Noel joined Marty on the way out and the boys walked down the road until they came to Bhaskar’s, a small newsagent whose owners’ daughter was the same Asha Bhaskar who was in Emma’s gang. A notice on the door warned: “Only three school children at a time.”
Hands in pockets, Noel strolled in.
Ms Bhaskar’s shop windows were filled with stationery, greetings cards, and lottery posters. Notices stuck to the inside with blu-tack offered second-hand bikes, kittens, washing-machines, dodgy jobs and rooms to rent. There was a post office booth in one corner. A smell of rain-soaked bodies and muddy shoes hit them the moment they were inside.
While Noel waited at the counter, Marty looked at the rack of greetings cards but there weren’t any rude or funny ones.
“All right, missus?” Noel nodded to Ms Bhaskar. “That’s not batteries on the top shelf is it? My bike lights’ve gone dead.”
“What sort do you want, my dear?”
“Three triple-As’ll do it.”
The diminutive Ms Bhaskar dragged a footstool over, climbed on and reached for the batteries. Noel looked quickly around. He eeled forwards on his chest and over the counter, reached just a foot or two from Ms Bhaskar’s waist, and took a box of cigarettes, with impressive aplomb.
“Duracell?” said Ms Bhaskar, turning round. “Or the cheaper ones?”
“Cheap’ll do me, thanks.”
Noel stuffed the cigarettes into his pocket.
“Just one pack, yes?” said Ms Bhaskar. And as she eased herself off the ladder, Noel snatched two Cadbury’s Creme Eggs from their tray and dropped them down Marty’s coat pocket. Marty was horrified. If he tried to put them back, Ms Bhaskar would catch him for sure.
Ms Bhaskar wiped some dust off the batteries. “That’s five pounds, love.”
Noel patted his pockets. “Aw, you know what, missus, I haven’t got that much. I’m going to have to come back. Sorry about the trouble – I made you climb all the way up there!”
“Oh, don’t worry, dear.”
“I’ll be back in later, yeah?” Noel called reassuringly, as he walked out.
Marty wanted to scarper from the crime scene as quick as possible, but Noel walked infuriatingly slowly. It had gently begun to rain. Noel was one of the those boys who scorned overcoats and the raindrops spotted his school shirt.
“Noel! Why’d you pinch those fags?”
“I told you, I’m educating you. It ain’t pinching, I liberated them from the oppression of a commercialised environment. Anyway I’ve gotta smoke, ain’t I?”
“What, you haven’t got five quid?”
“I ain’t got fuck all, mate.” Noel grinned and spread his hands, as if to say: what else can a guy do? “Give us a Creme Egg. They was my insurance policy, by the way.”
“Oi, I’m not a grass.” Marty unpeeled the remaining egg and took a bite.
“Maybe, but you are definitely well soft. Had your balls busted too many times by that sister of yours, and you totally bottled it with Emma back there. You need a bit of pluck, mate. Boys do dares. It’s what we do. Like footie and scrapping and nicking lead drainpipes.” He guffawed. “I suppose you’re turning into one of them sissy-boys who doesn’t want to get his dresses dirty.” He danced ahead, preening imaginary ringlets.
“Fuck off,” said Marty.
“How is your schoolwork coming on?” asked Mum at dinner.
Marty remembered he had Chemistry and French homework in his schoolbag, calling him urgently from upstairs. He shrugged. “’S all right.”
“What did your father have to say? I understand he texted you both today?”
“Yeah… good luck for the new term, you know.”
“Two weeks late,” observed Mum curtly.
“He’ll be OK.”
“He’s got to find a new flat,” said Gabby, “and he hasn’t found a job yet.”
Marty jabbed her with his foot. Why did she have to expose Dad like that?
“No, I don’t suppose he has,” said Mum. “He refused to do the housework despite being home the entire day and now he’s out on his arse he’s probably just as hopeless.”
Marty sulked into his fish fingers. There was no point discussing Dad with his mother, and they ate in silence.
Gabby gave him a nudge. “I’m sorry I was rude earlier, Marty-mouse. I didn’t mean to call you names, it just came out wrong. I do appreciate you ironing and stuff.”
Marty loved his sister, and he wished he found it easier to tell her so. “Don’t worry,” he said.
