The Diamonds lived in a three-bedroom semi in a leafy, quiet area north of Heathside: if you cycled for five minutes you could escape the bounds of Norford altogether and find yourself among coppices and fields. The house was Angie’s pride: she was a partner in the law firm Diamond & Steele, a self-made woman who regarded the family home as a kind of trophy after a slow start to her career.
Robin’s Dad was busy polishing the mantelpiece when the car pulled up at the family home. He turned, cloth in one hand, spray in the other, his pretty cotton dress protected by a frilly apron.
“I made it!” shouted Robin, running in and hugging his Dad.
“Well done, son,” said Dad, unable to hide the surprise in his sparkly blue eyes. “I’m very pleased for you.”
“He’s with the Heathside Eagles,” said Mum, dropping her briefcase on the table. “I was really impressed by their coach, she was so open-minded. – What’s for dinner, dearie?”
“I’ve made chicken and leek pie,” said Mr Diamond, beaming through his artificial lashes. He put down his polishing and bustled off to the kitchen, slim and trim in his snugly-waisted dress, his heels clip-clopping on the tiles.
Robin dashed upstairs to his room to change out of his football gear. He pulled on some tights and buttoned himself into a dress. Then he lay back on his bed, his long blond hair spread over his pillows and shoulders, and gazed happily at the ceiling. It was a good job Mum hadn’t seen Jasmine stamping him, or she would probably have marched him straight out of the club. Even now his balls hurt a little bit. Jasmine scared him. She was a strong girl who could crush him with ease, and she wanted him out of the Eagles. But he was proud of his achievement today. Even though he was only a boy, he’d managed to get onto a football team! He might be accepted as an equal by girls! He was sure Saffie liked him, and most of the others didn’t seem so bad – he knew how football worked and reckoned a few goals would shut them up quickly enough. They would find it humilating to be outplayed by a boy, though. He must tread carefully around those inflated female egos.
Here he was, a Heathside Eagle! Gazing at his oversized poster of star striker Isla McKenzie, he murmured a football commentary to himself.
– And it’s Robin Diamond, freshly promoted to the England squad from Norford City, who’ll be pairing off with McKenzie up front…
– Yes, he’s an incredible player, this lad; started out in the Heathside Eagles youth team, a cracking little club, and now he’s making his debut on the biggest stage in football. I wonder what Brazil will make of him, Julia?
– He’ll be the first boy they’ve ever had to play against, Gabby, that’s for sure!
He imagined himself raising a gleaming trophy, surrounded by jubilant, adoring girls, and squirmed with delight.
Downstairs, his parents were talking in the kitchen. “Are you sure it’s a good idea, Angie?” Dad was saying as he laid the table for dinner.
“I don’t understand, Doug – I thought you didn’t mind Robbie playing football.”
Doug paused, looking fretful. “I didn’t mind you taking him to youth teams, because I never thought anyone would take him on,” he admitted. “But now that a team has accepted him, I don’t know what to think. The girls won’t like it one bit.”
“Goodness, Doug,” said Angie, “you’re the male, yet I’m the one who’s pleased! Robbie’s breaking new ground, here.”
“Oh, you know I’ve never been a campaigner, like you. It was always you egging him on, and taking him to matches. And I tried not to mind my son being so girlish, because he enjoys his football so much. It’s just... what about practical things? Like changing rooms?”
“I know it’s a minefield, but we have to show people that boys can play, to apply pressure and change things. We must do the best we can for Robbie. It’s what he wants, after all.”
“Hmm, yes, parents must always do what a twelve year-old boy wants! And when he wants a Norford City tattoo? Does he get what he wants then?”
“Ha ha, same old Doug,” laughed Angie. “Always worrying.”
“It’s a father’s job to worry about his son.” Doug pulled his pie out of the oven and laid it ceremoniously on the kitchen table. “I suppose I shall do what I always do: defer to my wife’s judgement…”
“Good call,” said Angie with a grin.
“But I don’t think Lenny will submit so easily! He’s coming round tomorrow and he’ll have to be told.”
“Sometimes I wonder how me and Lenny came out of the same womb,” groaned Angie.
Uncle Lenny was Angie’s older brother, and was as conservative as his sister was progressive. Angie was a great believer in the improvability of the world – over the years she had marched against nuclear weapons, refused to buy goods from South Africa, and nearly been arrested for flour-bombing a homophobic MP. After having a son her interest had turned towards men’s rights, and Robin’s unusual passion for football exposed society’s quirks and inequalities to her more keenly than ever. Lenny by contrast was haunted by how incredibly little humans seem to change – he prayed to God, found comfort in tradition, and insisted on the primacy of women, however much Angie tried to explain it was against his own interests. Needless to say, he found Robin’s football hobby rather disturbing, as if he had caught one of his daughters secretly trying on boys’ dresses. “God in Heaven knows what She is doing,” was his final word on most things.
