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We're going out tonight, Nadine and Magda and me. It's not a Big Night Out. We're certainly not going to stay out late. We're just going on this little after-school shopping trip. No big deal at all. We'll meet at half past six at the Flowerfields Shopping Centre. Wander round the shops on their late night. We'll eat in McDonald's, then home by nine like good girls.
I don't bother to dress up or anything. I change out of my school uniform, obviously, but just into my black baggy trousers. They've been in the washing machine one spin too many times so that they're now technically not black at all, more a murky gray. Still, they're just about the only trousers in the whole world that are big without making me look enormous. They almost give the illusion that there's a weeny little bum and long lean legs hiding under all that bunchy material.
I try my newest stripy pink top but I'm not too sure about it now. It's a little too bright to be becoming. It makes my own cheeks glow positively peony. I wish I looked deathly pale and ethereal like my best friend Nadine. I'm stuck with permanently rosy cheeks--and dimples.
I search the airing cupboard for something dark and plain and end up purloining a dark gray V-necked school sweater belonging to my little brother, Eggs. It fits a little too snugly. I peer long and hard in my mirror, worrying about the prominence of my chest. No matter how I hunch up it still sticks out alarmingly. I'm not like my other best friend, Magda, who deliberately tightens the straps of her Wonder Bra until she can practically rest her chin on her chest. My own bras seem to be a bit too revealing. I try tucking a tissue in each cup so that I am not outlined too outrageously.
Then I attack my hair with a bristle brush, trying to tame it into submission. It's as if my entire body is trying to get out of control. My hair is the wildest of all. It's longish but so tightly curly it grows up and out as well as down. Nadine is so lucky. Her long licorice-black hair falls straight past her shoulders, no kinks at all. Magda's hair looks incredible, too, very short and stylish and bright red (dyed). It looks really great on her but if my hair was that short it would emphasize my chubby cheeks. Anyway, with my bright pink face I'd be mad to dye my hair scarlet. Not that my stepmum, Anna, would let me. She even gets a bit fussed when I use henna shampoo, for God's sake.
Anna eyes me now as I clatter into the kitchen to beg for some spare cash. Eggs is sitting at the table playing with the hands of my old alarm clock, muttering, "Four o'clock, telly time, fun. Five o'clock, more telly time, fun fun. Six o'clock, teatime, yum yum."
"That's my alarm clock," I say indignantly.
"But it's been broken for ages, Ellie. I thought it might help him learn the time. Do the big hand thing, Eggs," says Anna.
"Honestly, it's embarrassing having such a moron for a brother. And he was the one who broke it, fiddling around with the hands."
"Twelve o'clock, midnight, big sister turns into a pumpkin!" says Eggs, and shrieks with laughter.
"Are you off out, Ellie?"
"I'm just meeting Nadine and Magda to go late-night shopping."
"Seven o'clock, bathtime, splashy splashy. Eight o'clock, bedtime, yuck yuck."
"What about your homework?"
"I did it when I came home from school."
"No you didn't."
"I did, honestly."
"You were watching television."
"I did it while I was watching television."
I don't usually watch kids' TV but there's this new art program that has some amazingly cool ideas. I'm going to be a graphic artist when I grow up. I'm definitely not going to the art college where my dad lectures, though. I'm certainly not cut out to be one of his adoring students. It's weird to think that Anna was once. And my mum. She died when I was little but I still miss her a lot. Eggs isn't my whole brother, he's just a half.
"Thief!" Eggs suddenly screams, pointing at me. "That's my school jumper, take it off!"
"I'm just borrowing it for the evening."
He doesn't even like this school jumper. Anna has to sweet-talk him into it every morning. He prefers the weird, wacky, rainbow-colored concoctions that Anna knits for him. When he was going through his Teletubby phase he had four--purple, green, yellow and red--so he could be Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa or Po as the mood took him. Today Eggs is wearing his magenta Barney the Dinosaur jumper. I am immensely glad I am way past the stage of Anna making me natty knitted jumpers.
"But you'll muck it up," Eggs wails.
"I'll muck it up?"
Eggs is such a slurpy, splashy eater his clothes are permanently splattered orange (baked beans), yellow (egg yolk) and purple (Ribena). I examined his sweater for spots and stains very carefully indeed before putting it on.
"You'll make it smell."
"I won't! How dare you! I don't smell."
"You do, you do, doesn't she, Mum?" says Eggs.
"I don't," I say, but I'm starting to get panicky.
I don't really smell, do I? Has my deodorant stopped working? Oh God, does everyone back away from me with wary expressions and pinched nostrils and I just haven't noticed?
"Ellie doesn't smell," says Anna.
From the Hardcover edition.