Saturday, 25 April 2015

Robin and the Super Eagles, chapter 11 (ends)

11


A couple of weeks later the Diamond clan, including Uncle Lenny and their latest recruit, Saffron, was hanging out in the family home when an official-looking letter was discovered amongst the pizza flyers and taxi cards in the letterbox.

“It’s from the County FA,” said Angie, inspecting the envelope. Everybody gathered in the living room and waited, holding their breath. There was a sliver of hope. Robin’s talent had impressed the crowd in the AllStars game and might win over enough of the Board. And Angie had been tirelessly telephoning and writing letters.

“Whatever happens, Robbie,” said Dad, “we’re all behind you. And that means you too, Lenny.”

“It’s not my business,” sniffed Uncle Lenny.

Angie opened the letter and read its contents while the others stared at her, trying to read the result in her facial expression.

“Well, they have changed their rules,” said Angie, slapping the piece of paper on the table. “Boys are now banned from playing with girls in youth football.”

There was a loud groan of disappointment.

“What?” asked Dad. “I can’t believe it.”

“It really shows how prejudiced and backward the football establishment is,” Mum went on, fuming and pacing the room.

“At least now we can put this footballing nonsense behind us,” said Uncle Lenny with inappropriate satisfaction, “and our Robbie can be a normal boy at last.”

“Nonsense!” cried Angie. “Fiddlesticks! We’ll appeal.”

“Come on Mum,” said Robin. “What’s the point?”

Saffie squeezed his hand. There was the good that came from this. He had met Saffie! When he felt low he only needed to snuggle up against her to feel safe and know everything would be OK. It was slightly scary to move from being a relatively free spirit to being bowled over by a more powerful will, but he was starting to learn where the contentedness of men like his father came from: the knowledge that you were in the care of a strong female who would provide for you and defend you. And he was leaving his janegirl days behind. He wanted to look lovely for his girlfriend, and so was taking more interest in makeup, dresses, and other masculine things, and learning to love them.

“I’m not saying it was a waste of time joining the Eagles,” he went on. “I’ve taught a lesson to everyone in Norford. But I can’t play in the youth league any more. My football career’s over.”

“AHA!”

His mother was not done. She faced her family, hands on her hips. “I know exactly what we’re going to do,” she said. “Sod an appeal. We’re going to start a boys’ team!

Everyone exchanged looks, as if she was mad. A boys’ football team? They knew there could be a one-off player like Robin. But an entire team? Of BOYS?

“Yes, I can see it already. We need to find at least thirteen or so boys to start, eleven plus two subs. And we’re going to need a pitch to play on, so I’ll call the youth clubs and see if we can share… I’ll get in touch with the Norford Advertiser, they can do a story on Robbie. And they’ll need kit, too, they can wear pink tops and white skirts, what do you think? Just because they’re playing football doesn’t mean they can’t be masculine. And –”

“Everyone would laugh at them,” cautioned Dad.

“And uh, I don’t think the Association will like the idea of boys’ football, Ms Diamond,” said Saffron.

“They didn’t like the idea of Robin playing either but we pulled it off for a while,” said Angie. “Come on, don’t tell me you’re going to take this lying down. We went through so much only for things to go backwards? Rubbish. We can turn this into a positive. We can still make a difference! Why stop with a team? We could do a boy’s league. A men’s Premier League. A men’s World Cup!” She was almost shouting. “Robin, how would you like to be captain?”

“It wouldn’t be a very good team, Mum. The girls would destroy us. Boys can’t play football…”

He stopped, realising what he’d said, and everyone laughed.

“Boys can play football,” said Angie. “You, my son, have proved it. I’m going to start a boys’ team. And if anyone doesn’t like it, just let them try to stop me!”



THE END

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Robin and the Super Eagles, chapter 10

10


On the morning of the showdown with the AllStars, Robin felt tired. He had hardly slept for thinking about the game. It was just as well he wasn’t playing, as he had no energy. He took out his football kit sadly. His green Heathside Eagles shirt that he’d worn so proudly. His white skirt and his football socks and the muddy boots that he hadn’t cleaned since the last game.

He took a ball to the back of the house and began to kick it around against the wall. He pretended parts of the wall were areas of the goal, tried to pick a target and hit it. Just him, a ball and a wall. To hell with that stupid game today. His football was his best friend. No horrid girls jeering or roughing him up or telling him he couldn’t play. He was done with womankind. He’d become one of those men who never married and kept cats and pot plants. After ten minutes he lost interest even in his practice – tossing the ball into a corner of the garden he trudged back inside, not interested in anything. His parents couldn’t talk him into coming with them.

“Well we’re going to take an interest in how the Eagles get on, Robin Diamond, even if you won’t,” said Angie despairingly. And they drove off to the game, leaving him slouched in front of a breakfast show feature about woodland birds.


*


It was an away game, so the AllStars were hosting. Their pitch and buildings were white and gleaming, the turf flat and immaculate with not a weed or divot in sight. For the Eagles, it was like travelling to Wembley. It was much more bitter than that, though, because these facilities could have been theirs.

Cars pulled up in the spacious car park and girls piled out in tracksuits, followed by expectant parents. A crowd of spectators was slowly building up around the pitch, some of them in deckchairs, unpacking orange juice or coffee and checking their cameras.

Maisie prowled around as her players got changed. She didn’t like coming to AllStars Park – the very stones seemed to preen themselves at her expense. Despite the excitement of the day, she was down in the dumps over the unfortunate business with Robin. I won’t be able to look those horrible parents in the eye today, she thought.

Barrow-White’s AllStars were the favourites, as they were every year. They often pretended they didn’t care about the derby, because the Eagles were too beneath them to be worthy rivals. And yet the AllStars were as desperate to beat the Eagles as the Eagles were to beat the AllStars. Maisie knew her girls must be giving their rivals a scare this year, and she had been hoping they would sneak a win. Now it was actually match day, she was more sceptical. Jasmine had shown up but she and Saffie were conspicuously not speaking to each other. With her captain and chief midfielder fighting over a boy, Maisie was worried for the team. It had been a blow to lose Robin so unexpectedly, because the Eagles needed his pace and creativity.

Best not expect too much, she thought. If they showed proper fighting spirit, at least, she’d be very proud.

The girls sat on the benches in the cold, gloomy away changing room and listened pensively as the coach gave instructions about how they should play. Maisie wanted a strong pressing game. Molly would play alongside Saffie as a striking partnership. As a more defensive player, Jasmine would start as a substitute – she protested but the coach’s word was final. The worry, as always, was the prodigious, lethal Heather McIlroy, so Maisie told her defenders to make a point of closing her down.

The team was a bit restless, as if something was in the air. Something was in the air. It was the derby.

“And Saffie? Jasmine? Stop acting like it’s a kindergarten. You’re team-mates. You have to talk to each other.”

“Yes coach,” said the two girls.

Maisie stared at them all. “I’m not quite sure what’s got into you lot today, sitting so quiet. This is the AllScum we’re playing. Show me some spirit, for goodness’ sake!”

“I’ll talk to them Maisie,” said Saffie, directing her towards the door, “and stir them up. You go chat to the ref or something.”

Maisie was glad her captain was taking some initiative. She walked down the tunnel and onto the pitch. The sun was shining and the crowd was lively. A few pockets of supporters were already chanting in expectation. Maisie took a seat and tried to unscrew her Thermos. For some reason the lid was very tight. She got a good grip and started to wrestle with it. The managers’ benches were only yards apart. Lucretia Barrow-White was sitting on hers with her arms folded, muttering to an assistant.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” boomed the megaphone, “the Plumborne AllStars!”

Maisie wished her team had a nice speaker system like that.

Out came the AllStars in their red and white jerseys and red shorts, to the cheers of their supporters. According to the club, the red stood for footballing passion, the white stripe stood for ‘a little piece of heaven’. Typical pretentious AllStars. Probably Barrow-White’s idea.

“And their opponents today, the Heathside Eagles!”

More cheers and boos.

But wait.

What was this?

A gasp went up from the crowd: a mixture of laughter and horror. The Heathside Eagles girls, running bravely onto the pitch in their green shirts, were wearing skirts!

“What on earth?” blurted Barrow-White, leaping to her feet.

GIRLS WEARING SKIRTS. The crowd couldn’t believe their eyes.

“That is well humiliating,” snickered someone behind Maisie’s left ear.

“What sissies,” scoffed one of the opposing players. “What total, utter sissies.”

“Is that my daughter?” bleated a concerned parent. “Wait – that’s my daughter!”

“Comical, bloody comical,” said an elderly spectator, shaking her head. “Is this what our game has come to? Girls were real girls in my day. None of this trans-gendering bloody diversity nonsense!”

“It’s the liberals, isn’t it,” agreed her friend.

While everyone gawped and snorted, Maisie was rushing up in agitation. “What the heck are you  doing? Don’t you understand this isn’t regulation kit? You can get disqualified for this!”

“We don’t care, coach,” replied Saffie as the players clustered around. “This is a protest. We had a good hard talk and we decided that if Robbie isn’t in the team we’d rather not play at all. He’s one of us now and if he doesn’t play, we don’t play.”

The Eagles murmured agreement.

“Please don’t be angry, coach,” said Macka. “We knew you’d stop us if we told.”

Maisie scratched her head and laughed. “Well, of all the rebellious, pigheaded girls… Don’t worry, I’m not angry. In fact, I’ve never been so proud of you. But you look ridiculous, I have to say.”

“Don’t rub it in, boss,” groaned Jasmine. “This is the most humiliating day of my life.”

The bemused referee and officials were approaching Maisie now. “I am looking forward to your explanation for this, Ms Fudge,” said the referee.

Maisie explained that she’d known nothing about it, and that the girls were protesting the expulsion of Robin from their team. The referee nodded, allowed herself a smile despite herself, and made it clear that they could not possibly play football dressed like boys. “It’s simply against the rules, girls, I’m sorry. Now go and get changed – you’ve made your point, and we’ve all had a good laugh, but –”

“I’m sorry, ref,” said Saffie. “But we’re not taking these skirts off until Robbie’s allowed to play today.”

“No Robbie, no shorts,” said Megan.

“Where is Robbie anyway?” demanded Saffie, standing on tiptoe as she searched the crowd. “I can’t believe he didn’t turn up to watch.”

“Let me be quite clear,” said the referee, looking very serious. “If you don’t go and put proper kit on, you will be disqualified from this game and the three points will go to the AllStars. Do you understand?”

By now there was a throng of parents and relatives and spectators and Association staffers and other people all milling about and craning to hear what on earth was going on.

“Molly! Molly!” shouted Molly’s mum, pushing through the crowd. “Take that stupid skirt off and stop making a fool of yourself.”

“Not till Robbie’s allowed back,” said Molly firmly.

“Rob-bie! Rob-bie! Rob-bie!” chanted the Eagles, while everyone swarmed around them in confusion.

“This is holding up the match,” frowned the referee. “Ms Fudge, I need some sort of answer.”

Ten minutes later Angie Diamond was racing home in her car to fetch Robin.


*


“It was Swifty who gave me the idea,” said Saffie. “Apparently someone teased her mum about her daughter wearing skirts. As if having a boy on your team would mean that, but I mean, whatever. We got in touch with Robbie’s mates and they sorted us out these Games skirts.” She turned to the stands and pointed at Sean, Gavin and Tyrone hopping excitedly in the front row.

