Awaken, you dreamers‘Wrapped in Grey’ – XTC
Adrift in your beds
Balloons and streamers
Decorate the inside of your heads
Please let some out
Do it today
But don’t let the loveless ones sell you
A world wrapped in grey
It was strange feeling the ribbon gently tugging in my hair, catching on the breeze during my walk to school. It was a red ribbon, it had to be red, no other colour would do, it had to be just like in the film. I had seen the film so many times I didn’t even need to watch the VHS tape back once more, that was for fun, but we did pause just a few times to make sure the dress and shoes were just right. Mum even let me take her copy of Moby Dick into school as a prop; the one that gets ripped up, but she gets to finish reading it at the end.
Yes, it may have been World Book Day, but I had based her costume on the film. It was one of my earliest memories; the film being shown on TV around Christmas time and I sat, transfixed – mesmerised at how cruel adults could be, how terrifying they could be and how monstrous they were to lock kids in dark nail-clad cupboards or forcing them to eat an entire chocolate cake in one sitting. But the kids fought back, and it was glorious.
I even had the perfect hair for it. I had grown it long (or perhaps Mum had just neglected to cut it) like some accidental post-90s homage to Hanson, but I’d asked my mum to cut the front into a fringe just like hers. When my mum had said she received a letter from the school about World Book Day, I hadn’t had anyone else in mind, it had to be Matilda. My favourite book; about a girl who loves books. That was me, I loved books too. I was a boy, but that didn’t feel like it mattered, at least at that moment anyway. I was just Callum, dressed as Matilda, my book hero.
I suppose when you’re eight years old, there isn’t as much of a scrutiny on gender, that comes with puberty. The ignorance of gender is chipped away slowly as the body grows and the brain chemicals start to fizz. When you’re eight however, it doesn’t matter, there are more important things than gender. Boys are boys and girls are girls, but at the end of the day, they’re all just children. They’re people to talk to, play games with and sit next to on the carpet during circle time. They don’t even look dissimilar; no Adam’s apples, no breasts, no body hair, no shame. We’re all just… kids.
I hadn’t been at the school long, it was like I had drifted in through the window one day like an unremarkable smell and just lingered there. No New Kid Parade, and I was happy about that. I was shy as a child and I still am shy now really, like I’m having to play a part. But I certainly wasn’t shy that day, I wasn’t New Kid Callum anymore, I was Matilda! The girl who could multiply thirteen by three-hundred-and-seventy-nine (yes, I had memorised the film’s dialogue off by heart), she could explode TVs with her brain and scare tyrants out of classrooms by making things levitate. She also loved stories, just like me. Dressing up in that dress, the hair and that little red bow… I suddenly felt as powerful as she was. When I was Callum, I sometimes didn’t know what to do or say, I didn’t think I was particularly interesting (the other boys didn’t seem to like reading as much as me) and I certainly wasn’t funny. But now I wasn’t that boy anymore; I was Matilda, and even though she was different from the other kids too, she was different in a good way, and she was a hero.
I felt like I wasn’t being seen as Callum anymore, I was being seen as Matilda.
And I loved it.
When we lined up for class, I saw some of the other children turn around at me and whisper to their friends in that not-so-subtle way. A child whisper is a bit like a stage whisper though, and I could tell they were confused at me, not because I was a boy dressing up as a girl but because they thought I was a brand new girl student all together. I thought that this was terribly funny, and exciting, it was like I was a whole new person.
I remember lunchtime coming and most of the kids rattled out onto the playground to play Tig, Yu-Gi-Oh cards or football. I stayed behind. We had been doing our own pieces of creative writing in celebration of World Book Day. It’s funny how the jarring events that become core memories from your childhood help you retain other details from the same day with such clarity. I remember writing in that classroom. I wrote about a girl who was smart and brave like Matilda, but she also liked football, just like Callum did. There was probably a predictable ending like the girl scoring a winning goal in a cup final or something, how original.
