Emily Pickles is breathless with excitement. Tonight is the big night, the night when she will finally venture into the forbidden kingdom of the boys’ school across the road. In the term that has passed since she left primary school, she has been shut up in a girls’ school the equivalent of a feminist nunnery and has read an awful lot of Cathy Cassidy, so can be forgiven for having completely forgotten how to talk to boys. Her memories of boykind are so addled and hazy that she holds high hopes of this being the most romantic and passionate night of her life. She fully expects at least one smouldering slow dance, if not a kiss. She has already spent a small fortune on a sparkly dress from Debenham’s, and is now getting ready in her room with her new friend Ella, who is pretty cool. Emily knows she should be grateful because Ella has curled her hair and even shared her mascara (contraband in the Pickles household) but she can’t help eyeing Ella’s Topshop skirt and heels with envy.
The girls are dropped off by a tearful Mrs Pickles, who makes Emily promise to ring her every half hour and whispers in her ear as she hugs her goodbye, “Remember: you can just say no.” Emily rolls her eyes at Ella upon receiving this cryptic message; mums are so embarrassing. As they enter the school, the girls’ voices are swallowed up by a deafening blast of Tinie Tempah. Emily has no idea what ‘frisky’ means, but she thinks it sounds extremely cool.
The darkened hall is almost unrecognisable as such, save for the old photos lining the walls. Emily feels vaguely uncomfortable at the notion of notable alumni watching as she attempts her first bust-thrust. Once her eyes have adjusted, she becomes aware that the hall is a remarkable, perhaps unique, example of voluntary gender segregation. The girls dance in one corner, the boys, high on rainbow dust, in another. As Emily joins her peers in an awkward circle, she tries a seductive glance at the nearest group of boys but she is not wearing her glasses so all she can really see are the glow-sticks festooning their arms, which they wave around wildly to the beat of ‘Get Hyper’.
As the evening wears on, disappointment gathers in the pit of Emily’s stomach. The Hermione-Granger-at-the-Yule-Ball moment she’d envisioned never materialised, and her seven years of ballet lessons have done nothing to prepare her for dancing of this kind (namely stepping from side to side and occasionally jumping up and down with one hand in the air in the unlikely event of a decent song playing). She becomes even more upset when Ella plucks up the courage to talk to a boy. Never mind that he is shorter than her, wears glasses as thick as double-glazed windows and has a retainer which makes his speech little more than an unintelligible slurping; the green beast of jealousy is eating Emily up as she stares in their direction.
Perhaps if she could actually hear their conversation, she would not feel quite so jealous. Ella makes the first move with a coy smile and flick of her side fringe, asking in husky tones: “So, what primary school did you go to?”
“Coronation Park. You?”
“We always beat you at gym, innit.”
After a short awkward silence, Ella ventures, “So…where did you come in the eleven plus?”
“281st. I didn’t get in at first. I had to be on the waiting list,” he says with a jaunty Bieber flick. Ella’s heart flutters. She always did have a thing for the bad boys.
They exchange numbers, then each retreats, slightly relieved, to their own groups. Maz (short for Magnus) is greeted with a round of hearty back-slaps and Charlie, whose mum lets him play GTA, is ousted from his current position as Top Lad of the group, a role not dissimilar to that of Alpha Male in a pack of mandrills. Ella is already planning the wedding.
Sadly the relationship will not last that long – three weeks of texting ‘Wuu2’, ‘Nm u?’ and ‘Luv u bb’ and the novelty will soon wear off – but the promise of such romance in which she will not share is enough to have reduced Emily to tears in the loos, where she is being comforted by the reassuringly dull Katie. Her voluntary confinement means that she is not there to witness the stunning entrance of the Year Nines, the queens of the disco. Dressed from nipple to crotch in Jack Wills, their eyebrows have been drawn on with the skill of a Grand Master and their skin is the colour of fresh orange juice. They are everything Ella aspires to be, and inevitably will become (though by Year Nine she and Emily will no longer be friends, Emily having entered her ‘emo phase’, which will involve a dubious fringe, lots of whiny ‘80s music and many angry feminist rants on Tumblr).
For now, though, the disco is over. The DJ plays ‘Sweet Caroline’ as the lights come on and the students stagger out, their ears ringing, the boys’ football shirts stained with Pepsi, the girls’ feet blistered and aching. The teachers left behind stare at the filthy hall with sinking hearts as they contemplate the magnitude of the task ahead. They don’t really mind, though; the Year Thirteen prom is the real killer, the guts of party poppers and nuclear-waste-like juice from glow-sticks being infinitely preferable to empty cans of lager and canisters of laughing gas.
(This may or may not be based on my own experiences at a girls’ school the equivalent of a feminist nunnery)