Marty appreciated the occasional book. But he was always disappointed when he scanned the library shelves for something that resembled life as he knew it. Teen fiction discussed romance in a weirdly sexless way, seemingly ignorant of the hothouse in which an adolescent really lives. None of the boys in books ever felt the queer organ between their legs stiffen with excitement: they never had to hold a bag or coat in front of them when they left a class, were never enflamed by sultry sex fantasies, and never ever masturbated. These visceral obsessions preoccupied Marty daily, and he was sure it wasn’t only him. Yet there was never a word in the meek, prudish books intended to help him ‘grow up’. The more he thought about it, the more astonishing the omission became. Presumably the problem was parents who wouldn’t tolerate frankness in the books written for their children – so, thanks guys, what do I read?
A girl brushed past, peering at book titles over her spectacles. School shirts and jumpers weren’t always the most flattering, but Marty gazed achingly at the voluptuous curve of her behind in her black trousers. Yes, girls were a great mystery for him. They had the power to bestow unthinkable bliss, yet never offered him a taste of it.
Now of course he had other girl problems. He had lain awake into the early hours, occasionally breaking into tremors, wondering what on earth had made him provoke Emma like that. Coming into school the next morning had never been so nerve-wracking as he tried to spot Emma or members of her gang in the crowd, like a hunted mouse who knows it’s been scented by a cat. Somehow the whole world looked darker and more threatening. Anxiety lurked everywhere. Even badly-done French homework felt like part of a conspiracy against him, a universe going wrong.
Fine, he had been pissed off. By a sister who insulted him and a society that treated his father like a turd. But he certainly knew how to pick his fights. In the blue corner, Emma Lamb, one of the coolest, hardest girls in the Fifth Form, who had probably cracked more nuts than KP. And, in the yellow corner: Marty-mouse, who did his sister’s ironing and didn’t dare nick a Creme Egg. Yes, he was a bit bigger and stronger than Emma, thanks to biology. But what good was that when the toecap of her school shoe was trained on his testicles?
Like most boys, Marty had experienced the odd mishap where it hurts – miskicked footballs, knees flailing during a playfight – but he’d never been kicked there in anger. Now his poor chaps had been directly threatened and he wondered how literally she’d meant it. The thought of Emma going for his goolies without restraint or pity made him squirm in horror.
“Nice knowing you, guys,” he muttered.
How about a book on that, eh, library, if you’re so clever? How to roll back time so that a few sentences spoken in anger were never said? That was admittedly a big ask, so failing that – how to appease the most dangerous bully in his year, if not the school? Chocolates, perhaps? Get on one’s knees and beg? What do you say, clever books?
For four or five days Marty crept into school, clung to the library, kept out of the playground, and scurried home the moment the bell rang. Billy, Peter and Alistair joshed him about his ‘new girlfriend’ who ‘obviously had the hots for him’. They were very impressed by the guts he’d shown standing up to the toughest girl in school. To Marty’s immense relief the ‘girlfriend’ didn’t come looking for him, so it seemed she wasn’t going to bother taking it further.
When his next library duty came up he vanished into the toilets halfway through for a spot of masturbation, which had become something of a routine – he even brought in a hanky especially. He would concentrate on whichever attractive girls had lately aroused him the most. Since the quarrel, Emma’s image, despite everything, shouldered aside the others. Dark and luscious, she stepped into the cubicle, sat astride him, unravelled her tie, unbuttoned her shirt; her rounded limbs were young and strong as she wrapped herself around him. Oh God!
He heard the door to the toilets swing open. He inspected the hanky’s contents then stuffed it in his bag as he opened the cubicle door.
Emma was standing in the boys’ loo as if she owned it. Kerry leaned a couple of yards behind her covering the door.
Marty had no chance to try and articulate some words before Emma surged towards him, seizing his collar. “Just the boy I want to see.” Frightened, he retreated as far as he was able, a few feet back into the cubicle. “So this bitch thinks girls are getting above themselves.”
Marty scarcely realised what was happening. He tried to pull free, but she shoved him against the cubicle wall. “Thought I’d forget about it, did you, bitch?”
He stammered out an apology, mesmerised by her glacial eyes.
“Oh, so you’re sorry, bitch? I seem to remember promising to bust your balls. Well, a promise is a promise.”
