Hell hath no horror like the bathroom of a girls’ school.
Imagine the school first, because the school is where it all happens. Nebulous and insular, like most secondary schools, everything that has, could and can occur, occurs right here.
Challney (Chawl-nee) High School for Girls is a short walk from the motorway, Junction 11 on the M1. A wrong turn at the roundabout will spit you out into Marsh Road, a popular London-commuting neighbourhood and violent mugging hotspot. You pass, instead, council houses, like mine, laid with gingerbread bricks. Then, a greasy chippy that is almost certainly a drug-trafficking front.
Remember that the year is 2009. Kate Moss has convinced us all to starve ourselves. We fry our hair every morning between hot tongs, then fashion it into long, side-swept fringes and backcombed nests. Luton-born Tommy Robinson has just founded the EDL. For some inexplicable reason, the height of chicness is owning a middle-aged businessman’s phone, the BlackBerry. We do not yet know that Facebook will harvest the data we haphazardly throw on our profiles or that it will radicalise our friends and family. We are in the impenetrable membrane of an all-girls school and the world starts and ends here.
Girls enrol at Challney because their parents fear God or because they live nearby. God, after all, resides in Luton (the town has 117 churches, 25 mosques, three temples, two Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses, one synagogue and one gurdwara). ‘Nearby’ is all tarmac and petroleum. Teenagers loiter in retail parks to rev their engines and intimidate the elderly patrons keeping DFS afloat. Local children are consigned to penalty shootouts in cul-de-sacs; spot their tiny faces – weary from every stray ball they have to fish out from under a parked car – and know that you’re near the school. Go towards the mouth of a beaten alley littered with Marlboro Lights. The building itself is new and costly, which means it is a concrete monstrosity. White and cavernous, as if produced in a 3d printer, it is a paperweight flanked by spindly, transplanted trees.
But inside, life hums within the sensory meridian of any girls’ school: the toilets. There, the fog of fruity Victoria’s Secret perfume barely masks the smell of menstrual blood. The place has its own microclimate – it is damp and muggy all year round.
This is where girls come to see out their panic attacks. They come to pinch their stomach rolls in the mirror and hike up the waistbands of their skirts. They come to sit in cubicles and press the razor blades they’d smuggled in their bag into their forearms. They flock here to peruse leaked nudes, to listen to that voice note of that one girl masturbating. Build a girls’ toilets and they will come. To cry, to make each other cry. It is sanctuary for friends to find comfort and praise. And it is wilderness, a watering hole in the Savanna, for enemies to lock eyes and pounce.
We were called Challney Girls, which was by all means a derogatory term, intended to prickle at our skin like a slur. Mentioning my all-girls schooling is broadly akin to telling people I’d spent half a decade in a sanatorium. Reactions veer towards sympathy or morbid curiosity. But in local circles, Challney Girl was code for brash, argumentative, sexually repressed. I tried for years to shirk the label, but our reputation was vast and rigged. Everything seemed to be on-brand. A Challney Girl was the type to suck you off under a tree in Pope’s Meadow; a Challney Girl was an uptight prude who feared looking at her own vagina.
Attention was currency at Challney, but only the most entrepreneurial among us knew how to raise capital. For a divine slippage of time, reality was whatever we made it. Girls used to diagnose themselves with cancerous tumours or bipolar disorders. I think back fondly, somewhat enviously, of their unrestrained audacity. One girl killed off a grandparent. Another conjured a baby and posted photos cupping her non-existent pregnancy bump on Facebook. Around its second trimester the fake baby fizzled out into nothingness from a fatal lack of attention.
Naturally, chaos ensued every time a new male teacher joined. Throngs of young girls would harass them at lunchtime or tail them between classes. Still in the early days of social media sleuthing, we turned to fanfiction and flooded text messages with blurry photos instead. These men weren’t necessarily attractive, just taller than us and not yet balding. I used to think their desperation was odious. I, on my part, have always been sanctimonious. Meanwhile, one of our teachers with leathery skin was rumoured to have married an ex-student, which was above board, apparently, because she’d left school by then. In 2018, a different teacher (57) was found guilty of professional misconduct for texting a student (15) that he was ‘falling deeply in love’ with her.
