That week Marty used his turn in the library to pull out books with a fresh interest. He wanted to try and figure a few things out.
They’d discussed in Social Studies how men had worn skirts in lots of cultures and periods of history. Everyone knew about the Romans and kilts and all that. Even so, men had always scorned women’s clothes with a passion, so why were things different now?
The way Marty figured it, it was hardly about the clothes themselves at all. He stared at a boy in a skirt and tights standing at the shelves nearby, his weight on one leg. His skirt formed an A-silhouette, its pleats brushing one thigh. Though Marty was a bit ashamed to think it, tights looked like they’d feel rather nice, and the skirt? It was just some cloth around his middle. It was harmless enough, and that boy probably forgot he was wearing it after a while. It didn’t seem much different to shorts. They had an extra bit of cloth dividing the legs: big deal! So why was Marty so afraid? Why was there so much fuss and agitation about this stuff?
A paragraph in one of the ‘genderquake’ books immediately had him nodding: Yup, that was it. The thing that mattered was power.
Women had had to wear jewels and dresses and makeup and worry about looking beautiful because that was part of putting them in their place. The moment women had started to liberate themselves, they had started wearing shirts and trousers and acting more like men. It flowed from their empowerment. Women were saying, “Take us seriously, we’re not your pretty dolls any more.” But nowadays, when men had started wearing dresses and acting like women, it was the opposite of that. In the media people liked to say it was happening because men and women were equal now so they could wear the same things. What did that mean? It was because men had lost so much power, and status, that it was becoming acceptable for them to adopt behaviours they’d formerly thought degrading. If boys could wear skirts more or less without embarrassment, it meant they had suffered a crushing loss of power in relation to girls. Every time a boy put on a skirt, he was admitting that girls had kicked his ass.
Everyone instinctively knew this. But not everyone thought it out.
After school Marty trudged down the road with his schoolbag over his shoulder, still mulling things over. It wasn’t that women had raised themselves to the level of men and that both sexes now did equally well – no, boys were doing terribly at school, they weren’t going to university, men couldn’t get jobs, and women were starting to dominate everything. Boys were losing, and they were losing more and more badly. If blokes didn’t watch out, they would end up like Emma was boasting: doing housework and living off their wives. Wasn’t that exactly what had finished his Dad? Stuck at home, unable to find work; Mum expecting him to take on the domestic role; Dad thinking he was better than that; the relationship cracking; Mum always snapping; Mum kicking Dad out of their marriage.
Marty crossed the road to cut through the Marshwater estate. The sun had come out, throwing bright light on the puddles. Gyno-something, wasn’t that the word? He had looked it up. Yes: gynocracy. It’s a woman’s world now. We fucking rule. And are fucking up Dad’s and Marty’s life. That was why he had to draw a line.
Footsteps behind him.
“Where d’you think you’re going, squirt?” Emma again, with Kerry and Asha. Jesus, he’d let his guard down. He could outrun them but mustn’t give them the satisfaction of fleeing in panic. Planet Earth shrank to a bubble five paces wide.
“Home,” he said, picking up speed. Draw the line, Marty!
“I told you some time ago, Welling, to come to school in a skirt and you’re still walking about in trousers.”
“Guess so.” Draw the line! What was the Walsh Plan again? Oh yes, beat them all up... Was there a Plan B?
Emma took out her mobile phone, thrust it in his face so intrusively he had to pull away, and snapped a picture of him. “Well you ain’t going home to Mummy yet, you dick.”
Someone seized him, pinning his arm and bundling him off the path. Dark hands, so Kerry and Asha. His schoolbag was ripped out of his hand. No point in shouting, “that’s my bag!” The crucial thing was not to show fear – not to cry. He had to keep his cool. Kerry and Asha were strong girls. He had to stay focused. Suddenly all three girls were around him. Fuck! Watch your balls, for fuck’s sake!
“There’s this joke going round, Welling,” said Emma. She moved forward, inspected him imperiously as he struggled in Kerry and Asha’s grip. She had a cigarette in her hand and drew casually upon it. “Have you heard it? ‘Do you know Marty Welling?’ ‘No, but I trod in some once!’”
“You need to show girls more respect,” shouted Asha in his ear.
“Why aren’t you wearing a fucking skirt, prettyboy?” shouted Kerry. “Like you’ve been told? Eh?”
