“How lucky we are that women defend themselves so poorly. We should otherwise be no more to them than timid slaves.”
Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Girls wanted to be Beth Kennedy; boys wanted to be on Beth Kennedy. And if they had a scowl, blond highlights and a BMX, she didn’t often disappoint.
Beth was trendy, cheeky, popular, and the proud owner of a figure that would almost certainly preclude her from becoming a long-distance runner. If she got a new hairstyle, all the other girls copied it (including her ill-advised and short-lived bubble perm). If she bought a new bag, clones were all over the school within a week. If she dropped something, all the boys within range would half-kill each other in the scramble to pick it up.
She also happened to possess one of the most perfectly formed bottoms ever to grace this earth. Once, while wearing a pair of extremely thin, extremely tight grey trousers, she leaned over the desk in front of me to talk to a friend. My boggling adolescent eyes couldn’t have torn themselves away if there had been an earthquake, an alien invasion and an impromptu Madness concert in the sports field. For those few minutes, Beth Kennedy’s bum was all that existed in the world.
In short, Beth Kennedy was the Madonna of Swindon, 1984. I thought about her every night, and up to five times a day at weekends.
Once I was convinced my feelings were genuine, and not just some passing infatuation, I resolved to make them known. I told anyone and everyone who would listen that I was in love with Beth Kennedy.
It wasn’t long before my whispering campaign bore fruit. After a few days, Sharon Penney stopped me by the modern languages block and said: “Beth’s heard what you’ve been saying. She wants you to meet her by the mobiles at one o’clock.” As she departed, she turned and winked.
I was flabbergasted. Beth Kennedy wanted to meet me. And by the mobiles! (The dozen or so “mobiles” – Portakabins erected 25 years earlier when the school’s intake surpassed its capacity – hadn’t actually moved since the day they were put up. They were known for being relatively teacher-free at break times, and it was in this PVC labyrinth that the vast majority of adolescent assignations took place.)
So 10 minutes before the appointed hour, I made my way to the agreed spot. I spent the intervening time mentally planning my tactics. Should I make the first move? Did she like tongues? Would it be OK to touch her bum on a first date?
On the stroke of one, my inamorata glided round the corner.
“Hiya, Beth,” I said, managing to stammer on only two of the three syllables.
Beth said nothing. She sashayed towards me, grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me close. I shut my eyes in anticipation of my first blissful kiss, but instead of soft lips, there was a deafening whistle.
“Bodle, you ginger square!” she hissed, giving me a taste of her saliva in a different way than I’d been expecting. I opened my eyes to see her five most loyal sidekicks spring from behind one of the mobiles. “You’re the last person in the world I would go out with!”
With that, she pushed me away, and the wall of cronies erupted in a cacophony of maniacal finger-pointing laughter.
Unfazed, I raised an eyebrow and deadpanned: “Well, at the rate you get through boyfriends, I won’t have long to wait.”
Oh, of course I didn’t. I thought of that comeback three years later.
• If you are going to reproduce successfully, it’s not just you who has to be fertile; your partner must be too. Those who are better at identifying fertile mates will bear more offspring; we should, therefore, have evolved a preference for characteristics that signal fertility.
It so happens that there are several reliable indicators of fertility in human women: youth, smooth, clear skin, full lips, good muscle tone, lively gait, white teeth, lustrous hair, a low hip-to-waist ratio, and an absence of lesions.
Among the main qualities that we would expect most men alive today to look for in a mate, therefore, are youth and beauty. Indeed, in surveys, men consistently place physical attractiveness at or near the top of their list. (As we shall see, while indicators of fertility are also important to women, their situation is … slightly more complicated.)