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?”
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!”
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.