“This – scummy – little – bitch –” Emma jabbed his chest with each word – “needs – a – GRUNDY!”
A grundy was when someone yanked hard at the crotch of your trousers and pants, forcing the material up between your legs and squashing your balls. It was a weapon girls liked to use against boys.
Kerry and Asha spun him against the wall and a grundy was exactly what Marty got.
There was nothing he could do – if he prevented them from doing it, they’d probably just kick him in the balls instead, which was worse. It was horrible to feel Emma’s hand searching under his bum cheeks for material to grasp. He sort of rode it out, managing to rise on his tiptoes and push his bottom out so that the force of Emma’s yank went off target. Kerry filmed the whole attack on her mobile phone, zooming in on his straining face. “Stick it down his pants, Kerry!” Asha shouted. “Photograph his dick!” Fortunately Kerry didn’t, miming disgust. He was released, and sank wincing to the pavement, humilated, clutching his groin. It hadn’t quite come off but his balls still hurt like fuck. Perhaps they’d go away.
“Where’s the little shit’s bag?”
Emma grabbed it and strode towards the road. Marty hobbled to his feet and pursued her. Laughing out loud, Emma swung Marty’s bag in a perfectly–timed arc and onto the roof of a passing van.
The van swerved a little but didn’t stop straight away.
“Go on – run!” laughed the girls. “Run and buy a skirt!”
Marty didn’t care what they thought – he sprinted down the road to where the furious driver had come to a stop.
That evening Mum went to bed early because of work and Gabby was out with a boy she had met at college. Quietly he went onto the landing and put his head round Gabby’s bedroom door. Yes, it was empty. He went gingerly in, sat on her bed and turned on the reading lamp, giving the room a soft, warm light. It was decorated from wall to wall with posters, postcards, certificates, photographs. A couple of bras hung on the radiator. Several pairs of shoes lay near his foot. He eased off one trainer and slipped his toe into one of her shoes, then he pushed in the foot. He liked Gabby’s room: in this hideaway, in the comforting half-light, he felt safer. She had always looked out for her little brother. Remember a few years ago when he’d been picked on by Rich Curtis, and Gabby had marched round to his house and given the guy a grundy? Or how she’d looked after him when Mum and Dad were splitting up? What a relief it had been to have a strong girl there protecting him from the out-of-control shit.
Emma, too, should be protecting him from the world’s dangers, not adding to them. Why did they pick on him, anyway? He wasn’t even one of the dinosaurs like Noel Walsh, who sometimes really did seem to hate girls. Why couldn’t they pick on Noel Walsh? It was so unfair. He curled up on Gabby’s bed and softly began to cry. The idea of him physically fighting Emma seemed as improbable as a fairy story. He wished he could ask Gabby to go round to her house and beat her up.
“It would be nice to see a smile on your face for a change,” Gabby commented at breakfast. “You’ve been so miserable lately.”
Marty stirred his tea despondently. “It’s school, I hate it.”
“That’s a shame. The sixth form college is fantastic. I’ve met so many people and the facilities are incredible. What’s wrong with school?”
“I can’t get on with the kids there.”
“Maybe it’s not so surprising, grumpy.” She shuffled through the post, paused, then held one up. “This looks like a letter from Dad. A letter! He’s so last century. You want it?”
Dad didn’t have a computer, so when he had more to say than suited an SMS, he wrote a letter. “’Course I want it. You got one too?”
“Uh huh.” She studied the envelope a while, then dropped it in the kitchen bin. “He can forget trying to wheedle sympathy out of me.”
Marty knew his sister blamed Dad for the breakup. Mum had confided in her a lot, as the oldest, and it made him angry because she only credited one point of view. However, there was no point starting a fight. He opened his letter carefully. “He’s invited us to meet up, if Mum’ll allow it. Saturday week, in the park.”
“He can dream,” said Gabby heatedly. “Mum won’t hear of it.”
“It’s unfair, Gabs…”
“His problem is, he’s a dinosaur. Why should Mum mess up her career over some useless bloke? I know I wouldn’t. When the woman’s working it’s a man’s job to do the housework. But oh no, the Big Man can’t do housework, can’t pull his weight. So – sod him.” She picked up her bag. “That’s the trouble with you men – you can’t handle reality. It’s all angst and ‘oh, I don’t know what I want... it’s such a confusing time…’” She rolled her eyes. “And then what happens to us, the children?”
“Well, yeah, what about me?”
