It's all my idea.
"Let's go Christmas shopping on Saturday," I say to my two best friends, Magda and Nadine.
"Great," says Magda, who lives to shop.
"Sure," says Nadine, but she looks surprised. "I thought you always made your own Christmas presents, Ellie."
"Yes, well, I think I've grown out of that stage now," I say hurriedly.
We've always had this silly tradition in my family. I'd think of a theme and then make everyone a present based on it. There was the year of the stripy hand-knitted scarves, the wobbly vases the year I joined the pottery class, the cross-stitched canvas purses . . . I made them for everyone, friends as well as family, and because people were polite I thought they really liked my loopy homemade junk.
I've known Nadine since we were both five so she's endured years of fraying dresses for her Barbie dolls and lumpy little felt mice. When we started secondary school I made Nadine a black-and-silver friendship bracelet. I made one for Magda in pink and purple. They seemed to like them. They both wore them for a while, anyway.
Last Christmas I made special boxes for all the family, studded with beads and shells. I used liquorice allsorts for Eggs's boxbut he tried to lick them through the glaze and hurt his tongue. Typical. Dad and Anna act like he's an infant prodigy but I think he's got the brains of a flea. I pondered long and hard over boxes for Magda and Nadine. In the end I made Nadine a silver box with a painted silver shell design. I did an identical one in gold for Magda. She opened hers as if she was expecting somethinginsideand then she asked if I'd be making her a gold necklace to go in it next year. She was jokingI think. I suddenly felt about Eggs's age.
"We'll go round the Flowerfields Shopping Centre," I say firmly. "We'll buy all the presents for our families, and then we'll split up for a bit and buy each other stuff."
"And then we'll go to the Soda Fountain and have a milk shake," says Magda, getting more enthusiastic by the minute.
The Soda Fountain recently opened up on the Flowerfields basement floor. It's like those shiny ice cream parlor places you see in old American movies. It's become the in place to hang out nowrumored to be great for meeting boys. If there's one thing Magda likes better than shopping, it's boys. Lots of them.
Nadine sighs and raises her eyebrows at me. She's seriously off the opposite sex at the moment, ever since she got heavily involved with this creep Liam who was just using her. She doesn't want to go out with anyone else now. Magda wants to go out with a different boy every night. I'm not sure what I want. And it's not like I get that many offers, anyway.
Well. There's this boy Dan I met on holiday. He's my sort-of boyfriend. I don't see him much because he lives in Manchester. And he's younger than me. And looks a bit weird. He is definitely not a dreamboat.
I shall have to get him a Christmas present, though. Goodness knows what. I've had this sudden brilliant idea of buying Magda and Nadine underwear from Knickerbox. Red satin flowery knickers for Magda. Black lace for Nadine. And then I could get Dad a big pair of Marks & Spencer boxer shorts and Anna some pretty prim white panties. Eggs could have Mickey Mouse knickers. I've been warming to the universal knicker present. But I can't give Dan underpants! Though I know exactly what sort, a wacky pair with a silly message. . . .
I decide I'll have a good look round on Saturday and see if I get any further inspiration. I go over to Nadine's house around ten. Her dad's outside, washing his car. He's the sort of guy who worships his car, spending hours and hours anointing it every weekend.
"Hello, Curlynob," he calls.
I force a cheery grin and knock at the door. Nadine's mum answers, in an old jumper and leggings, with a dustcloth in her hand. She is obviously dressed for serious house-cleaning.
"Hello, dear. Nadine's in her bedroom," she says, sniffing disapprovingly.
"Hello, Ellie. I'm helping Mummy," says Natasha, waving a feather duster from the living room.
Natasha is still in her cutesie-pie pajamas and fluffy slippers. She's dancing round to some silly cartoon music on the telly, flicking her feather duster as she goes.
"Isn't she a good girl?" says Nadine's mum proudly.
I try to manufacture another smile.
Natasha rushes at me.
"You look dirty, Ellie," she says. She prances round me, poking her feathers right in my face. "There! I'm wiping all the dust off."
"Oh, sweet!" says her mum.
"Ouch! Natasha, that hurts," I say, my smile now very sickly indeed.
Natasha is the only six-year-old in the world worse than my little brother, Eggs. I sidle past and run up the stairs to Nadine's room. It is wonderfully black and bleak after the glaring patterns in the hall. Nadine is looking glamorously black and bleak herself, her long black hair hanging loose, her eyes heavily outlined with black kohl, her face powdered white as chalk. She's wearing a black skimpy sweater, black jeans, black bootsand as I come into her room she pulls on her black velvet jacket.
"Hi. What are those weird red marks on your face, Ellie?"
"Your delightful sister has just been seriously assaulting me with her feather duster."
"Oh, God. Sorry. Don't worry. She wants a new Barbie doll for Christmas. I'll customize one. How about Killer Barbie, with a special sharp little dagger that whips out of her dinky stiletto?"
"Remember all our Barbie doll games, Naddie? I liked it best when we turned them all into witches."
"Oh, yeah, you made them all those little black frocks and special hooked noses out of plasticine. Wicked."
We both sigh nostalgically.
"I used to love playing with plasticine," I say. "I still like mucking around with Eggs's little set, though he's got all the colors mixed up."
"OK, then. That's your Christmas present solved. Your very own pack of plasticine," says Nadine. "I don't know what I'm going to get Magda, though. She was hinting like mad about this new Chanel nail varnish but I bet it costs a fortune."
"I know. I'm a bit strapped for cash too, actually."
"It's all right for Magda. Her mum and dad give her that socking great allowance. My dad gives me exactly the same as Natasha, for God's sake. In fact Natasha ends up with heaps more because they're forever buying her extra stuff. It's so lousy having a sucky little sister."
"Just as bad with a boring little brother. That's why Magda's so lucky, because she's the spoilt baby of the family."
Magda certainly shows stylish evidence of spoiling when we meet up with her at the Flowerfields Shopping Centre entrance. She's wearing a brand-new bright red furry jacket that looks wonderful.