“I’m amazed you talked the team into it, Saff,” Maisie said. “How on earth did you convince twelve girls to put on boys’ skirts? And wear them in public?”

“None of us wanted to do it, coach. We felt like total sissies putting them on.”

“Complete bloody idiots!” said Jasmine. “And in front of the AllScum as well.”

“It was TOTALLY embarrassing,” Saffie went on, “but we thought it was a brilliant way to make a protest.”

“Well, it certainly did the trick,” said Maisie, who couldn’t stop smiling. Greatly impressed by their daughters’ commitment to their team-mate, the parents had agreed after a frenzied discussion that they couldn’t let their daughters concede the last match of the season, and that Robin could come back to play, just this once. One more day of football for the poor lad couldn’t do much harm.

When Robin climbed out of the car and ran up to the pitch the Eagles cheered and rushed to welcome him. He was as astonished as everyone else to see these tough, loud-mouthed girls, whom he had come to know so well, wearing skirts. As Saffie put her arms around him and kissed him, tears came flooding into his eyes. He had never dreamed that girls would take him so seriously. Now he was going to play after all – in the derby! He couldn’t believe it.

“That’s enough soppiness,” blared Maisie. “You’ll all start crying next and then you really will look like a bunch of sissy boys! Run along, Robin, and get your kit on. Make sure you wear a skirt, mind,” she joked. “And as for you girls, go and put your bloody shorts on and stop making such clowns of yourselves.”

With a clacking of studs, the girls ran off in relief to change, and before long the full Eagles team was taking position on the pitch, properly attired, and the game could start at last. The AllStars won the toss.

“OK, Saffron,” said Heather McIlroy, squaring up, the sun dazzling on her short, golden hair. “Ready to get put in your place... AGAIN? It’s getting boring, beating you all the time.”

Robin thought, I’ll beat you, Heather McIlroy. You and your beautiful skin and downy limbs and shimmering green eyes. You may be a girl. You may be the superior sex. But I can still beat you. Today, I can be better. His limbs were trembling with nervousness and excitement. It was strange to be back at the AllStars’ stadium. That first visit with his mum, trying to get onto their team, felt like years ago.

The referee blew her whistle. The game was on.

Heathside took control early, and Robin soon got his chance to take on the AllStar centre backs. He controlled the ball, looked carefully at what the two girls were doing. Then he mischievously knocked the ball between the legs of the nearest girl and ran round her – it would be a contest of pace! Robin blazed down the right-hand of their penalty box. The AllStar goal-keeper was at her near post, crouching down, screaming at her defenders. He only had a half-second. He curled the ball towards the opposite end of the goal. The goalie leaped up, couldn’t make contact… it was a goal! Robin laughed in joy. A goal after just five minutes!

The Eagles were ecstatic. The look on Heather McIlroy’s face was a picture.

“Keep them going in, cutie,” said Saffie as they prepared to kick off again.

A second goal didn’t come so easily. If there had been complacency among the AllStars about a boy footballer, he’d knocked it out of them fast. Their back line closed him down, tackled hard. And maybe it was awe at the occasion, but the Eagles started to get sloppy. Grace and Megan kept losing the ball in the midfield, and Aaliyah, Faizah, Macka and Swifty were at full stretch to stop the quick, silky Heather McIlroy. Eventually the pressure was too much and the AllStar striker, in acres of space, blasted an easy equaliser past Silver.

“That was cheap,” groaned Saffie. “Come on, guys, concentrate. You can’t give them chances like that.”

Five minutes from time, Robin found himself slipping through the AllStars with space opening up in front. He felt like he was flying, like Isla McKenzie making that famous solo run against Italy…

“Pass! Pass!” Saffie was shouting. She was in a good position in front of their goal. A carefully picked cross would give her a chance of a header. But Robin’s run had dazzled his judgement. He swung his foot out to take the shot himself, only for his foot to fly right over the ball. It was a howler – the spectators burst into sarcastic cheers. But the goalie had dived to trap the shot that hadn’t come. Now she was on the floor, trying to scramble back to her feet. Megan came running up and all she had to do was thwack the ball past her. So she did. It was 2-1!

The other Eagles ran over, and gave Robin much more attention than Megan: slapping his back, ruffling his carefully-pigtailed hair, and kissing him on the cheeks. Each of them got some kind of feel of their male team-mate.

“Look at them all groping,” scowled an AllStars midfielder. “It’s like an orgy.”

“Disgusting,” said her fellow. “Bet he lets them touch his prick in the changing rooms.”

“Yeah, they’re in there rubbing him off.”

Both girls looked on, perhaps a little envious and not wanting to admit it.


*


At half-time, a very agitated Maisie urged them over for a group talk. “We’re ahead and as it stands, we’ll get the three points. But you can’t sit back. They have a stronger midfield and you’ll get over-run. You’ve got to get another goal and kill the game. Grace, you’re off. I’m sending Jasmine on to help hold the line.”

“We’re going to kill those AllFarts,” said Saffie, rallying her troops. “Aren’t we girls?”

“We’re gonna kill ‘em!” screamed Jasmine at the top of her lungs, and everyone laughed.

In the second half, though, the Eagles were nervous again. They weren’t used to being in a winning position against the AllStars and, despite Maisie’s instructions, couldn’t help falling back a little, instinctively wanting to defend their lead. They knew that pushing forward would leave them open to a counter-attack, something Heather excelled at. Encouraged, the AllStars put them under siege. Saffie and Robin urged the Eagles to press more, with little effect – the weight of history was throwing the team off its game. And in the opposite way, it worked upon the AllStars too, their confidence returning as they looked to assert their usual superiority. Heather McIlroy was blinding, making dangerous runs that tore up the defenders. Time and again, Robin found himself playing deep to help the back line contain her. Nonetheless, the blonde striker was too good, and before the Eagles quite knew what was happening, she scored with a wicked volley and it was 2-2.

“YES!” yelled Barrow-White.

“Oh, no,” Maisie groaned beside her.

A draw was good enough for the AllStars – it was close this year, but one point would be enough to finish above the Eagles yet again. Intelligently, they changed their play and began to ‘park the bus’: sitting deep and defending their point with all their players behind the ball. Even Heather fell back, and she started targeting Robin. The Eagles worked hard but couldn’t break through, and the game got more and more physical and bad-tempered. Jasmine pushed, shouldered and tripped her opponents in midfield and was punished with a yellow card. Robin felt despair start to crush his spirits as time ticked away. He knew he must keep running, keep thinking.

Heather kept niggling at him, tackling, pushing, harrying with soft little fouls. Robin got so annoyed that eventually he pushed her back, with one hand against her breast. To his surprise and dismay, Heather threw her hands to her face and crumpled up on the turf. “Punch, ref!” she yelled.

“She’s l-l-lying,” he stammered as the referee ran up, reaching into her back pocket. No – not a red. Surely his game couldn’t be over because of a dirty trick like that?

The AllStars ganged up around him, snarling at him: “Cheating bitch!” A lot of AllStars supporters were shouting abuse too though they must have seen what really happened.

It was a yellow card for Robin. The AllStars were outraged and pursued the ref demanding a red.

“I only saw a push,” explained the ref. “Could only see the back of McIlroy’s head. Can’t give more than a yellow.”

Heather McIlroy lay for quite a long time in mock agony on the turf, time-wasting. Robin realised she was hoping that a cumulative series of accusations would force the referee to send him off. He must be really careful. Think, Robin! What did her behaviour tell him? The AllStars were cheating because they were scared they couldn’t contain him. The knowledge filled him with energy. Girls scared of a boy!

He kept running, gulping air. Going by the fancy stadium clock there were only four minutes to go. The Eagles were panicking a little, hoofing it up the pitch instead of picking out passes. Their shape had fallen apart and they were just scrambling around. The AllStars would take possession, pass the ball neatly back and forth, waste time. Finally he collected a pass from Megan and made a run down the right wing. The AllStar left back closed him down and he could hear Heather running behind him to crowd him out. Robin dummied and nipped into the penalty box. The two AllStars closed in ruthlessly – the midfielder’s tackle missed but Heather was coming in too fast as Robin made a desperate sliding kick for the ball. The boy and girl came together and the blonde beauty’s foot drove straight into Robin’s balls. CRR-RRUNCH.

“OOO-OOOHHH!” shrieked Robin in agony, rolling about on the ground.

“Robin!” cried Mum from the sidelines.

Maisie was shouting for a red. The Eagles launched themselves towards Heather in a fury. “How dare you touch our Robbie!” yelled Saffie.

Without hesitation, the referee whipped out a red card. “Dangerous play,” she said. “Penalty!”

Heather was amazed. “You must be joking! I didn’t mean to do it! I can’t help it if he’s got goolies!”

“A boy shouldn’t even be on the pitch, ref,” yelled Barrow-White angrily from the touchline, but the referee ignored her.

Maisie puffed onto the pitch to check on Robin. “You poor lad. Do you want to come off?”

Robin was curled up in distress, clutching his balls. Heather had destroyed him. “For a minute,” he gasped. The AllStars jeered nastily as he struggled to his feet, supported by Maisie, eyes blinded with tears of pain. The irony was, he was sure Heather hadn’t bashed his balls on purpose! She knew physical contact was too risky in the penalty area.

“Come on, who’s taking it?” the referee demanded.

Saffie scooped up the ball and looked at Robin. The whole team stared at him, waiting. It was his penalty.

Maisie looked dubious. “Really? Are you up to it?”

He nodded. With difficulty, his body weak with the ache of his testicles, he limped towards the penalty spot.

“Your goolies may have rescued this match for us,” Suki whispered. “If you’d been a girl, you’d probably just have got up and carried on.”

Robin realised she had a point. But it was a painful way to win matches.

“Fat chance, sissy,” said Heather McIlroy, shoving past him as she left the pitch. “You haven’t got the ovaries to take a penalty.”

The ovaries: the source of oestrogen, and thus the metaphorical source of bravery. He tried to keep his cool and put the ball on the spot, his heart thudding, his balls burning. Everyone was staring at him, including his Mum and Dad, and he tugged at his skirt. His knees trembled a little but he must concentrate. This penalty could win the match and he wished everything didn’t depend on him, it made him angry. Why couldn’t Saffie take the penalty? It was so difficult when his poor balls hurt so badly. Oh goodness, they hurt so bad.

OK, OK, don’t be a crybaby, remember? Should he aim for the corner? Keep it high, Maisie always said. He glanced at the goalkeeper. She had a strange look on her face. She was thinking, girls are better. Girls are superior. No way a mere boy can beat me.

The ref raised her whistle to her mouth. Here goes. He took a couple of steps heading leftwards, then booted the ball rightwards with his left foot. The AllStars goalie went the wrong way. It was 3-2 to the Eagles!

His team-mates went WILD. Robin heard the acclaim from the spectators, including his mother shouting happily, only for it to be blotted out by the thump of bodies as ten girls piled on top of him.

“Guess we had two more balls in play than the AllStars did,” laughed Suki.

“Have some sensitivity, Sukes,” said Saffie, and pushed bodies away to win her sweetheart some room.

“Coach,” Robin groaned, holding his balls. “I need to come off. My boyhood hurts. I can hardly walk.”