She jerked her knee up between his legs. Marty flinched in terror, instinctively lunging to protect himself, and managing with his split second’s warning to twist enough to escape the blow. She kicked again mercilessly at his testicles. It was all Marty could do to protect his boyhood with both hands, drawing his leg up at the knee and across his body for protection. It wasn’t fair!
“Emma!” Kerry had been busy at the sinks and she slapped something into her friend’s hand.
“Open your mouth,” Emma commanded, grabbing Marty’s jaw, “and clean it out, bitch.” Before Marty had understood what she said, she was stuffing a sopping pulp of hand-towels into his mouth. Marty’s hands were shielding his balls and he couldn’t push her away without exposing himself. Water splashed down his trouser legs. Losing his balance, he slid down the wall, gagging in disgust.
Emma took out her phone and contemptuously snapped a photo of him coughing the pulp out of his mouth.
“Now crush his fucking balls, Em,” said Kerry.
Emma put her phone back in her pocket and her face filled with grim purpose. Oh God! Oh shit!
A boy walked into the toilets, reaching under his skirt to scratch his thigh. He stopped abruptly when he saw two girls in there. “Get out of here, scrote,” snapped Kerry.
The boy took one look at Emma and Kerry, judged the balance of forces, and fumbled backwards out the door.
“You know, Kerry,” said Emma, with a look of luminous insight, “I’ve had the most wonderful idea. He’ll learn his place all right.” She turned back to Marty and, almost smiling, stabbed her finger at him. “I want you to come to school wearing a skirt, Welling.”
“That’s fucking excellent, Emma!” roared Kerry.
“Eh?” he cringed. “I haven’t got one.”
“Then get one, bitch! That way I’ll leave you alone. But every time I see you in trousers I’m going to crack your nuts, you understand? I’m not fucking joking. From now on you’re going to wear a skirt! Capeesh?”
Vindictive laughter. And then, mercifully, they were gone. Marty lay panting in shock on the cold tiles. After a minute he grabbed some toilet paper to mop up his tears.
Once he’d recovered his breath, he scrambled up before someone discovered him, and slipped out of the loo like a wary rabbit. He trod gingerly in his wet trousers to the library, said he’d had an accident at the sink, and leaned on a radiator. He felt such a fool. The worst thing was having a girl go for his tender parts like that, taking advantage of his male weakness. Boys were supposed to be the tough ones, yet girls could down them with a kick. That pendulous sack between his legs was an embarrassment.
He knew about girl gangs cornering boys, making them pull down their pants, and photographing their privates with camera-phones. Everyone remembered two years ago when Anna Makarski stuck print-outs of Andy Nash’s bits on the walls of both the girls’ and boys’ changing rooms. It was sexual power play, naked and simple. He hoped Emma’s humiliating photo of him wouldn’t end up on LifeBook or some other site where the whole school would see it. The worst of course was the fad of ‘happy busting’, when girls would knee a random boy in the balls without provocation, for kicks, and film it on their phones.
Fortunately Emma hadn’t actually busted his balls. But her ultimatum was somehow worse. If she’d busted him, their feud would be resolved. Instead, that idiot boy had to come in and give her ideas. Marty had no intention of coming into school wearing a skirt just to placate Emma – which meant she would be on his back for the entire fucking term.
When he got in, Mum was watching television in the front room. The short space between them felt like a mile. It was a relief to close his bedroom door behind him and slump on his bed in a funk.
Good grief, what was he to do? If he didn’t start wearing a skirt to school, Emma would pursue him, and he knew what she was capable of by reputation and now by experience. But he did not want to wear skirts. He didn’t even have a skirt. Or rather, he did, of course, the one Gabby gave him, but it wasn’t a school skirt. He’d have to ask his mother to buy him one, which would be too humiliating. He swung to his feet and opened his wardrobe, where Gabby’s – his – skirt lay folded on a side shelf. There it was, it belonged to him. He could put it on now, go downstairs, endure a bit of teasing from Gabby. Easy.
From now on you’re going to wear a skirt!
No, it was outrageous. What was happening to boys, for Christ’s sake? Gabby never wore skirts. He couldn’t sit at home in a skirt while his sister wore trousers, like it was normal that way round. Where would it end? No, he was proud that he’d stood up to Emma in the youth club. You had to draw a line.
