?” asked Matey, “We’re…….we’re men!”
Hilda began to pace backwards and forwards agitatedly. “I know…… I have no clue what’s happened – I mean… this is ridiculous. Things like this are impossible. This is a bad dream we’re both having, isn’t it? It must be! There’s no other explanation. Pinch me – go on!”
Hilda went over to Matey and proffered her arm, and Matey did likewise. The two of them pinched each other’s arms so hard that they both exclaimed.
“If it’s not a dream, then what is it?!” asked Matey.
“I have NO idea,” said Hilda in some panic. “It’s awful, is what it is. What are the girls going to think? Or the other staff? We can’t hide from them forever. What on earth are we going to do?”
Matey collapsed on to Hilda’s bed, head in hands. “Oh, this is horrible….this cannot be happening,” she moaned. “And my voice! It’s……..mannish!”
“Gwynneth, wait though…… if it’s happened to both of us – what if it’s happened to others as well?”
Chapter End Notes:
With thanks to Virginia Woolf for the 'inspiration' for the story, and also for the title (from Orlando).