“That’s OK, lad, I’ll substitute Lorna. Get on the bench.”

Robin waved to his delighted parents as he retreated to the bench. Lorna leaped onto the pitch and began racing around like an Olympic sprinter. But shortly afterwards the whistle blew. The Eagles had won.

The Eagles and their supporters broke into song:

We are the Super Eagles girls!
We are the Super Eagles girls!

Hello! Hello!
We are the Norford girls
And Norford is ours!
Hello! Hello!


Saffie put her hand on Jasmine’s shoulder: “You played well, today, mate.”

“Yeah, we kicked arse, we didn’t we?” The two girls grinned at each other.

The AllStars looked sick. Not only had they been beaten by the Eagles, they’d conceded two goals to a boy. Oh, the shame! Avoiding the furious scowls of Barrow-White, they skulked off to change and reassess their lives.

Meanwhile the Eagles stayed on the pitch to run a lap of honour, taunting the opposing fans. The girls couldn’t quite believe they’d finally broken their AllStars hoodoo. There was laughter and hugging, players and parents wandering around with happy smiles. Robin had to struggle not to be picked up and tossed into the air, afraid his short skirt would fly up. Every girl in the team must have kissed him three times, and Saffie twice as many again.

These ruffians hadn’t made it easy for him at first, but now he was proud to be one of them; finally he felt he belonged.

“Well done, Robin, you were brilliant!” gushed his happy parents.

“It goes to show,” Mum beamed, “that even when you face a superior opponent, you can beat them on your day.”

Yet even as he celebrated, Robin was worried this was his last game. He had won the battle, but probably lost the war. Surely his on-pitch heroics could not stop the remorseless Barrow-White and her reactionary cronies?


*


Maisie had never felt like this at the AllStars stadium, that shiny what-might-have-been that had tormented her for ten years. As everyone gradually dispersed she stepped out onto the hated pitch, trying to keep a tear from her eye. She had retrieved the ball at the end of the game and gripped it under her arm, determined to save it for a shelf in the clubhouse. If she and the team had proved anything today, it was that you could win even without the money, if you kept your integrity and your spirit.

“This changes nothing, Fudge,” said Barrow-White, creeping up alongside her. “I’m going to get that rule change, it’s a done deal.”

“I don’t doubt it, Lucretia,” said Maisie coldly. “Well done for spoiling a kid’s happiness. Must make you feel proud.” She turned and looked the AllStars coach straight in the eye. “But you know what? For all your fancy stadium and your skulduggery, we’re still better than you. And that must hurt, you mean-spirited bastard!”

Monday, 20 April 2015

Robin and the Super Eagles, chapters 8-9

8


The next day the Eagles played the Taverham Tigers away, and Jasmine didn’t turn up for the game.

“She’s given up,” said Suki.

“What do you mean, ‘given up’?” demanded Maisie.

Suki shrugged sadly. “I dunno, I went to pick her up this morning and she says she’s packed it in.”

Maisie shook her head angrily. “Fine. We carry on without her.”

The Eagles were dismayed by Jasmine’s unexpected walkout. Saffie didn’t say anything, but Molly and Silver were less reticent and the confrontation at Robin’s party was a hot topic. The game was edgy and both sides played poorly. In the end a goal from Saffie secured a slightly lucky draw.

Maisie was annoyed at the poor performance, and berated them for being distracted by the Jasmine drama. But her talk was interrupted by a phone call and she came back much cheerier, clapping her hands together. “Now, listen up, you lot. The AllStars lost to the Hawks today.”

“Hate the AllStars!” yelled the team.

“If we’d won today we’d actually have gone level with them on points. Now, their goal difference is much better, of course. But it means the draw today isn’t the end of the world. It leaves us two points behind them, with only them left to play, and you know what that means. Beat the AllStars and we’ll finish above them in the league for the first time in ten years!”

The team whooped and cheered. It was a good way to end. The players were excited as they got changed.

“Not so fast,” said Maisie, as Robin headed towards the Tigers’ car park to be picked up by his Mum. “What’s going on with Jasmine?”

Guiltily, Robin admitted what had happened at the party, and how Jasmine had clashed with Saffie over a boy: namely him. Maisie sighed.

“I thought I’d avoid these romantic dramas, taking the Under-14s, but of course you’re quite old enough! I hope it’s just a hormonal sulk and she hasn’t really given us up, I don’t want her to miss the AllStars game.”

“I’m sorry, coach, I feel like it’s my fault.”

“Well, it IS your fault, isn’t it lad – for existing?” She patted him on the shoulder. “Life gets messy. It can’t be helped.”

However, Robin wondered if perhaps it could be helped. Nobody seemed to blame him, but if it weren’t for him the Eagles would still have their comrade in the team. On an impulse, he sought out Suki and got Jasmine’s address.

“You going to visit her?” Suki said.

“I thought I’d try and talk her round.”

“Aww, that’s nice, Robbie. But don’t be a pussy-tease. If you’re off-limits then make it plain. We don’t like boys who try to play with our feelings.”

When he got home, Robin changed out of his ‘Sean-ified’ clothes and into his old janegirl style. Suki was right: he didn’t want to provoke Jasmine.

The Heathside Estate wasn’t a very long walk from Robin’s house, but it felt like another world. The estate was a small cluster of grim apartment blocks, dotted with vandalised cars. It could be quite tough living on estates like these: even the girls didn’t get many opportunities. It was the sort of place where the shops were boarded up and women walked about with a bull terrier to try and look hard. Robin felt a bit nervous as he looked for the right building, because small groups of territorial girls in hooded tops, jeans and boots hung around the corners and play areas, staring at him.

“They’ll run up to you and stick a needle in you,” Sean had once told him, “to get you drug addicted, and then you will have to drop out of school and your family will disown you and stuff!”

He hurried up the staircase and knocked on the door, wrinkling his nose at the smell in the concrete hallway. There was a noise inside the flat, then a large girl of about seventeen in a leather jacket opened the door. She sized him up boldly for a few seconds, thumbs in her jeans pockets.

“Ooh, Jaz has a visitor. Lucky her.” She shouted: “Oi, sis! Your sexy boyfriend’s here!”

“Get lost, pervert.” It was Jasmine, shoving her head over her sister’s shoulder. “What are you doing here, Robbie?” She looked slightly embarrassed, as if puzzled that he and her home life should be suddenly intermingling.

“Wondering if you were all right,” he murmured.

“Come on, invite him in,” smirked the big sister. “You can’t shag him on the doorstep.”

“Sorry about her,” said Jasmine.

Robin was ushered through a dingy hallway and straight into a scruffy little bedroom. He sat down hesitantly on the bed, smoothing his skirts under him. Jasmine’s clothes were strewn about the floor, and the only decoration in the room was football stickers, posters and cuttings. There was a Norford City scarf flung atop the wardrobe. It was funny how girls’ bedrooms looked different to boys’ – more untidy, less homely. Jasmine’s in particular had an unfinished feel, like she was just passing through.

“We were wondering why you didn’t come to football practice. Suki says you’ve packed it in.”

“Yeah, of course I have. I had a fight with the team captain. How are we meant to play on the same team? Plus you’re there.” She muttered the last bit, uncomfortable discussing her interest in him.

“Oh, Jaz, I don’t want you to leave because of me. I feel so guilty. I feel like I’ve walked into the team and broken up a group of friends and taken your football from you, and I didn’t even know I was doing it.”

Jasmine was wearing a tight vest, and a pair of tracksuit bottoms. She thrust her hands down the elastic waistband and scuffed at the carpet with her bare feet.

“Nothing new to me, kid. I always fucking lose what I want. My dad died when I was seven, my mum hardly speaks to me any more… my sister and I look after ourselves. Now I’ll just have to look after myself again. Like bloody usual.” Her resentment stoked tension into the room, and he felt very aware how big she was, and how vulnerable he was, sitting here alone in her home! He crossed his legs protectively.

“It’s not fair that you won’t get to play,” he argued. “Not fair to you, I mean. We’re playing the AllStars next –”

“Those bastards!”

“– And if we get the three points we’ll finish the league above them. You can’t miss out on that. And we need your strength in the midfield.”

“Oh come on, hot-stuff, we’re going to lose against them like we always do.”

“No, we’ve been doing really well, we’ve got more points this season than ever. We’ve only lost one game in five. Maisie says we can beat them.”

“Maisie always says we’ll beat the Hawks too, then we lose about six-nil.”

“But she’s right about this, Jaz, you know she is!”

Jasmine scratched her head. “It’s still weird being lectured on football by a boy. Boys don’t know anything.”

“I tried to quit the Eagles too, remember? After that practice when you were rough with me and I got fed up.”

“Yeah, sorry if you were scared for your goolies,” she said.

“But Maisie spoke to –”

“Now, I’d find something nicer to do with what you’ve got down there.”

“Maisie spoke to me and said I had to toughen up or I’d never –”

“Oh, so I’m not tough enough, you little shrimp? Sitting there all timid in your stupid dress?” She stood over him, intimidating him with her strong limbs and pugnacity. “You’re tougher than me I suppose. Ha!”

“Well in a way,” Robin retorted, getting cross at her goading. “I changed my mind and went back to the team. Which is more than you’re doing. So how does that feel, having less boobs than a boy?”

“Shit, when you put it that way.”

“Jaz, all that happened is that two of you girls liked me and Saffie got there first, she didn’t mean anything against you. She wants you back too. Don’t spoil everything for the Eagles and for yourself because you got unlucky. Come back stronger. That’s what I’ve done to stay at the Eagles. The Eagles are so much better when you’re there! You won’t have any trouble getting a boyfriend, because you’re great, Jaz, you’re a really good footballer and you’re strong and any boy would be proud to be on your arm.”

Jasmine allowed herself a grin. “Aww, that’s sweet. Boys are good at saying the right thing. You’re so much nicer than girls. I reckon if men ran the world it would be a much more caring place.”

Robin muttered something about how boys could be trivial and petty too, but she talked over him. “Yeah, yeah, poppet, I’ll come back to the team, fine. If only to stop being embarrassed by your soppy speeches! And to stick one to the fucking AllScum.”

“Wow, Jaz, that’s great! I’ll see you at training?”

“Yeah, OK, I’ll be there.”

Robin stood up, and stepped towards the door.

“One more thing.”

Jasmine was right behind him, and with a forceful hand she turned him round to face her, looming into him until he backed up against the door. She was looking at him strangely. “Fuck, you’re cute, though.” Robin felt himself pinned by the formidable girl. “Aren’t you, huh? Pussy-tease?”

“Jasmine,” he said.

“Shush, pretty baby,” she breathed. She pushed her face into his, mouth slightly open, and leaned into him even closer until she was crushing him against the door and its wooden panels dug into his back. He couldn’t move. “If I’d asked you out first, would you have said yes? Huh?” Her mouth closed onto his and forced a hot, wet snog. He was a bit frightened but also aroused by the confidence and strength with which she mastered him.

Finally she drew back and left him to open the door. “See, that’s all I wanted. Run along then, now that you’ve been a cheating little slut,” she teased. “Run back to Saffie. See you at training.”

Red-faced and a bit humiliated, Robin slipped relieved through the door and stepped into the hall.

“Let you go in one piece, eh, hot-stuff?” smirked Jasmine’s sister. “She’s gone soft. Don’t look so frightened, I’ll let you out. Mind how you go leaving the estate, the gangs hunt in packs.”