I didn’t realise it then, but even in an all-girls’ school the male gaze is a sweeping, discomforting presence. Several girls dated gangly, patchy-bearded boys from the boys’ school behind ours, in which case they were identified with a hiss: ssslut, ssslag, sssket. But the rest of us were ladies-in-waiting, spending much of our time competing for a Not Like the Other Girls pat on the head from the invisible, looming hand of – what? Call it the patriarchy, or God, or the ghosts of our dead dads. A male surveyor occupies the very home of our psyche.
When I was 12 or 13, a nude photo of one girl’s older sister made the rounds, ricocheting off classroom walls and straining internet servers. Our teachers held an emergency assembly to put an end to it, but we’d already smelt blood. We sat cross-legged in the hall, our side glances smug and conspiratorial, letting terms like ‘underage porn’ and ‘cyber-bullying’ sluice off us as we wondered who still had a copy that they could show us later. It wouldn’t be the first, nor last, time we’d huddle around a gleaming phone, staring down at it in wonder, in gleeful contempt, at a cold, young, naked woman rendered in pixels and poor lighting. An ex-Challney Girl who once shared an intimate photo of her friend after their relationship soured (to ‘humiliate her’), recounted the event to me. ‘I wouldn’t do it again,’ she said. ‘But I don’t regret it.’
Challney was a tough place to be labelled a slut. Or worse, a lesbian. A handful of girls in our cohort were suspected to be ‘lesbos’ – suspected, as if they’d infiltrated our ranks, predatory men disguised in teenage girl skinsuits. The changing rooms were tense with distrust. If you so much as glanced at another girl peeling off her T-shirt, you’d outed yourself as a lesbian. It didn’t matter if you frantically denied it. It didn’t matter that, here, girls nestled their heads in the crook of another girl’s neck, or that they frequently sat on benches and plaited each other’s hair; far gentler than our mums, who tugged too hard. People seized on that fleeting look, relishing the opportunity to demean you for it.
Yet, those who have been chewed up and coughed out by an all-girls school know well that female love is love on acid. Our friendships are tender, fierce and all-consuming. I like to pepper kisses across my girlfriends’ cheeks. When I hug them, I squeeze tight, pressing our faces together like I am trying to mould us into one. We hold hands and share beds. An ex-Challney Girl and current Challney teacher often tells her students: ‘Your female relationships are what makes life worth living.’ She is still nursing the heartache of losing her once-best friend, who she says berated her in sixth form for having a boyfriend – before proceeding to date him as soon as they’d broken up.
Back then, we bared ourselves to each other, all our razor welts and stretch marks. A few girls I grew up with told me that their dads/ stepdads/ uncles/ boyfriends/ neighbours had sexually violated them. Their stories remained, an unreachable itch on my brain. I’d only been loosely adjacent to this kind of danger. My 30-year-old optician asked me out on a date during an appointment when I was 15. At 16, a driving instructor told me at length about his proposal to his fiancé, then asked if he could show me his penis. Still, there was solace in sharing these secrets. They lived, and decayed, in our mouths. Just for us.
The media promises teenage girls that intense male attention is the point. It tells us that women who are relentlessly pursued, whose nos are worn down to yeses, are the lucky ones. Many of the Young Adult novels we fixated on romanticised possessive, intimidating men. Fanfiction was similar (albeit gayer). The men were all the same. They wore mostly black, had a penchant for stalking and routinely berated our female protagonists, too emotionally incompetent to communicate any feeling beyond arousal. Wattpad, which is an online portal to Hell, was inundated with stories written by 15-year-old girls, featuring vocal but docile women and their male love interests, mob bosses or werewolves, who ‘growled’ frequently with jealousy. Such pliancy was an unwritten part of our curriculum and many of us graduated into emotionally abusive relationships as a result.
Rejoining society after an all-girls adolescence is an awkward, turbulent thing. Challney Girls are dangerously ill-equipped. Inevitably, many of us are waylaid by the novelty of men. In the decade since we left school, a startling number of my classmates got married and sprouted children before their prefrontal cortexes fully developed.
It would take years for us to realise our teenage mistakes (many of us would go on to realise nothing) and yearn for the feral warmth of female spaces again. Still, we’d ache to redo it, now, knowing what we know. We’d feel hypersensitive to women who hate other women, although parts of our misogynistic wiring would endure, like a cockroach resisting a nuclear holocaust. One day, we’d take a look around and feel that the sisterhood has disbanded. How quickly I’m filled with disdain when I smile at a woman and she doesn’t smile back. Traitor, I think.