I will always remember the bright spring day when Nichola began working in this sweatshop with its heavy iron doors and its blacked out barred windows. The first time I spoke to her I realised she was beautiful from head to toe in appearance and in nature. Our first encounter was cut short by the deafening sound of the production line. Clangs, bangs, vibrations and grindings – I never knew there was so much work involved in producing the body of a Ford Escort. From this time onwards I knew she was unlike any person I had ever met before.
I had a feeling that this was going to become a steadfast friendship from when we had our first conversation in the canteen. Our conversation began when I jokingly commented on her large appetite. For someone so chatty she showed obvious signs of shyness. This became apparent in the shower room, where she insisted on waiting to use one of the individual showers rather than the communal ones. Over the next fortnight our conversations became more frequent and it was becoming clear that there was something special about her.
It was not her soft Norfolk accent – which was rarely heard in this region – her unblemished skin or her unflawed hair style. it was something much more subtle and underlying. Nichola and myself soon found ourselves counting down the days until Wednesday evening when we would talk and laugh over a drink. Most of the workers, male and female, had noticed her immense individuality and were all keen to spend their free leisure time with her. Despite her immeasurable popularity she still seemed to shy away and play her popularity down.
This modesty only magnetised new friendships and interests. Another main reason for her popularity was her willingness to undertake work of any kind even if it was hardy and heavy, even helping others with their work in the process. In fact Nichola seemed to relish hard physical work. I sometimes wondered where she got her immense strength from. Time in the dirty distracting factory environment seemed to pass much more quickly now I had found my much envied friendship with her.
In our many conversations it puzzled me how the topic of her family never seemed to arise. As our friendship blossomed, shopping excursions on a Saturday became much more frequent and also more monotonous due to the fact Nichola would only shop where there were individual fitting rooms. One of her most endearing qualities was an obvious appreciation of mine and the other girls friendship. It was as though she had – sadly – never had any real friends before, although this seemed unlikely as her kind nature always attracted attention.
She was more relaxed out of the work place with just a small group of people and on our evenings out, Nichola was always the loudest and keenest to have fun, almost as though she felt the friendship could have ended at any given moment. Her amazing character never ceased to attract attention from men, but she chose to shun them and shy away from too much involvement or contact with them. One autumnal October morning at precisely 9:00am the production line began.
We had been working for 15 minutes when there was a piercing, unforgettable scream – one of the machines had fallen on top of one of the other women. Everyone began to panic, except for shy Nichola who suddenly took charge. She sent someone for the ambulance and she single handedly pushed the machine from on top of the women whilst the other workers watched in ore. The men returned with a jack to lift the machine, only to be greeted by the cheers for Nichola, who had saved someone’s life.
She was shaken but still insisted on travelling to the hospital with the women and myself, as it was felt I may have been required as I witness to the accident. Once at the hospital she became agitated and nervous and it seemed she was trying to avoid contact with a certain young doctor who appeared to know her. When I tried to talk to her about him, I experienced a side of Nichola I had never seen before. She became angry and irate until she seemed to tire at which time she began sobbing uncontrollably.
Instantly the young male doctor lead us to a private room. He encouraged Nichola to tell me, of what I was unsure, so I sat patiently and puzzled until she seemed ready to speak. I took hold of her hand and tried to reassure her, although this was difficult as I had come to my own conclusion of her shyness and upset. She blurted out “I was born with a male body but I am a woman, a woman. It’s not how I look – it’s all in the mind. ” As I held her in my arms she told me how she hated the coarseness of male skin and how she hated the harshness of male features.
She explained that the young doctor was the psychiatrist who helped her though the mental torment prior to the operation and he helped her to rehabilitate herself in her new body afterwards. All of the small but strange occurrences fitted in, her immense strength, her rough hands, the way she would shun men. She hated attention, and most of all her shyness. Although she became a hero for saving a women’s life, in the process she destroyed her own, feeling the need to move away again. We never kept in touch as she wanted a new start, but I have certainly learnt that appearance is not always reality.