*


Once he was safely home, Robin lay down in his room, and despite the testing visit to Jasmine’s he felt rather happy. He had solved the sticky situation with Jasmine – he was proud of the grown-up way he’d talked her around. He was accepted by his team and was helping them have a outstanding season. In a few days he’d be on the field again, leaving AllStar defenders for dead and scoring a hat trick. And he had a brilliant girlfriend! Things had never been so good.


9


“Boys can’t play football!” insisted Becks’s mum. “It ain’t natural.”

“It’s not decent, having a boy hanging around the girls’ changing rooms,” said Molly’s mum. “Running around flashing his legs. I’ve seen how that floozy dolls himself up for them. He may only be a kid but the minx knows what he’s doing, all right.”

“Look at it from the lad’s point of view,” urged Suki’s mum in her strong Nigerian accent. “Football’s a female world, it’s not fair to expose a boy to it. How can it be safe for him? He’s been kicked in his boyhood twice already and goodness knows what else they might do to him.”

Maisie Fudge held up her hands to ward the critics off. Nine parents had come to the clubhouse. Nine! That sneaky Barrow-White hadn’t even turned up – she didn’t need to. She had her campaigners as well-drilled as the AllStars.

“Ladies, please,” she said. “Can we be reasonable? Robin’s actually an excellent player, as good as the girls –”

“But he shouldn’t play with girls,” said Becks’s mum, ignoring the fact that her original argument had been defeated.

Now Swifty’s mum piped up: “Everyone’s laughing at our girls for having a boy on their team. Teasing my daughter, asking if she’s wearing skirts now! I won’t have her made a laughing stock.”

“And the girls on the other teams hate playing against a boy,” said Molly’s mum. “They don’t like to tackle him properly, out of chivalry, then he scores against them and it’s like a slap in the face. You have young people in your care and you should think about their self-esteem, Maisie Fudge!”

“I don’t know many girls who wouldn’t benefit from having their egos taken down a peg or two,” grumbled Maisie.

“Now I’ve heard it all!” someone protested.

“And he’s got the girls fightin’ each other over ‘im. Sowin’ dissension, that is.”

“Slow down, all of you,” Maisie pleaded. “Look, we don’t know if the rules will get changed or not. That’s kind of up to you lot, isn’t it? The changing room situation isn’t ideal, I know. Robin changes in my office and yes, it’s awkward because he can’t have a shower like the others.”

“Unhygienic, too!” shouted Becks’s mum, who was the smelliest woman in the room.

“But that’s the fault of the owners,” Maisie ploughed on. “This team’s never had the investment it needs. Look at this clubhouse. You think this is OK for your girls to be training in? One of the windows is smashed, the paint’s peeling, the toilet doesn’t flush properly… it’s ridiculous and you’ve all complained about it. We could have changing facilities for boys and for girls if we got the investment.”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” said Molly’s mum. “Boys’ and girls’ facilities? You want to get more boys in! Why stop there, why not have a boys’ team!”

The women howled in derision and talked over one another and Maisie could barely make herself heard.

“It’s simple,” Suki’s mum said when the hubbub had calmed down. “If that Robin carries on playing for the Eagles, then I’m taking Suki out of the team.”

Maisie was aghast. “You can’t do that, Felicia! Suki loves the Eagles. We’ve got a chance to finish above the AllStars for the first time in ten years! She’d be devastated. And why now, when there’s only one game to go?”

“I don’t care about that, I’m sorry but there it is. I won’t have people laughing at her.”

“The same goes for me,” said Becks’s mum.

“And me,” said Macka’s mum.

“Me too,” murmured a couple of the others, sensing victory.

“So, Ms Fudge,” said Molly’s mum, “you have a decision to make, don’t you?”



*


That evening after dinner, as Mr Diamond was clearing away the plates, Angie got a phone call. “Oh, hey Maisie,” she said.

Robin and Dad watched in concern as her face froze and grew worried. “What? Oh Maisie, you must be joking!”

“I’m sorry, Angie,” sighed Maisie. “I don’t have a choice. Several mothers are threatening to take their girls out of the team.”

“But that’s crazy! Even worse – it’s blackmail.” Angie walked out of the room with the phone, not wanting her son to hear this. “Robin’s doing great for the team! You can’t give in to them and let them drive him out, Maisie, after you’ve stood up for him for so long.”

“If six girls are pulled out then I don’t have a team, and we won’t be able to play the final game. The AllStars will be awarded the points and finish above us as bloody usual.”

“There’s only one game left! I can’t believe parents would be so cruel.”

“I think I know what’s behind that. Robin’s been one of our top goal-scorers, so I reckon Barrow-White pushed the parents so he’d get kicked out before the AllStars game. It’s as simple as that. I can’t deprive the girls of their derby, Angie, it’s all they talk about. It wouldn’t be fair. And think how angry it would make them feel towards Robin.”

“We’ve come so far,” pleaded Mum.

“I’m not happy about it, Angie, of course I’m not, but I’m responsible for the whole squad, not just Robin. I have no choice. I’m going to have to drop him.”

“Damn that Lucretia Barrow-White!”

“It might have happened without her. There’s a lot of hostility to boys getting above their station, as you can imagine. I’m sorry. I’ll come round and tell him in person.”

“No, don’t bother,” said Angie bitterly. She wasn’t sure what else Maisie could have done, but she was angry with her anyway. “I’ll tell him myself. Bye.” She hung up and her shoulders sank as she went back to the front room.

“Mum?” asked Robin.

“Oh, Robbie! I really thought we might change football in Norbolt. But it looks like the women have closed ranks.”


*


After hearing the news, Robin ran upstairs to his room to be alone. It felt like the world hated him. There was no need for his Mum to explain, as he saw it plainly enough. He had caused nothing but trouble ever since he joined that club, just because he was a boy! Saffie and Jasmine had fallen out because of him. No, he must stick to cookery and housework and dresses, and leave the exciting stuff to the women. Bloody women! He didn’t care if he never saw another woman or girl in his life, except for Saffie, of course, but he wasn’t sure if that would work any more, either, having to listen to her exciting stories of games, tackles and goals. When he tried to picture their future he could no longer see himself as a fellow footballer; instead he was a househusband keeping the nest clean while the mighty female went off having adventures.

“You’re joking!” said Saffie on the phone later. “It’s so unnecessary and stupid. Why can’t they leave you alone?”

“It was organised by Barrow-White. Her and the parents.”

“Not all the parents – mine are OK with you, and some of the others have been supportive too.”

“Yeah, except they’re not the ones making the decisions. Only the active, hateful ones do that.”

“Oh, you sound so depressed! Don’t worry, poppet, we’ll come up with something.”

Robin admired her determination to fix it. But he couldn’t see how she could.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Robin and the Super Eagles, chapters 6-7

6


In their next game the Eagles were thrashed 6-1 away by the Norford Hawks. Robin set up Megan for their consolation goal. It was a humbling result, but it was one setback for a team otherwise in good form by their standards.

The Eagles’ next opponent was the imaginatively-named Norford Youth Eleven – a new team struggling to forge an identity. Maisie was optimistic.

“Listen up, Eagles,” she enthused. “This lot haven’t got good morale so they’re ours for the taking. To be blunt, they’re crap. I know we got smashed last game but that was the Hawks so we expect it. Today I want us in a 4-4-1-1, Saffie in front, Robin behind her. Aaliyah, you wanted a turn in goal, well you can have it. Silver, no offense, you’ve done great in goal, only I want to try her out. Take her place at left back. – OK, everyone, Super Eagles Are Go!”

There was a bigger crowd than usual. Silver joked that the spectators were glory hunters because they started creeping out of their holes after the Eagles won the Wanderers game. Even Jasmine’s Mum turned up, a scruffy woman with puffy eyes. Robin had talked a few of his schoolmates into coming, and the boys fluttered to the touchline, whispering and giggling and keen to admire some female prowess.

“Oh God,” snarled Saffie as the teams trotted onto the pitch. “It’s Heather McIlroy.”

Robin looked over and saw a tall, blonde girl in a snug-fitting tracksuit in the audience at the front of the stand. She was amazingly beautiful – he could hardly pull his eyes away. She had a couple of mates with her, muttering at her on either side, but she wasn’t looking at them. She was looking at Robin.

“Captain of the AllScum,” explained Megan. “Horrendous arrogant bastard.”

“And the best footballer in the league,” sighed Grace, “but for God’s sake, never tell her that.”

“Come on, Eagles,” barked the skipper. “Forget that wanker. Concentrate.”

Awareness of Robin’s presence in the team had spread through the local youth football world by now, and there was a bit less teasing or mockery than usual. He showed why he was there in the first three minutes when he almost converted a nice flick from Grace into a goal.

The more Robin played as a No.10, he more he took to the role. He dribbled fluidly through the Youth Eleven’s defence and no one could get a tackle in. He sensed that these girls, too, weren’t taking him seriously and used it to his advantage before they started to learn more sense: after some poor defending he cut through them for an easy chip into the corner of the net. 1-0!

As the team gulped their water at half-time, Maisie went into action. “Come on guys, one goal up at half-time isn’t enough. We’re unlucky not to be further ahead. We want at least one more to bury this game. They’re not that good, we’ve all sussed that. Now get out there and smash ‘em! If we win the game I’ll take everyone to the movies tonight. That’s a promise.”

The team cheered. They started the second half strongly, only the woodwork denying Robin a second goal. Then five minutes later they had their breakthrough – there was some smart passing between Molly on the wing, Megan and Grace in midfield, and Saffie up front that tore the Youth Eleven’s defence apart and gave Megan an easy tap-in as she came rushing up to bury a rebound off the goalkeeper. It was 2-0! The Eagles and their supporters danced up and down in delight.

The game got even better seven minutes later when the Eleven’s defender made a bad clearance that fell straight to Robin’s feet. The defender raced towards him to try and make up for her mistake, but he knew instinctively he must respond fast, so he glided the ball to the side and gave it an immense smack with his left foot.

“Get in!” yelled his Mum from the touchline.

It was such a powerful kick that the goalkeeper had no chance – dive as she might, she couldn’t get across her goal in time. It was 3-0 and Robin had scored a brace!

Realising it was nice to have a pretty boy scoring goals, the Eagles pressed in on him, seizing and hugging and ruffling his hair, and anonymous hands roamed unnecessarily about his torso.

The Eleven looked disgusted, and their morale was broken. At the final whistle the scoreline remained 3-0.

“AHA!” yelled Maisie Fudge.

“We did it, Saffie!” laughed Robin to his captain.

“No, Robs, you did it. You scored twice. No one’s going to complain about you being on the team now.”

Jasmine walked up to him and gave him a punch on the shoulder. “You’re all right,” she coughed. It was one of those gruff, laconic moments through which most girls communicated – he was now officially one of the team, and was meant to be honoured that he had won her respect. But he was still struggling to forgive her for crushing his balls on his first day.

No one could quite believe it. That was seven points out of a possible twelve from the last four games. They hadn’t done this well in the league for years. If they kept it up, they might actually finish the season above their rivals the AllStars! The Eagles hadn’t finished above them in the league for so long that no one in the current team could remember the last time (although a few of the parents could). And it felt achieveable, because by their standards the AllStars weren’t having a very good season.

