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.”
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!”
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.
“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.