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 –”
“– 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.
“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.