Heather McIlroy was still hanging around with her two mates. She was either spying on the opposition, or curious about Robin, or both. “What a joke club you lot are,” she sneered as Saffie came near. “Depending on a boy to score your goals. That’s a new low, even for you.”

“Robin’s an admirable player,” bristled Saffie. The two captains squared up.

“Yeah, to you losers he would be.” The three AllStars directed withering gazes at the abashed Robin, who tried to jog past without getting involved, or being diverted by the blonde girl’s ravishing green eyes.

“Yeah, jog on, bitch,” said Heather McIlroy, then turned to Saffie again. “You’re playing us in a couple of weeks. Looking forward to stuffing you low-rent losers as usual…”

Saffie was too sensible to rise to this sort of thing. She simply turned and walked away.

As he got changed, Robin could hear the girls in the changing room, chanting “Super Eagles Are Go!” and “We are the Greens!” at the tops of their voices, slinging football boots at each other. He half-wished he could be in there with them. But there was too much oestrogen in the room: too much pranking and noise and bad language for his masculine sensibilities. He wasn’t one of them yet. Maybe he never would be. As things stood, there were only two more games left in the season for him to find out.


*


As always, Maisie was as good as her word, and a few hours later the entire Eagles squad filed into the local cinema at her expense. The girls talked too loudly and chucked popcorn, still buzzing from the victory. Robin felt proud to be accepted by them as some kind of equal. They didn’t seem to mind any more that he was a boy. On the contrary, they made him blush with high-spirited compliments on how pretty he looked.

The movie was a standard story: there was a good-looking young woman who was the hero, and a slightly older woman who was the villain, and there was a beautiful young man for the love interest, and the man was seized by the villain and had to be rescued by the hero, who toted guns and killed about a hundred people, and saved practically the entire world by the end.

As they stood up to go, Robin said to Saffie, “It’s always women who save the day in movies, but I reckon a boy can be a hero too.”

“Oh, victory’s going to your head already I see,” she laughed, and squeezed his hand. She kept on holding his hand for several seconds longer, which gave Robin a funny sensation, like swimming in warm fizzy water, and as the Eagles shuffled closer to the exit, Saffie was still holding his hand! As Maisie and the team disappeared into the brightly-lit lobby, she tugged him back into the dim cinema and lightly propelled him against the wall, boldly ignoring the people shuffling past, and planted a kiss on his cheek.

“So are you going out with anyone?”

“N-No,” stammered Robin.

“That’s good. Because I’d like you to be my boyfriend,” she said.

“Do I get a say?” he gasped happily.

“None whatsoever,” she grinned, her eyes bright and hungry, and kissed him on the cheek again.

It must be great to have that brazen, feminine confidence. “Well that’s agreed then, captain.”

“Come on, sweetheart.” She led him out into the lobby. “Let’s not tell the others though. Might cause some friction.”

“You’re the boss!”

They hung around in the lobby of the cinema, grinning at each other across the room. He was almost too surprised to feel happy. Of course he thought Saffie was wonderful. That clutch of hands and the kiss and the way she had taken control filled him with happy excitement. People around him were chatting about the movie yet he didn’t hear a word they were saying, his head was swimming so much!

It took ages for everyone to start leaving. Jasmine came up to Robin and asked, “How are you getting home, Robbie?”

“My Mum’s going to pick me up.”

“Oh, OK.”

She looked disappointed, so Robin felt obliged to ask: “Do you need a lift?”

“Uh, yeah, actually, I was going to get the bus but yeah, great.”

When Mum arrived, Robin and Saffie gave each other a little secret wave goodbye. Robin was still feeling a bit stunned as he got into the car. He had a girlfriend!

“Where do you live, Jasmine?” asked Mum.

“Heathside Estate, please, Ms Diamond. Anderson Road.”

“OK. Robin, do you want to get in the back? You can sit in front if you like, Jasmine.”

“It’s all right, Ms Diamond, I’ll sit in the back with Robbie.”

Jasmine heaved herself in beside Robin, spreading her legs, as girls do, till their knees were touching. Robin gathered his bunchy skirts together looked out of the window. He could hear Jasmine’s heavy breathing and smell the sweat on her strong young body. As the car crossed the Taverham junction he felt a warm touch – Jasmine had put her hand on his knee! In the dark of the car he glanced at her and saw her eyes shining, staring ahead. The hand began to move slightly, back and forth. Jasmine was a big, sensual sort of girl, and Robin couldn’t help himself – even though he had just been claimed by Saffie, he felt a swelling of excitement. Oh goodness! How his life was changing.

“I’m sorry I broke your balls,” she whispered ponderously in his ear.

“Great game, wasn’t it, Jasmine?” said Mum, almost making them both jump.

“Yes, Ms Diamond.”

“Robin’s thirteen in a week’s time, did you know that Jasmine?”

“Er, I think he mentioned it, Ms Diamond.”

“He’s having a party, I’m sure he’d be pleased if you came. Robbie?”

“Yeah, of course.” As if he could say anything else. “Early evening Saturday, after football practice, at my house?”

Funny how things changed. It wasn’t so long ago that he was in terror of Jasmine. Now she was groping him and receiving invitations to his birthday party!

Jasmine pushed her hand to the hem of Robin’s skirts and pushed a little more. Her forwardness made him both tingly and a bit angry – girls seemed to think they could take what they wanted without asking. He belonged to Saffie now, so he fidgeted away and shifted closer to his window. He was bright red but at least in the gloom no one would see. Reluctantly Jasmine removed her hand.

They let their passenger out on her road – she said goodbye and walked onto the estate barely looking at Robin. She was a strange one. She could have some manners, at least!

Robin couldn’t stop thinking of Saffie’s lovely invitation to be her boyfriend, but there was also that warmth of Jasmine’s hand on his knee. It made his body feel restless and yearning. He imagined Jasmine shoving over to his side of the car, pushing him down, heaving her hot body onto his, and devouring him like a great, hungry predator.

Oh God. Saffie was his girlfriend, not Jasmine. Now he was in even more of a pickle!


*


In the midweek Saffie invited him to hang out in the city centre after school. Robin raced home from school and got dressed up prettily again, taking the bus into central Norford with a happy thrill in his stomach. Saffie was waiting outside the Castle Mall in a check shirt and jeans.

“All right, boyfriend?”

“All right, girlfriend?”

As they strolled through the shopping centre, Saffron held his hand tightly and Robin enjoyed a wonderful, warm feeling of safety knowing he had a strong girl looking after him. He was only a kid, only bashful Robin, yet here he was with his first girlfriend. One or two girls wolf-whistled, which made him blush. “Hey, he’s the boy who plays football!” one cried out.

“How come you’re the famous one?” Saffie pretended to be jealous. “I’m meant to be the star striker.”

“Yes, of the world-famous Heathside Eagles,” he grinned. He told her about the piece in the Norford Advertiser, and the photo of him. “I wanted to say, Saff, thanks for siding with me at the beginning. You weren’t hostile like the others.”

“To be honest, I didn’t think you belonged in a football team either, darling,” admitted Saffie. “But there was no need to be horrible and try to push you out. It was only fair to give you a chance. And see, you came up trumps.”

They stopped at a fast food place, and she paid for drinks and sundaes for the two of them. As they sipped away, Robin shyly raised the subject of his upcoming thirteenth birthday, and offered the pleased Saffie her invitation to the party. “I’m not inviting the whole team, only a few of you I get on with best. Otherwise it could end up in a riot.”

“Well, thanks very much, poppet. Best not tell the others about ‘us’, though. You understand the team mustn’t know about you and me?”

“I don’t quite…”

“It’s jealousy, Robbie. You’ve stepped into a bunch of adolescent girls and you may not be aware of it, but they don’t entirely know how to handle having a pretty boy amongst them. It’s a right old stew of hormones and sweaty palms.”

“Oh, I’m not pretty.”

“You’re fishing for compliments, and I’m not falling for it. All I will say is that I’m not the only one who fancies you, you’ll be amazed to hear.”

“Oo-oh, who else? Who?”

“You’ll get no more insider information than that,” she replied sternly. “The point is, it could damage team cohesion.”

“Gosh, that sounds very important, ‘team cohesion’,” he teased.

“It’s the sort of thing captains worry about… If the girls know I’ve bagged you for myself it might undermine my position and, well, cause fights. That’s the last thing we need when the Eagles are starting to hit a new level.”

“Point taken, captain,” said Robin, though he longed to hear more insights into the mystery of female passions. He had decided not to tell Saffie about the episode with Jasmine in the car, as it wouldn’t be fair to Jasmine, but he was annoyed with Mum for blundering on about the party. It was going to be pretty uncomfortable having Saffie and Jasmine in the same room when he was trying to celebrate becoming a teenager!

“And the other thing is… I’m a bit sensitive about my position, because it’s a big deal I got made captain at all. As, like, an Asian girl, you know. There are hardly any Asians in professional football. There are plenty at youth level – even the Eagles have Aaliyah and Faizah and me – but we usually get overlooked. That’s why Maisie’s such a champion, because she only cares about how good you are. And I think it’s partly why I wanted to give you a chance, because people didn’t really take me seriously either. Until I started outplaying them.”

“That’s true,” Robin mused, “there are no Asian footballers. In this country anyway! But there are loads of black ones, so it can’t be racism, right?”

“I don’t think racism’s as logical as you’re making out,” laughed Saffie. “It’s definitely racism, just a kind they can get away with easier, for some reason. Anyway, I know how it is to be an outsider, is all I’m saying. My grandma still talks about arriving in this country with a science degree and having to work on a bus. And I get chants against me sometimes, ‘curry-face’ or whatever.” She shrugged and finished her sundae. “You must come round my place. Watch a City game on the telly. Meet my family.”

“It would be nice to meet your brothers,” said Robin.

“Yeah, it would. I’m sure they can dress you up in a sari if you fancy. Show you how to drape it Bengali-style.”

“That sounds lovely. I bet your brothers are totally in awe of you.”

“They know who’s boss, all right, the sillies!”

“I think boys naturally look up to girls. We have to – you girls always take charge, regardless.”

“A girl needs to be in charge. It’s just how we’re made. Same as how boys are meek and obsessed with being pretty – it’s how nature made you. In my culture the girl is expected to study hard and get good grades, maybe take over the family business. I know it’s a cliché but my mother’s sister owns a restaurant – everyone in Norford thinks it’s Indian but it isn’t – and she only has sons, so the family was sort of expecting me to learn to manage it. I might still have to if I can’t have a football career.”

“Your family doesn’t mind you playing football?” Robin had once seen a movie about a very traditional Asian family who tried to stop their daughter playing football because they wanted her to become a doctor.

“No, of course not. They respect what I want to do. Believe me, my Mum rules our family with an iron fist. If she was against me playing, her word would be final!”

“She sounds scary. Are you a chip off the old block?”

“Oh, I’m pretty easy-going. I’ll try not to order you about too much, darling!”


*


“Have a nice time with Saffie?” asked Dad when Robin came home.

“Yes, thanks, it was brilliant.”

Dad gave him a searching look. “Just friends, are you?”

Robin was a bit embarrassed about admitting he was her boyfriend, but he murmured, with a twinkle: “Not entirely.”