Sitting at his computer, he tracked down Emma’s LifeBook page and scanned it anxiously. No image of him, not yet anyway. Of course not, because he was a worm, hardly worth mentioning. He looked through her profile photos and saved half a dozen of the prettiest to his hard disk. After a while, inevitably, he took his cock in his hand. Marty was no stranger to internet porn, but who needed a computer? Emma haunted his imagination like a succubus. Even though she had attacked him, it was exciting to have had her standing so close, dark and gorgeous, directing her entire attention at him. He rubbed his prick, enjoying the swelling excitement, till it stood eagerly upright, and he lay on his bed. Emma was sitting beside him on the bed in her school uniform, pressing her strong thigh against his. Her hand strayed slyly towards his leg, stroking it with one finger, teasing the hem of his underpants. Her explorations grew bolder, until she swung her leg over and sat astride him, sultry and provocative, exciting the tip of his overheating prick with rhythmic movements of her warm crotch. Her clothes disappeared. His hands ran trembling over her superb young body as she pushed down onto him and rode him commandingly. Her breasts swung up and down, and her black hair fell about her sweating face.
After a minute or two of frantic rubbing, there was a giddy thrill, a gush of fluid. He inspected his wet underpants in fascination before pulling them off.
He was a little ashamed of this fantasy, given how she’d treated him today. In real life he didn’t, of course, remotely enjoy being bullied. How to explain? As a diffident, confused boy, he found that the dream of lying passively back while the girl took control was satisfying, stirring and erotic. Let the female exercise power – how much simpler life became, provided he could resign himself to it! As for masturbation, well, it was the only sex available, and he bitterly wished he could have the real thing.
Ah, real life? The real thing? The reality was that Emma wasn’t some kind of sex demon who only existed to engorge him with giddy ecstasy. She lived in a house, brushed her teeth, chatted to friends, caught colds, plucked stones from her trainers. Yet he couldn’t think of her in this way. Trying to imagine her at home, he saw her lying sleepily in bed, a slight twist in her body, soft under thin cotton pyjamas, and the bed so warm and cosy and welcoming, and he was desperate to be there in that room so he might slip under the duvet and snuggle up close to her and yes, his erection rubbed up against her side or belly and his hands were once again shifting downwards to try and relieve the frustrating allure of it all.
Marty couldn’t understand why boys must be made to run across slippery grass chasing a bag of air. He took a minor interest in football because it seemed almost obligatory, but he was ambivalent about playing it – not least because you were forced to change alongside thirty other boys in changing rooms that smelled of armpits.
Some boys strolled nonchalantly around the changing rooms with their parts lolling, their bushy pubes a virile boast. Marty preferred to strip facing the wall and hold his PE shirt in front of his privates till his shorts were on.
“Come on, boys, you think England take this long?”
Mr Cope puffed around them in his black-and-orange Wolves tracksuit like a squat, hyperactive sergeant-major. He was really a social studies teacher, and everyone knew he was a social studies teacher, and no amount of personal enthusiasm would compensate.
“Reckon you’ve got the guts to play for Man U, for Arsenal? Reckon you’ve got the grit? Want to know what Nottingham Poly taught me about sport? Well I’m going to tell you anyway! Success in sport – and in life, lads, yes, in life – equals SWEAT! So when you get out on that pitch today, lads, I want you to show me some commitment. I don’t want sissy lads, tottering about in short skirts!” He minced up and down and won a laugh. About a third of the boys had in fact entered the changing room wearing skirts, but Mr Cope was a one-man campaign against the genderquake and wouldn’t allow boys to wear them for PE. “We’re going to throw ourselves in and show one hundred per cent sweat. ‘Cos real lads they need to get out, they need to run, they need to struggle, and they need to…?”
“Sweat!” yelled a few of the boys with grins.
“Yes, sweat. Move it!”
His piercing whistle shrilled, and soon the football studs were clopping like racehorses’ hooves along the paving slabs to the muddy sports field. On the other pitch, the girls’ football had already started, and their shouts floated over through the damp air.
The boys lined up along the edge of the pitch and teams were picked. Marty remained in the dwindling pool of the unchosen, alongside the overweight, the lame, and the fey. As his name was called, his team responded with a mock cheer.
“Oh, shush!” growled Mr Cope. “Where’s your honour? Decide your positions and let’s get on with it.”