I can’t quite remember the ending, but I do remember begging my year 4 teacher to let me stay through lunch to finish writing it. The rest of the class was gone, and I remember looking out at the boys playing on the field where the trees started to bunch together in the corner by the tall black iron gates. That was right, boys. No girls were playing, but maybe they just didn’t want to. This was long before the England Women’s Euro Final Success, they didn’t have those role models yet. I looked down at the beautifully fun dress I was wearing, raised an arm, gripped my perfect red bow reassuringly between my thumb and forefinger, and went to grab my bag. My mum had said if I was going on the field I would need to change out of the dress in case I got it muddy and ruined, so I decided to wear my P.E. kit over lunch instead. Like I said, my hair was long; too long to play sports without it going in my eyes, so I always had an Alice band tucked in my bag to keep my fringe away. I remember it folding back with much more difficulty now; my fringe was shorter for the Matilda look and I marvelled at how different it felt. It was like when you finally have your braces off, or as an adult when I first started shaving my face to experiment with drag; these little differences about your body which suddenly feel exciting.
Stood there in my old P.E. kit and new Matilda fringe pressed back exposing my forehead, I just looked like regular old Callum again. Something in me deflated slightly upon seeing myself in the toilet mirror, like a balloon getting the air sucked out of it. A little of the World Book Day magic had been snapped back shut into those Moby Dick pages. Matilda had been flattened slightly by her overbearing parents and Miss Trunchbull.
Being new at the school, and shy, I hadn’t dared encroach on the football field very often. The boys who played were older, bigger, scarier. They hogged the ball, shouted, and spent most of the time arguing and slide tackling each other. That wasn’t my idea of fun, but I had been practising more at home; playing with my dad, and I wanted to show those boys (and myself) just what I could do.
Maybe there was a bit of Matilda confidence still in me after all.
I approached them, and luckily the ball rolled over to me, the boy who collected it was from my Year 4 class. He looked at me with vague familiarity as I approached, taking in my football shirt P.E. kit and Alice band hair. It was around the time when David Beckham was in his pomp (on the pitch that is) so maybe I looked the part.
“Can I play?” I asked timidly, expecting a rejection which is so sore in those formative days. When your personality wraps itself around people’s perceptions of you and grows from there… toxic or not.
“Sure,” he shrugged in that dismissive, distracted eight-year-old boy way.
I’ve always been slightly shorter than average (which works well in drag, and when you’re dressing as a little girl for World Book Day) but in amongst these brutes of boys with their Carbrini jackets and buzz cut hairdos, I looked like a prima-donna who was one slide tackle away from spending the next half term on crutches.
Perhaps it was inspired from a morning spent dressing up in the shoes of someone else, but every step felt airily light and weightless as if I could fly. I walked onto the grass with no inhibition, no unease at the grinning boys or any doubt that I was good enough to play with them. I was a boy with the talent of Callum Lovell, but in that moment, I was a girl with the bravery and heart of Matilda too.
I remember the boys wouldn’t pass to me at first, they didn’t trust me to hold onto the ball. Eventually I took matters into my own hands, just like Matilda would. I nipped in like a terrier, taking the ball off a much bigger boy, and dropping my shoulder out of the way of his bludgeoning elbow. This little squirt has the gall to tackle me?! There was a whoop from some of the boys on my team, as tackle after tackle, each more aggressive than the next, flew in. But I ducked and weaved, using my slight frame and quick touch to evade them all. I was Matilda, and big things didn’t scare little Matilda.
The boy in goal didn’t even try to dive and save my shot. He had watched his mates flounder around me like sinking ships, and when the ball flew past him, he merely gave a petulant shrug. But my team loved it. They weren’t teenagers yet, so they saw nothing uncool about mobbing me and lifting me on their shoulders. Their tiny new starlet for the rest of lunchtime.
After that, they gave me the ball at every opportunity, even if it was just an excuse to watch the opponents attempt to snap my shins. Most of them were too slow, but eventually an elbow caught me on the side of my ear and it started bleeding. I think adrenaline alone stopped me from crying.
As the school bell rang, we traipsed inside, and a lone boy came over to me. The one from my class, the one who said I could play.
“That was brilliant!” he smiled breathlessly, “What’s your name?”
Now the adrenaline was fading, and the side of my face where I’d taken the blow was pulsing. “Callum,” I said, staring at the ground shyly.
He put an arm around me and announced to no one in particular; “We get Callum on our team next time!”
A bolt of exhilaration flashed through me. Next time. There will be a next time.