“Not entirely!” laughed Dad. “I can guess what that means. Dads notice these things, Robbie, so I won’t pretend I’m surprised. Well, lucky you, son, Saffron’s a great girl who’ll treat you right. She has good manners, not like some of those spotty monsters. I’m very pleased for you.”

“The thing is Dad, there’s another girl who likes me too, and she doesn’t know yet that I’m taken, and I don’t know what to do! I’m starting to think I shouldn’t be in the Eagles any more, it’s all getting too complicated.”

“Welcome to growing up, son.” Dad stroked his son’s hair fondly. “You’ve taken on a lot these last few weeks, haven’t you? Don’t even think about leaving the team. If those girls want to get all romantic, that’s their problem!”


7



Robin wasn’t the sort of boy who made a big deal about his birthday. He didn’t insist on a fancy dress or a shower of presents. All he wanted was to have his chums round for the afternoon, and to have a cake covered in plenty of icing as he had a sweet tooth. But Saffie was going to be there; and thanks to his Mum, Jasmine was going to turn up too; and Dad said Uncle Lenny would put in an appearance. It was getting out of hand.

“You have got to make an effort!” cried Sean when he heard about Saffie. “Boys have to make themselves super pretty for their girlfriends, especially on birthdays!”

Now that the Eagles had been won over, Robin felt less pressure to ‘Sean-ify’ himself. However, he felt an obligation to Saffie, and it was his birthday. So he resigned himself to missing Saturday football practice, and before his party he spent another half-hour with the crimper turning his blond hair into adorable little waves. His dress for the day was the latest of Uncle Lenny’s gifts. It was a classic peach-pink confection with appliqué flowers down the bodice, leading to a cinched waist and beautifully layered, full tulle skirts, with a bow at the back. After he had pulled on his chiffon petticoats, he stood still while Dad lifted the dress with the skirts gathered in his hands over Robin’s head, and pulled it down, guiding his son’s arms into the little puffed sleeves. Robin almost trembled in pleasure as Dad buttoned him up and the dress tightened around him.

“This is the most fabulous dress I’ve ever seen you in, son,” said Dad fondly as he plucked at the big bow.

“Yes, it’s lovely,” said Robin, picking up his powderpuff and dabbing his face. Together with his white tights and pretty pink shoes, he felt amazing, as precious and exquisite as a china doll. He took a handful of the gorgeously rustling chiffon and tulle skirts and spun gently, losing himself for a moment in a romantic daydream. He couldn’t wait for the guests to arrive. He hoped he’d make the other boys jealous and be ogled by the girls.

I have been too much of a janegirl, he thought. There are nice things about being a boy.

While Mum read her newspaper in the front room, Dad got busy in the kitchen, and by the time guests were due to arrive there was a nice spread of cupcakes, crisps, canapés and other treats on the living room table, which he pushed against the wall to make room. Pop music pumped at a civilised volume through the house.

“Come on, Doug,” said Mum when the doorbell rang. “Let’s give the youngsters some privacy.” And they retreated to the back garden.

Robin’s boy friends looked happy and adorable in their net petticoats and party dresses. Gavin wore blue, Tyrone wore pale cream with a flower print, and Sean arrived in an extra-chic bottle-green dirndl. The boys’ long hair was carefully coiffed and tied with ribbons. The three of them huddled self-consciously on the sofa, like a row of dollies on a shelf.

“Are any girls coming?” asked Gavin.

“Yes, Molly and Silver said they would come after football practice, and Saffie of course, and Jasmine supposedly. I didn’t want to invite the whole team, I thought it might get too rowdy.”

“Good, that’s fine. That’s one each,” said Sean mischievously.

Molly and Silver were the first girls to arrive, appearing together in ironed white shirts and creased trousers. After wishing Robin happy birthday and handing over a couple of modest gifts, they inspected the shy, gauzy boys with ambivalence and headed straight for the food.

Only when Saffie arrived did the party liven up.

“Happy birthday, honey-bunch!” she bellowed, hugging him. “Thirteen today! God, is that really you? What a bloody beauty you are. Missed you at practice. Here, look.” She held out some tupperware. “Dad made samosas.”

“Good old Mr Das. You’ll have to shush a bit, because Molly and Silver are here.”

“Sod that, I actually told them about us. We can trust those two.”

In the living room Saffie took his hand and dropped down on the armchair, pulling him with her. She sat on his bunchy skirts and had to get up so he could gather the heaps of material out of harm’s way.

“Cripes,” she exclaimed, uncomfortably, “you boys and your skirts!” She pawed theatrically at the peach-pink billows of tulle and chiffon engulfing her. “Is there a boy anywhere inside all this?”

Robin plucked his skirts away from Saffie and shifted to the arm of the chair, blushing.

“Now, now, Saffron,” teased Gavin, “we boys love our petticoats.”

“I hope they don’t go out of fashion,” Tyrone remarked.

“They will never go out of fashion,” said Sean firmly. “The bereft male population would commit suicide in despair.”

“The mysterious world of the male sex…” muttered Saffron, not knowing how to finish her sentence. She looked over to Molly and Silver for support, and finding none, she slapped Robin on the leg. “Looking forward to smashing the AllScum Sunday week?”

Robin’s boy friends had no idea what she meant, so she had to explain, the boys giggling as she launched into a couple of rollicking stories of derby mishaps and punch-ups. “Jasmine got their goalie right in the eye,” she concluded. “She was black and blue for two weeks.”

“You girls and your fighting!” said Gavin in awe. He’d never so much as wagged a finger at a puppy.

“And you’re going to join in this bloodbath, Robbie!” said Sean in amazement, putting a dainty gloved hand to his perfectly lip-glossed mouth. “How will you survive among those bruisers?”

“By dodging all their tackles! And the girls will protect me… won’t you, Saffie?”

“Yeah, we won’t let anyone hurt our pretty Robbie.”

The party was going quite nicely, with friendly chatter, and Molly and Silver, having demolished the crisps, making an effort to join the conversation, and Robin was thinking what a pleasant time they were having, when the doorbell rang again.

Jasmine was wearing her school shirt and trousers, to look smart. Her short hair was slicked back. In her hand she clutched a small bouquet of carnations (the sort of thing that cost £4 in the supermarket) which she held out straight in front of her, like someone nervously presenting a fake ticket at the gates at Sparrow Road.

“Happy birthday Robbie,” she muttered. “Gosh, looking all right. Bought you some flowers.”

“They’re pretty,” said Robin, taking the posy. “Thanks for coming, Jasmine.”

“Call me Jaz,” she replied as she stepped into the hall. “Same as everyone else.”

Robin introduced her to the boys and offered her nibbles. He had to give the great lummox credit for changing her behaviour, but he was annoyed because now he and Saffie must stop holding hands and behave less intimately. Sean, Gavin and Tyrone were impressed when the brawler Jasmine was introduced into their midst, and pretended to be frightened, and begged her to tell them more adventures, so maybe it would be OK after all.

Eventually another knock on the door announced the final guest: Uncle Lenny.

“Oh!” cried Uncle Lenny, clapping his hands together. “You’re wearing the birthday dress I bought you! Give me a twirl!” Robin dutifully spun round once, holding out his skirts. “Happy birthday… Oh, how lovely he looks!” Uncle Lenny was so transported by this new Robin, he looked in danger of a heart attack.

Saffie came up behind Robin, taking his hand, because they were safely out of sight in the entrance hall. “Hello, Uncle Lenny. I’m Saffie. He does look divine, doesn’t he?”

Uncle Lenny stared in disbelief at their clasped hands. “Don’t tell me, miss, that you’re his… girlfriend?”

The two kids nodded happily, swinging their hands. “But, Uncle, hush,” said Robin in a whisper. “You mustn’t say anything because Jasmine’s here.”

“Who’s here? Oh, it’s too much, I have to sit down.” Uncle Lenny bustled into the front room with a rustle of his silk frock. “I thought my Robbie would be a poor lonely janegirl for ever. – Hello boys and girls! Are there nibbles? Ah yes, Doug’s delights. – And instead I find him holding hands with his first girlfriend! My life is complete. I hope the both of you are very happy together,” he concluded patronisingly. “I ask only one thing, Sally – was it Sally? – I ask only that you make him stop his football nonsense. A boyfriend is for kissing, not for tackling.”

Molly and Silver exchanged withering glances – who was this absurd creature?

“Uncle!” cried Robin in despair. Jasmine must have heard every word. He glanced over at where she stood, orange juice in one hand, and she was scowling like the devil. The moment Uncle Lenny left to join Angie and Doug in the back garden, she demanded: “What’s this, Saffie? You’re his girlfriend?”

Saffie didn’t want to lie about it. “Yeah. Sorry Jaz, it’s not public yet.”

“Bloody hell, Saffie!” cried Jasmine, confused and angry. “This is typical of you. Always think you’re better than me, with your mum’s fancy job and your big house… You knew that I… You had to make your bloody move, didn’t you?” Robin thought she was about to cry, but crying was for boys, and instead she put down her drink, marched up to Saffie and shoved her hard in the chest.

Saffie was normally level-headed, and grown up for her age, but she would not be abused, and encountering a love rival seemed to get her blood up. “Get out of my face, you chav,” she retorted. Jasmine seized her, and they started struggling about the room.

Oh God, thought Robin as the ornamental plates rattled on the mantelpiece, they’re causing a scene. And Saffie’s lost it. What do you do when girls start scrapping at your birthday party?

“The girls are fighting over Robbie,” whispered the boys, and gazed wide-eyed and apprehensive at the contest, pressing their thighs together under their skirts.

“Please, girls,” Robin pleaded, flapping anxiously at the combatants, “please don’t fight. It’s my party, remember. Jaz, I know you’re surprised, and angry, but please don’t spoil my birthday.”

An appeal from a boy in peach-pink tulle was enough to bring the girls to their senses. Jasmine pulled free and straightened her shirt. “All right, Robin,” she said distantly. “Thank you for inviting me.” And with that she stamped out of the front door, leaving the party to get its breath back.

“Is everything all right?” Dad wanted to know, poking his head round the kitchen door.

“Yes, Dad,” said Robin quickly. “The girls mistook my party for a football training session for a moment there.”

“No balls, please,” said Dad, “not with my crockery.” And he didn’t quite understand why everyone tittered.


*


Once everyone had gossiped for an hour about what had happened, and Robin had lamented ever joining the Eagles because this was all his fault, and male and female guests alike had assured him it wasn’t, and Uncle Lenny had popped in about twenty times to try to eavesdrop and to say how pretty the boys looked, and the food was gobbled up, and the cake was presented, sliced and equally distributed – some cosmic arbiter decided the party had lasted long enough. And gradually the guests went home, leaving Robin and Saffie to scurry upstairs to his bedroom, where they gazed in bemusement at each other.

“Welcome to being thirteen, sweetheart,” Saffie said. She looked around his room. “Not very boyish, Robs. I thought boys’ bedrooms were pink? With princes and horses and shit.”

“Yeah, ha ha.”

“I like the football posters, though,” she said. “Who’s your favourite player? Mine’s Davina Beckham, I think.”

“Got to be Isla McKenzie,” said Robin without hesitation.

“Uncontroversial choice.”