Noel wandered over from the other team and offered consoling words. “Look at the jugs on those girls, mate.” He put on a throaty voice, rippling his fingers: “Let me feel those plump thighs.”
They snorted merrily, watching the girls race and dart around the field, their faces determined. In play as in class, they were in training for life at the top.
“Just imagine that lot in the changing room with no clothes on,” Marty said.
“Pulling off their knickers, showing their bushes,” said Noel.
The stout figure of the Games teacher was gesticulating crossly at them.
“Yeah, yeah,” scowled Noel. “Can’t-Cope, no-hope.”
Marty was sent into goal, which he didn’t like as it meant balls were kicked directly at him. He knew he was supposed to be obsessed with football and desperate to play in the Premier League. But it was no fun being the last person picked for a team, or letting in goals, or never receiving a pass. He didn’t know whether he genuinely wanted to do well, or if that was down to pressure from everyone else and really, he hated it.
He thought the hardcore footballers were hiding behind their dreams. They took it very seriously, getting heated and treating mistakes with frustrated anger. None of them would make it as a professional player, for all their animated discussions of positions and tactics, and would end up as househusbands like all the rest. Anyway, the women’s Premier League was nearly worth as much as the men’s now and was going to take over some day.
“Welling!” someone yelled.
The ball was approaching, at the dextrous feet of Gary Sumner. A defender failed to stop him. Marty leaned forward, legs apart, hands on knees. Sumner darted to the left. Marty leaped rather theatrically in the same direction.
“Goal!” cried Gary Sumner, leaping in the air in triumph.
They can’t accuse me of not trying, Marty thought, fumbling in the back of the net. He was baffled by the way Gary could run in one direction and at the same time flip the ball the opposite way. When he tried that he invariably trod on it.
“Well done, David Seaman!” shouted his captain. “Seaman, get it – ‘cos you’re a dick!”
After another hour of this sort of thing, Marty was a little muddier and a little more fed up, and the other side won 6-2.
“Come on lads!” cried Mr Cope. “Scared of laddering your tights? It’s not over yet. Knees up and run to the changing rooms. Chins up – let’s see you run!”
Bedraggled, Marty let the others run ahead. Clattering to the sports hall, he saw a thin trail of girls returning from a hockey game. Amongst them was Emma Lamb, wearing her PE kit of white T-shirt and shorts, and swinging a very solid-looking hockey stick. Marty hadn’t encountered her for a week. He looked around. Noel was coming up behind him, but he was still a way off.
“Well, look who it is,” said the lovely girl, planting her hockey stick on the ground between him and the sports hall entrance. “I have to say, I’m really not a fan of boys wearing shorts instead of skirts. It’s just not very attractive.”
Marty didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t run away because she’d gloat at him for being weedy and scared, and he’d be ashamed of himself. So he approached in an arc, leaving a wide margin between them in case she turned aggressive.
To his intense relief, she didn’t come for him. “You’re such a cute boy, Welling,” she called after him mockingly. “I’d really fancy you if you weren’t so horribly trad.”
He distinctly heard the smack of her taunting kiss.
Marty was worried as he got changed, not because Emma had done anything very terrifying, but because she was Emma, and was still directing her attention at him.
Emma was proud to be a girl, and he had insulted this pride. Of course boys got picked on by girls sometimes, for talking back or wearing trousers or doing well in class, but it had always been some other poor bugger. Now, it was happening to him.
Though he tended to drag his heels when changing, Marty made a point of keeping up so there were plenty of boys around when he emerged from the changing rooms and made for the cafeteria. He poked his head into the corridor, stepped into the sports hall foyer, and immediately saw Emma and her mates Kerry and Asha, waiting. The other boys proved no defence – she simply walked through them and came straight for him. There was no room to run. She put out one hand and forced him to a standstill.
“Hello, shrimp,” she said. “Been insulting girls in there, I suppose? Leading your little scrote revolution?”
“Leave off, Emma,” he murmured, trying to manoeuvre round her.
“I look down and I don’t see a skirt, Welling,” she snarled. “What are these?” She plucked impatiently at his trousers.
“I ain’t got one, Emma,” he pleaded.
“You got that right.” Laughter at the innuendo. “Well, talk to Mummy and sort it out.” She let him scurry past, slapping him brutally on the back. “You picked the wrong century to mess with girls, Welling.”