He carried on chatting away to me, excited, about his favourite players and going to matches with his dad sometimes. I nodded along, enthusiastically, settling into the conversation and divulging details of my own like a timid, slowly budding flower. I had made my first proper friend at a new school.
I stopped at the toilets and told him I needed to change out of my P.E. kit. “Cool! I’ll wait out here for you!” He said with that animated spark in his eye. I went inside, grateful for his companionship and the fact he waited for me.
I withdrew the Alice band and reapplied that perfect red bow, just how my mum had shown me. I took off my shorts and pulled the light, checkered blue dress over my shoulders. In a way, it was a strange foreshadowing of the life I live now… football… drag… and back again.
But even now, I’ll never have that childish delight and optimism as I skipped out of the toilets with a spring in my step. That delight is something only the innocence and ignorance of childhood can provide. I swung open the door, my new friend was still there.
I remember his eyebrows shot up comically fast, like a child’s always does when something slightly off-kilter rocks their world.
“Ahhhh, girls aren’t allowed in this toilet. What are you…?”
The question died on his lips. The eyebrows froze and then shot down again. Angry. Accusing. Embarrassed.
His eyes narrowed as they roved from my increasingly familiar face, to the unfamiliar outfit I was wearing. The shiny black shoes, the checkered dress, the red bow that until milliseconds before had been perfect, but now might as well have been a swastika burned into my skull.
It was foreign to him. Alien. Just plain wrong. And I didn’t need the words to come tumbling out of his mouth to tell me that.
“Callum? Are you queer or something? Why are you dressed like that?”
Three words in particular stung. “Callum”, my own name, spat back at me like a disease. “Queer”, unfortunately that was the first time I heard that word. I didn’t understand what it meant at the time, and I hate that my first context of it was as an insult. I knew from the accusation in his eyes that it was an insult. I didn’t need to know that it was an insult to know it was spat as a weapon. And finally, the word “that”. ‘Callum’ and ‘‘that’’ book-ended possibly the only sentence said to me in real-life that has stayed with me word for word. For a while, it was etched into my brain like a red-hot poker, words aimed to maim and hurt. But ‘Callum’ and ‘‘that’’ – a perfect amalgamation of what I was to him at that moment, I was something he couldn’t find a word for, besides ‘queer’. The clothes that had empowered me so much just seconds earlier, that had enabled me to dazzle on the football field, now felt like they were laced with lead and dragging me down into the ground.
I couldn’t say anything in response. Words didn’t come. The venom and confusion in his eyes paralysed me and I just watched as he strode off to class, alone. I couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong. This was a happy day and I was doing my favourite things while dressed as my favourite character, but it must have been wrong. For him to look at me that way, it must have been wrong.
I swung back into the toilet and locked myself in a cubicle. I couldn’t even look in the mirror; just moments before, it had given me such joy to see myself dressed this way, but now I wanted to rip the outfit off and never look at it again. Ribbon and all. I didn’t leave the toilet until I was sure everyone had gone home. It was enough time for that boy to tell just about everyone who cared about the ‘gay footballer’ who put on a dress. Words passed from mouth to mouth like disease, becoming evermore engorged and bloated and warped along the way.
Rumours spread, things much worse than ‘gay footballer’. Things that probably took me a decade or longer to shrug off and ignore. It was certainly years before I could watch Matilda again without it stinging. I hated how they had taken something that brought me so much happiness and turned it into something ugly and shameful. Sometimes, when I think about coming out, it takes just the flashing image of that boy’s face and I’m suddenly eight years old again. Only this time, I’m not imagining that face stood in a school outside the toilets. I’m imagining it on the faces of ten thousand football fans from my club’s stadium.
Football fans are fickle people. Just like eight year olds can be. It might only take a ribbon and a dress for me to go from ‘local hero’ to ‘that gay footballer who put on a dress’.
These days, I think ‘gay footballer who puts on a dress’ is a very accurate description of who I am. And I’m very proud of it. Empowered by it. Maybe one day, it will be my LinkedIn bio while I spread my high-heel-clad legs in a profile picture, but for now, I’m quite happy to be doing what I love for two very separate crowds. The football party and the drag party.
Except Matilda. That little piece of me will always be invited to both parties.
Ribbon and all.