“That brace for England in the quarter-final! She’s so quick, and lethal on the break. Look, I have a poster of her, behind you…”

As he turned towards it, Saffie leaned over and gave him a kiss on the lips. They both sat there, blushing furiously, Robin shrinking demurely into his full skirts, until Saffie broke the silence. “It’s so weird having a boyfriend who’s into football.”

“Weird but nice?”

“Yeah, totally. Weird but nice. It gives us something decent to talk about! My Mum was a bit freaked out when I told her.”

“She wants you to marry a Bengali boy?”

“Ha, no, nothing like that. Honestly, you and your oppressive Asian families… we’re not all forced into arranged marriages you know! No, I think because you play football she’s worried you’ll be emancipated, and have me cooking and cleaning, and I won’t be the one wearing the trousers.”

“Duh, I’ve never worn trousers in my life! Just because I like football doesn’t mean I don’t know how to be a boy. You’re my captain, Saffie – on and off the pitch.” They shared a hug. “But of course, if you want to play the boy’s role,” he went on cheekily, “I can pick out a nice dress for you.”

“Get along with you!” snorted Saffie.

“No, come on, Saffron Das, you’re my size. Let me pick you out something pretty,” and laughing he stood up to open his wardrobe.

Saffie wasn’t having this game. “Knock it on the head, darling. You’d never see a girl in skirts, it’s degrading. We’d rather die.”

Her disdain was a bit hurtful. After all, Robin wore skirts every day. Perhaps she regretted her tone, for she put her arm around his shoulder. He inclined his head towards the crook of her neck. She wanted to kiss him again, he could feel it, and he angled his head up so she could plant another long, moist kiss on his cheek. Afterwards they were both blushing like crazy again. It was a new, complicated business, having a sweetheart, and it was stirring up all sorts of awkward things, but they both knew without having to say it: they didn’t regret anything.


Thursday, 16 April 2015

Robin and the Super Eagles, chapters 4-5

4


A short while earlier Robin had been in the office, resentfully pulling on his clothes with a chair wedged against the door. His wretched testicles were throbbing with pain, and tears of mortification rolled down his cheeks. That awful groin-ache was like a taunt at his sex. He felt enervated all over, like a superhero stripped of her powers. God had played a nasty joke on boys when She’d invented balls!

He could hear the girls laughing in the changing rooms, showing off and telling rude jokes. Their easy confidence and banter goaded him, too. And the thought of those young female bodies, strolling through the showers, water dripping on their skin, made him feel funny in a different way. He didn’t know any girls very well – his experience didn’t go much beyond the footy gang in the park, and his cousins, Uncle Lenny’s daughters, pulling his hair and trying to lift his skirts – and hadn’t appreciated how infuriating and alluring and fascinating they were.

Having his balls busted by angry girls on two occasions didn’t actually stop him wanting to play. But he was worried that this time it had happened in front of his parents, and they would take him out of the team. So it was with dread that he stepped out and spotted his Dad in the main hall of the clubhouse, looking a bit lost amongst the photos of heroic footballing females in his paisley print dress.

“Good heavens, Robbie, are you OK?” Mr Diamond fussed. “You poor, poor thing. What a mean, vindictive girl!” Robin assured him he was recovering, and his father went on: “Look, I’m concerned about this, son. I had no idea the girls would be so unchivalrous towards you. Maybe I’m naïve but I’m a bit shocked.”

“It was only one girl,” said Robin. Best not to mention Jasmine’s painful Nut Crunch, he thought. “She was upset because I outplayed her. They’ll get used to me, the more I play.”

His father wrung his hands. “Can’t you stand up to them?”

“Dad! I can’t fight a girl, she’d destroy me.”

“I’m not talking about violence. Go to your coach, or something. Maybe it’s for the best that your mother didn’t see the incident. She was taking a phone call from that dreadful Emily Steele – on a Sunday! It’s just as well, too, or we’d be trying to contain World War Three. That Taverham vixen would already be playing her harp next to the Almighty. I know you’re excited about your team, Robbie, but I worry about leaving my precious son alone in this pack of wolves… Perhaps you really shouldn’t be playing football.”

“Dad, you sound like Uncle Lenny!” Robin stood very primly and frowned, wagging his finger mockingly: “Boys should stay safe at home, playing with dolls and purring over their darling dresses.”

“Ha-ha, you do a good Lenny!”

“Please Dad, I love playing with the Eagles, don’t make me stop!”

His father sighed. “OK, let’s keep this from Mum if we can, hm? She’d go ballistic. If we’re lucky, she’s not had a chance to chat to anyone about the game yet. Who’d have thought that boor Emily Steele would actually do us a favour?”


*


To Robin’s relief, Ms Diamond seemed unaware of the ballbusting incident. As she drove them home, she raved about her son’s goal, reliving the moment as if he’d just promoted Norford City to the Premier League single-handed. Bathed in this glory, Robin’s mood improved. When he finally grew up, he’d end up bigger and faster than those girls: Heathside Eagles, Taverham Tigers, any of them! He’d outplay them all!

Except, if the gynocracy could help it, he’d never get the chance. And as he brooded over this in his room, he had an idea.

Maisie’s lecture had appealed to the girls’ sense of honour, pointing out it was their duty to treat boys chivalrously. Some of the Eagles already treated him decently. Saffie was a noble knight at heart. Molly and Silver liked him too, and Megan and Faizah and Grace, he was sure. However the girls were confused: he was like them, only he wasn’t. He needed a way to drive home Maisie’s point.

Opening his wardrobe, he perused the ‘Uncle Lenny’ end, where his prettier clothes were. He had never been a boysie-boy – all frilly skirts and lip gloss and giggles – on the contrary, he was proudly a janegirl. But circumstances had changed. He had to appeal to his team-mates as a proper boy – the more normal sort of boy they were accustomed to, and would naturally feel protective of.

He pulled out one of Uncle Lenny’s gift dresses and held it against him in front of the mirror. With its cutesy puffed sleeves and full skirts, it wasn’t his familiar, plain, janegirl style, but dresses like this made a boy look delightful, like an innocent angel. He should crimp his hair too, because it was pretty, and a touch of makeup wouldn’t hurt. The male sex was weak, and disempowered, yet not without resources. Ribbons, and frills, and bows, and blushes: these were the male weapons. Even Jasmine and Suki wouldn’t have the heart to bully him. It would be like bullying a puppy.

“Oh, please Jasmine, you’re much stronger than me,” he pleaded into the mirror, putting a finger to his mouth and batting his eyelids. “I’m only a silly boy! Please don’t hurt me, Jasmine.”
Yes, he would play to his masculinity. It might work.


*


On the morning before the next football practice, Robin invited his schoolfriend Sean over to help him with his style.

“Is this for your birthday?” Sean wanted to know. “Thirteen soon!”

“No, it’s about buttering up some girls actually.”

“Oo-oh, even better!” he squealed.

Sean was quite flirty and boysie, the perfect assistant for Robin’s charm offensive. Sean’s style always seemed to be a touch more bouffant, his waist more cinched, his choices more chic. He even came armed with a boys’ fashion catalogue, and a pink bag full of makeup and other masculine knick-knacks. Once Sean had ooh-ed and aah-ed over the secret treasures of Robin’s wardrobe, the boys got down to business. If Sean gave the impression of being a bit of a bimbo and an airhead, it was really only part of the male mystique that, at thirteen, he had already learnt to wear like a carefully fitted glove. In matters masculine he was organised and expert.

“You know, of course, how dresses are heading now,” said Sean, flipping through the catalogue. “Skirts are getting very full. You put on these underskirts, see, and it makes them rustle nicely, and take a nice shape. Boys are loving them. Petticoats are flying off the shelves.”

“They do look pretty,” admitted Robin, and the time flew past as the two boys became engrossed in skirts, underskirts and dresses, taking things from the wardrobe and discussing different looks. By eleven o’clock, Robin realised they had been so busy that he hadn’t thought about football at all. He wondered what his team-mates would make of how he was spending his morning.

“Isn’t it funny,” he mused, “that a girl will go her whole life without ever putting on a skirt?”

“Er, no,” said Sean. “Girls wear trousers, boys wear skirts, that’s how it’s always been.”

“Yeah… but a girl will never do what we’re doing, trying on petticoats and stuff, whereas we boys take it for granted and do it every day. I just think it’s a bit weird.”

You’re weird for wanting to dress girls in skirts,” said Sean, with a little ‘what on earth’ grimace.

If he had zero interest in sociology, Sean had a well-developed instinct for making boys beautiful, having worried about it for most of his short life. They spent half an hour with a crimper putting pretty little waves into Robin’s long, blond hair. When it was done the crimped hair felt generous and gorgeous, and they topped it off with a red satin ribbon. Sean picked out a charming day dress in red tartan, with a big white collar and full skirts, which had the right balance of chic and boysie flirtiness: Robin pulled it over his head in a dizzy whirl of gauze and rustling. Sean observed that too much makeup at their age was ‘vulgar’ and ‘pervy’, so he restrained himself to giving Robin only a touch of lip gloss and a dash of rouge, “to bring out what you’ve got anyway,” as he put it.

Sean had brought some heeled shoes in his bag, too, with little bows on the front, and laughed as Robin practiced walking up and down in them. “You must walk pertly, Robbie. You can’t gallumph about. A boy must be prim and proper.” He leaned forward and confided: “You want to know the secret? You must imagine everyone’s looking at you, at all times. They’re looking, and judging, trying to find fault. And they must find nothing. It seems easy to be a boy, to sit about looking pretty, but actually it’s hard work. It takes practice, like your keepy-uppies.”

The new boysie Robin studied himself in the mirror. He had been changed from a slightly scruffy janegirl into a pampered flower. It felt strange and awkward, but surely no girl could persecute such a helpless, adorable creature?

“It feels glorious, doesn’t it?” said Sean, reading his mind. “That’s why it’s lovely to be a boy, you ditz, if only you knew it!”

It was time for Robin to leave for football practice. The boys tidied up and tripped downstairs.

Mum was working from home today. “Good heavens, I don’t recognise that dress,” she said when she saw her son. “It must be one of Lenny’s! You look lovely, dear. Is the team having a party?”

Robin laughed. “No, I just thought I’d give those girls something to think about!”

“Oh dear,” said Mum. “I was worried about this. You haven’t got a crush on one of them, are you?”

“Mum! I’m twelve.”

“You’re three weeks shy of thirteen, and quite old enough to get silly over a handsome girl.”

“No, it’s nothing like that.” And Robin explained his plan to win the team over.

“Well good luck,” said Mum. “It’s a risky strategy. Mind you don’t get labelled a flirt, or worse – there’s such a double standard. And watch that none of those little monsters tries to take advantage of you. Girls can be animals sometimes.”

“If anything, I’m taking advantage of them, flaunting my masculine wiles,” said Robin, with a giggle.

“Chop-chop,” said Sean. “You need to get there early. Give those saps plenty of time to see you looking your best.”

Mum offered to drive them, and dropped Sean off near his house. The little coquette paused for some parting advice. “Now remember, after you’ve been sitting in the car, you must shake out your dress and petticoats, so they keep their poof. Like this.” And he did a charming shimmy in the street to refresh his skirts.

“Thanks for everything, Sean.”

“Always happy to Sean-ify a janegirl!”