“Well played, Welling!” said Kerry.
“Top hole!” said Asha.
They both gave him a great slap on the back too. Marty ducked and scampered out of the hall, cursing under his breath.
When you queued for school dinner, the reek of vinegar and frying oil hit you in the corridor already. Under a sign reading GROVE CAFETERIA, a smiley pig in a chef’s hat brandished a platter of sausages. The main meal today was chicken burgers or chicken salad.
As Marty queued up, people kept glancing at him. A pair of second-years was tittering. Even the bloke on the till winked at him. Something was going on. He didn’t know what until he sat down with his tray next to Noel Walsh at a table.
“Uh, someone’s put stickers on yer, Welling.”
As he took off his blazer laughter rocked the tables around him. Three sticky labels had been stuck on his back, each written on by a different hand:
I AM AN ARSEHOLE.
DRESSES MAKETH THE MAN.
please bust my nuts.
Marty flushed scarlet. He peeled the stickers off and tore them into bits under the table, realising that not only had Emma planned the little stunt, she’d prepared the stickers with her mates, and then lain in wait for him. It all showed a rather frightening level of commitment.
“What’s going on, Welling?” Noel demanded. “This is Emma’s work, I suppose?”
It was a relief to have an ally. “Some crazy thing. She’s pissed off at me arguing with her in the youth club and now she’s picking on me. She told me to wear a skirt to school.”
Noel’s eyes narrowed. “Huh? Fuck her.”
Marty explained that disobedience had worrying consequences.
“Emma ain’t the problem,” said Noel in disgust, scratching his wretched moustache.
“She is to me,” Marty replied, hanging his head. The pressure suddenly overwhelmed him.
“You had Emma on the ropes, down the youth club, and you bottled it. And I know why you bottled it – it’s ‘cos you knew I was there to sort her out if it came to a scrap.”
Marty was pretty sure he hadn’t had Emma on any ropes. “At least I spoke up. You didn’t do fuck all, sitting there not saying a word!”
“’Cos I ain’t got anything to prove, have I?” said Noel a little angrily. “I stand up for myself and I’ve given Emma some lip in my time. I left you your chance to man up, and if you didn’t take it don’t go blaming me. You have to fight your own battles, or do you think I’m going to go around holding your bloody hand? It’s you that’s the problem.” Noel pointed his finger accusingly. “Emma’s going to push you around as she likes, and you’re meant to shut up about it like a good little boy ‘cos she’s got you by the balls. She doesn’t take you seriously. No girl takes boys seriously any more.”
“Either you obey her, or you make her take you seriously.”
Chewing his chicken burger, Marty played these words around his head. “So what do I do?”
“Teach the cow to take you seriously. Teach her a fucking lesson. Teach her a bit of respect.”
“But... I mean.” Marty said, shrugging his shoulders.
“What?” Noel spat angrily. “Scared? It’s all a matter of confidence. She’s only a girl, Welling – even you’re bigger than her... just about. She’s a pretty babe with smashing jugs who ought to be batting her eyelids at us, and the only reason she thinks she rules the school is because lads like you have handed her the power on a plate. You should turn up to school in trousers, like a fucking bloke, and if she doesn’t like it, what’s she going to do? They want equality, they can have it: a straight scrap with no punches pulled, then we’ll see who’s hard.”
“It’s all very well for you.” Noel had a fair reputation as a scrapper.
“Yeah, I can take care of myself, and so should you. I’m telling you, if you let the side down and go over to the sissies, I’ll bloody beat you up myself.”
Marty wished now that he hadn’t confided in Noel. He felt that everyone was wading in and taking his fate out of his control. Surely he just had to hope Emma got bored of the whole thing. What did Noel think he was going to do: shout abuse? Hit her? He could well imagine the consequences of assaulting Emma, consequences which would pursue him and his testicles through the rest of his school life.
Either way he couldn’t win. If he didn’t go with the Walsh Plan, Noel would sneer at him and tell the other lads, and the last thing Marty needed was being laughed at by his male peers as well. If he did go with the Walsh Plan, Emma and her mates would pulverise him.
Hearing no objections, Noel clapped his mate on the shoulder. “I knew you had the bottle.”
(To be continued...)