Marty walked out. Throwing himself onto his bed he read the letter slowly, and then read it again.
Like a lot of men, Dad had been let down by the traditional belief that a man’s self-respect came through his work. Married to a woman with a fat salary, too poorly skilled to find work, the natural role left for him was to let his wife earn the money and make the decisions while he kept house. He saw this as a humiliation, and the tensions had wrecked the marriage.
His father’s writing style was stiff – they had no language with which to speak to each other. The platitudes were there as always:
“I hope you’re not one of these lads who never study. I want you to get a decent job.”
“You’re perfectly capable of studying and holding down a good job if you’ll just apply yourself.”
He sounds like a teacher, thought Marty. If they could only meet in person, they’d be at ease right away, like always, but Dad had left town to (unsuccessfully) chase a job and now he was miles away with train tickets at a hundred quid per trip.
“You should go on to college, Martin, like Gabby. It’s getting hard for men to get a job nowadays. I was raised to think I had to earn, to be the breadwinner, and if I hadn’t got that, I’d failed as a man. That old idea of maleness has gone out the window. At my last interview the waiting room was full of these young women, and you know, I can’t compete with them. They’re confident, well-prepared, full of ideas. They make you feel like a child. I don’t want that to happen to you.”
Marty felt increasingly angry. It was no wonder that Gabby had such chances in life: in Mum she had had a role model for success. How could Marty develop the same way when deprived of his father? It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t their fault.
This articulate, affectionate man had fallen victim to circumstances that his son could easily sympathise with. There seemed nothing for Marty to look forward to. He missed his father in a way that Gabby and Mum accepted but didn’t quite understand. A vital part of him had been gouged out, leaving him without purpose. With every new schoolday he would risk Emma’s persecution again and his craving for her made everything even more difficult. When the tears began welling up he let them flow.
He managed to avoid Emma and her gang for a few days. At one point he saw her coming down the school corridor but ducked down a staircase before she saw him. The first safety measure was to keep out of the Fifth Form common room, because she liked to hang around there. The second was to keep to the library, because there was always a member of staff present and that made it harder for her.
At the end of his shift as library monitor on Friday he was finishing up. Some fool had opened a window, and in January too. As he reached up for the rod to close it, he heard familiar voices below and realised with a shiver that it was Emma, her voice loud and clear above the raucous noise from the playground. Poking his head out, he saw her leaning on the wall with a couple of girls. Evil cow, he should drop a book on her head.
A dark idea formed instantly in his mind. Oh, Marty, you evil man! Without pausing to reflect he grabbed his schoolbag from behind the library counter and dashed to the toilet, where he filled his drinks bottle with water from the tap, heart beating, hands quivering with excitement. Back to the library. Please let her still be there. Yes, chatting like before.
He reckoned he needed the third window from the left. Lift the rod and push it out. Nobody looking; pupils all leaving; the teacher out of sight. Lean out of the window, bottle uncapped. Tip up the bottle.
Oh yes! Marty, you legend!
Close the fucking window fast. She’ll never even know where the attack came from. This one is for you, Dad! There you go, Noel, there’s your cowardly wuss in action – one in the eye for the great Emma Lamb. You want to wet me in the toilets? You want to wet me? Watch me wet you – huh, are you wetted, bitch? Not a scary ballbuster now, just a shrieking girl with wet tits. Huh, bitch?
Marty got out of the library fast, his heart singing. Triumph was a dazzling emotion. He raced to Biology and sat down next to Noel Walsh.
“You sorted out Emma yet?” Noel wanted to know.
Marty resented this pressure: it was easy to play the big man when it was someone else’s goolies at risk. “What, punched her lights out? No.”
“Ain’t no time like today.”
“Why not? Are you fucking scared of a girl?”
“Well...” He was enjoying this.
“You’re terrified. Pissing your pants.”
“We don’t need to, mate.” He couldn’t hold back any longer. With a nervous laugh, Marty explained his stunt through the library window.
Noel was impressed. “She doesn’t know it was you?”
“Nah, don’t suppose so.”
“That’s not great. Better if she knew.”
“Noel – who’s bottling it now? Get it – bottling it?”
Noel sniggered and gave him a playful punch on the arm. For the first time he could remember, Marty felt that he and Noel were equals. He even said something cheeky to Ms Baxter the Biology teacher. This was confidence and it was thrilling. At last, this was living!
(To be continued...)