Mum left Robin at the clubhouse and zoomed off to her work. Slightly unsteady in his tight shoes, Robin fluffed his petticoats as Sean had advised and walked nervously into the building. Though his outfit was normal boyswear, he felt incredibly self-conscious, because it wasn’t his usual style. As he entered, all the girls turned to stare at him. They looked at his crimped tresses of shimmering gold, and his red hair ribbon, and his blushing cheeks, and his prettily swaying skirts, and they heard the tantalising rustle of his petticoats, and something clicked into place in their heads – you could almost see them suddenly realising that Robin was an attractive member of the opposite sex. They ogled him without self-awareness, in that oafish way girls sometimes had. Slightly embarrassed, he pretended not to notice.

“Let me show you to Maisie’s office, young man,” said Molly, and she bowed: certain conventions were supposed to be observed when dealing with boys.

“No, let me!” said Silver, pushing in front, her large brown eyes open wide.

“You both may,” said Robin bashfully, taking their arms, and he let the girls walk him the extremely short distance to the office door. His masculine weapons seemed to be working. If the girls were being slightly ironic in their gallantry, they sort of meant it, too. Girls didn’t like to look soppy, so they gained some protective cover by turning things into a joke.

“If Jaz gives you any bother, you’ve only to squeak,” said Molly, “and we’ll come and rescue you.”

Inside, he couldn’t stop beaming at the stunning success of his strategem. Suddenly the girls were being lovely!

There was a knock on the door. It was Saffie. “Is it OK to come in, Robbie?”

“Yes, skipper.”

She entered and her expression showed she was impressed. “Wow, they aren’t kidding, are they?”

“I must say everyone’s being very nice today.”

“Maisie’s made them feel guilty. We’re not monsters, you know. And you’ve played a blinder here. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing, you minx! We girls can’t help being gallant around pretty boys.”

Robin went red. “Do you think I’m pretty?”

Saffie became very embarrassed. “Uh, yes, I uh, I guess you are.”

“You’re nice-looking, too,” Robin murmured. And he wasn’t only saying it to be polite, or to butter up his captain. Saffie was a good-looking girl.

“Ahem, charmed, I’m sure. Now come along, get changed.”

Robin put on his Eagles kit, letting his crimped hair flow over his shoulders. The training session went very well. He got to show off his skills, scoring a couple of goals, and the tackles weren’t coming in as hard as before. Jasmine hardly touched him. Instead of glaring at him, she was starting to give him more friendly looks, almost too friendly. What a difference a crimper and a bit of lip gloss can make, he marvelled. Girls were simple creatures, really.

The one person who didn’t seem to notice Robin’s makeover was Maisie. She was grumpy all afternoon and snapped several times. In fact, she came up to him afterwards, holding a cup of hot coffee with steam curling off it, to apologise.

“I’m sorry I’ve been moody, lad. It’s that blasted Barrow-White’s fault. She was hanging around here last week stirring things and I had a call from a mate this morning – she’s been ringing around the county FA to get boys banned from playing.”

Robin hoped Maisie wasn’t starting to resent him. “Will she succeed, coach?”

“Who knows? Probably. She’d bribe the whole board, that one, if she had to. Typical bloody AllStars!”

“I’ve been meaning to ask about this,” said Robin. “Why do we hate the AllStars?”

“Because they bloody deserve it!” said Maisie, half-laughing, half-serious. “There’s bad blood there, lad. It happened about ten years ago when the Eagles were about to get some investment from a trust interested in giving us a grant. That money could have turned us around: new facilities, more players, extra staff. But then that leech Barrow-White got wind of it and gazumped us. She made a rival bid for the money, and I won’t bore you with the details, but it was a dirty, scoundrelly business. Now the AllStars are loaded at our expense and we’ve never forgotten it. So never forget, Robbie, to hate the AllStars! We’ll be playing them soon, an’ all.”

“But they’ve no reason to hate us back. I mean apart from being neighbours, in the derby.”

“Ha! They hate us back because we hate them. If they didn’t hate us they’d have to confront the darkness in their souls. Before that investment fiasco they weren’t even our neighbours. They were a two-bit after-school hobby session in a community centre on the opposite side of Plumborne. The problem is, they always finish above us in the league. So they can ignore morality and just bang on and on about how they’re the better team. And frankly, they are. They’re not the best team in the league, but they’re better than us. Heather McIlroy’s the finest youth player in Norford. And we hate them for that, too!”

Robin wasn’t comfortable with this side of football. He didn’t think teams or fans needed to hate each other. All this competitive honour and rivalry was some sort of female thing that he didn’t understand.

“Yeah, maybe you’re right, lad,” said Maisie sarcastically, reading his thoughts. “Maybe the players from either side should hold hands and swap life stories then split the points evenly so everybody wins!”

It probably would be nicer, Robin thought. Or if he could play football by himself, without the bother of other people and the problems they caused.

Strolling home in his pretty frock, he reflected that it wasn’t very nice to think a rival coach was putting so much effort into getting him banned. He was only a kid who liked football. And he was making a lot of effort to fit in. Not that he was annoyed by his makeover. Lots of boys dressed this nicely all the time, spending hours making themselves pretty, and he’d always looked down on them as bimbos, even his friend Sean a bit, but he had to admit he was enjoying the new Robin, and the swish of his petticoats, and how everyone adored him. Imagine dressing like this every day! Maybe the bimbos were onto something.

“You silly thing,” smiled his Dad when he tried to articulate these feelings later. “You’re discovering that you’re a boy, that’s all!”


5


The Eagles’ game that Sunday was against the Southside Wanderers. In her pep talk, Maisie reminded them how well they’d played against the Tigers. She selected the same team, except for adjusting her substitutes because Suki and Lorna were left out last time.

“One important change,” she said. “I want Robin in the hole. Let’s see if he can shake up our game.” The ‘hole’ was football slang for the position occupied by the No.10 or playmaker, who sat in a free, creative role behind the strikers.

“He can shake up my hole any time.”

“Girls, don’t be vulgar!”

Robin was nervous about this new role, and frightened that his balls would get bashed again. The Wanderers were based on a poor estate and the girls were pretty rough. He was also aware that he’d done well in the last game and scored the equaliser. He had to keep up that standard. If one of the girls played badly, she was just having a bad day, whereas if he played poorly, it would be taken as a judgement on all boys. It wasn’t fair, but there it was.

The Eagles had to endure the usual sexist jeering and wolf-whistles when the other team saw Robin. The Wanderers captain placed the football on the centre spot, then minced up to it, put a hand to her face and made big eyes, and swung her foot wide, pretending to nearly fall over. “Oo-oh, I missed,” she gasped, fluttering her eyelids. The Wanderers roared.

“Come on girls!” admonished their coach. “Be professional!”

“Too right!” shouted Angie Diamond, who was spectating with her husband. She was in a bad mood anyway because Norford City had been trashed 4-0 by Aston Villa the day before. “Shame on you!”

“What’s that chant behind us?” asked Doug. “Get what out for the girls?”

“Close your ears,” said his wife grimly.

The game was tight and testy. Maisie roamed the touchline barking instructions. Jasmine had some argy-bargy with the rowdy Wanderers midfield, and Robin didn’t get as much service in his new role as he would have liked. In the last five minutes of the first half the Wanderers had a long spell of pressure and possession, and were buzzing all over the Eagle’s penalty box. Robin had some tactical ideas, but had sense enough not to challenge the girls’ egos by trying to tell them what to do. So he mentioned them to Saffie, who nodded her approval and shared them as if they were her idea. She had a quiet gift for leadership, and the team listened to her with respect. Finally the Eagles’ forward players started to hit their stride, and in the last three minutes a neat assist from Robin was headed in by Saffie for a cheeky 1-0. The team rushed up and Robin had his first proper group hug, which seemed to focus rather more on him than the goal-scorer, and whose forceful affection almost rolled him to the ground.

“Against the run of play, I’d say,” said Maisie after the final whistle blew, “but I’ll take it. I reckon you’re a nice little performer in the hole, Robin.” Immediately she turned to glare, before one of the girls said something very rude.

After the players had dispersed, Angie strode up to Maisie looking very cross. “Who does that Lucretia Barrow-White think she is? She’s sent one of her flunkies here, talking to the parents about changing the rules so my Robin can’t play. She even asked me to support it, the bloody cheek! Didn’t know who I was.”

Maisie shook her head. “It’s spiteful, is what it is. All this effort to stop a young lad playing the beautiful game.”

“Barrow-White’s got a problem with men if you ask me.”

“I expect you’re right. What I know is that Barrow-White is serious, and she has support. Robin’s shaken things up, and some people can’t get past their kneejerk reaction. The best thing Robbie can do is prove them wrong by playing great football.”

While the two women were talking, Saffron was waiting for Robin as he emerged, carefully prettied up, from the office.

“Well done Robbie,” she said, “you were really good today. We make a good partnership, I reckon.”

Robin smiled. “You were awesome at the end there, Saffie. It was really nice to get that group hug at the end.”

“Yeah, well…” Saffie grinned cheekily. “Since we got a pretty boy in the team, we’ll take any excuse to feel you up.”

She was trying to joke, but it came out a bit strong, and they felt embarrassed.

“As long as you look after me in the scrum, Saffie, I’ll be all right.”

Saffie took his hand and gave it a squeeze. “I’ll protect you, fair damsel!”

“And keep Jasmine on a leash, please.”

“Ah,” said Saffie, checking no one was listening, “our attack dog. I was rather pleased to have her today, you know, breaking heads in the midfield. And I think she’s turned a corner where you’re concerned. She actually conceded you were ‘cute’.”

Mum was taking her time so the two kids kept chatting. Saffron’s mother was in telecommunications, and her father, a househusband, liked to design and make saris for a circle of men in the Bengali community. Her two younger brothers were cheeky boys with long, lustrous black hair, giggly and terrible gossips, who idolised and obeyed their sister. “They used to knock a ball about with me in the garden,” she smiled, “until Mum put her foot down. Now Dad’s teaching them to cook. It wouldn’t have worked anyway – it’s hard to play football in a sari!”


*


When the Norford Advertiser came out on Wednesday, the Diamonds swelled with pride when they saw a small feature on the Wanderers game. There was a photo of the action that included Robin and in the caption he was described as the team’s “secret weapon”.

“Secret weapon!” laughed Dad. “That’s brilliant.”

“Not really, love,” frowned Mum. “It says he’ll ‘charm the opponents’ socks off’. Really – they won’t take a boy seriously, will they? Everything has to be cutesie and patronising.”

“It’s OK, Mum,” said Robin. “It’s a good photo.” He cut it out and stuck it to his bedroom wall.

All week he thought about Saffie saying he was pretty. Saffie was attractive, and clever, and they got on really well. It would be nice to be her boyfriend, but the girl must do the asking. Wouldn’t it be lovely if his team-mates fancied him! He imagined the girls dragging him into the changing room. They tore off their jerseys to expose their breasts and their bodies crowded around him, boobs squashing against his flesh. They were too strong for him, seizing his arms and pulling down his knickers. Saffie pressed her body against his, her sultry eyes peering down at him. Before, if he had dreamed of anyone it had been Isla Mackenzie, a statuesque, godlike figure who barely deigned to notice him even in his dreams. The Eagles were so real, so attainable. Hmm, he liked to think of Saffie sweeping him off his feet. Oh captain! My captain! He must take care he didn’t get all soppy and start falling in love.