It was Sunday. Robin stretched, rolled out of bed in his nightie, and reached for the radio to put on the football punditry show. And then he remembered. He was on a football team! After breakfast he fetched his ball and kicked it around the back garden. He must get his fitness levels up. Under-14s games lasted 30 minutes each way and he wasn’t used to playing full matches. His boy friends didn’t play football, of course, and most girls refused to let a boy play with them, apart from a good-natured gang who hung around the local park and had been priceless for his development. His best and only friend today was the ball. Bouncing it, dribbling it, volleying it. He was comfortable with it whether with head, knees or feet. Oh, he was a natural! If he only had the vagina apparently so essential to sporting and career success, he’d be a star, he’d be winning youth cups, he’d be in the local paper. In a fair world.
That afternoon Uncle Lenny called. He arrived bang on time, as always, wearing a too-tight pencil skirt and too much makeup, and carrying a large carrier bag.
“Just a little present for young Robin,” he said, bustling into the front room.
“A present!” shouted Robin, as he rushed into the room to hug his Uncle hello.
“Goodness me,” gasped the man, patting his primly-styled bob, “you know that boys don’t rush around like that. A little decorum costs no effort, Robin, dear.” He opened up the carrier bag and pulled out a confection of rustling white gauze. “Now, I saw this in Marks and Sparks and immediately thought of you. They’re making lovely petticoats these days.”
Robin took the petticoats and held them to his waist. They were far too fluffy and boysie for a janegirl like him, but he knew his manners. “Thank you, Uncle Lenny.” He went upstairs to stow the gift in his wardrobe together with various other ruffle-skirted, satin-bowed horrors his Uncle had given him.
“You can dress boys so nicely,” sighed Lenny. “Not like my daughters, oh my word.” He and his wife Ashley had three girls: complete tearaways and sport fanatics, who seemed permanently scabbed and soiled. Girls will be girls, as Uncle Lenny always said, with a touch of regret. He had always longed for a son to fuss over and dress up, which was why he enjoyed cossetting Robin.
“That’s a pretty dress, Doug,” he called to Mr Diamond, who was in the kitchen. “Are we to have some tea?”
“Already boiling, Lenny,” said Dad, shuffling in with a tray of biscuits.
“I see there are football boots in the hall,” remarked Uncle Lenny, “leaving dried up mud everywhere. He’s still at it, then?”
The Diamonds looked at each other, girding their loins for battle.
“Yes, um, there’s a bit of good news about Robin’s football, actually,” said Angie. “We took him for a trial at one of the youth teams and, er, they’ve taken him on.”
“They’ve ‘taken him on’?” repeated Lenny, puzzled.
“Yes, to play football.”
“On a football team!” cried Lenny, looking utterly shocked. “With girls?”
“There are no boys’ teams,” said Doug gently. “If he wants to play, he has to play with girls.”
“Good grief, what a folly! Angie, how could you be so irresponsible? What do you suppose everyone will say? What about the kids at his school? What about the girls on the team? They’ll bully him or take advantage, one or the other.”
Angie had known the storm was imminent, but she was still annoyed when it broke. She tried to speak but Lenny wasn’t done: “I know Robin’s always liked his football, but it’s not normal, we all know that. He’ll never grow out of it if everyone keeps egging him on.”
“Yes, Lenny, a boy should be seen and not heard… He should curl his hair and bake cakes, all day long. Have I got it right?”
“The sexes have different roles.” Lenny’s voice grew more emphatic as he repeated the mantra. “There’s nothing wrong with that. A normal boy knows his place, he knows what’s what. A boy can’t have a football career. It’s like encouraging him to run a business, or join the army. If you tease a boy with a feminine life he can’t succeed in, you’re not being fair to him. I’ve had a long and successful marriage with my Ashley because I know my place and accept she is the decision-maker.”
“Boys fail to succeed because of sexism,” said his sister, getting on her own hobby-horse. “Surely you don’t think girls are more intelligent than boys, for example, just because their grades are better?”
“Yes, actually I do think girls are more intelligent,” said Lenny. “Those results don’t lie, Angie –”
“Oh come along, you silly man –”
“Those exam results don’t lie – when girls do so much better than boys in every subject, every year, that tells a tale. It says that girls are smarter and better suited to be in charge. Look at the boardrooms, parliament, science, the army, the arts? It’s all women! A woman is a man’s superior, it’s patently obvious.”
“I think, if someone has a dream and they’re being prevented from realising it because the world is unfair, that’s an injustice, and we should try to stand up to it, and make the world a better place.”
Lenny waved his hand. “God has Her design and it’s futile for us to question it. We’ve all heard your clever views about ‘oppression’ and whatnot.”
“Well, I think you’re being a bit outspoken, for a man, Lenny,” said Angie slyly.
Lenny looked abashed and adjusted his skirt. “Yes, well, I’m sorry Angie,” he said humbly. “I shouldn’t contradict you like that.”
“Gosh, bruv, I’m joking!”
“No, no, you’re right, a man should leave opinions to the women. – Ah, here is Robin again.”
“Hello again, Uncle!”
“I’ve not had a proper look at you. You really should do more with your hair, have you never tried crimping it? Especially with a birthday party not far off. And you should wear petticoats to fill out your dress. That’s the fashionable look now.” He leaned confidentially closer. “You know, no girl’s going to want to go out with a boy who plays football, love. Especially when you play it better than her!”