"It's a bomb, not a bra," I announce as I carefully place a large parcel wrapped in brown paper on the table, and plonk my butt on a chair opposite Lucy.
"No!" Luce gasps, backing away from the possible parcel bomb towards the wall and wrapping her hair around her face, as if a sheet of dead blonde protein is really going to protect her from flying shrapnel.
"Luce, she's joking," Sorrel says coolly. "If Electra really thought that was a bomb, do you honestly think she'd have brought it here and risked turning us into uncooked mince?"
I'd like to point out that firstly, we do everything together, and secondly, sitting opposite me, Sorrel doesn't look quite as cool as she thinks she does, sipping her cappuccino. She's got a quivering milk mouche covering her upper lip and a huge blob of chocolate powder on the end of her nose.
We've given up meeting in Burger King or Macky D's on Saturday mornings for three reasons:
One, both places have been invaded by shrieking junior runts from our school.
Two, now we're older, we've decided it's about time we became more sophisticated and sipped designer coffees in Starbucks, rather than make farting noises by bubbling air through the straw in our milkshakes.
And three, and the main reason for our change of weekend hangout, Sorrel says even the smell of cremated flesh reminds her of ex-burger flipper, ex-BK employee and very ex-Lurve God, Warren Cumberbatch.
According to Sorrel, just the thought of him makes her want to instantly vom, and as no-one wants a display of spontaneous public chundering (so off-putting when you're cramming your face with food), and Starbucks sells sarnies rather than steaks, here seems the safest choice.
The whole Warren-Sorrel thing was always going to end in tears, though we never thought it would end up with him lusting after Sorrel's sexy older sister, Jasmine, and using Sorrel as a way to get to her. But Sorrel wouldn't listen when we told her that a free burger by the rat-infested bins didn't count as a hot date, and now she veers between feeling heartbroken and off her food, to fantasizing about sticking a skewer into the louse, putting him in front of a hot flame, and turning him into a giant doner kebab.
Still, the anti-meat phase is pleasing Yolanda Callender, Sorrel's rampantly vegan mother, though I don't think Sorrel has made it clear that her current meat-free status is because she wants to flame-grill a teenage boy, rather than because she's concerned about animal welfare.
Lucy's still looking a bit freaked by the sight of the potentially explosive parcel, but has unwrapped her face and is now leaning over the table, staring at the package.
"Who hates you enough to blow you up?" she asks. "Who've you upset recently?"
There could be so many people, but the evidence points to only one woman.
"The Kipper!" I hiss, pointing at the white address label on which Electra Brown, 14 Mortimer Road is scrawled in spidery blue ink. "Caroline Cole! It's the handwriting of the devil and she wants revenge!"
I'd been mega-excited after school on Friday when Mum handed me a red-and-white card saying the postman had tried to deliver a parcel whilst we were out. I was certain it was a Make The Most Of Your Miniscule Mammaries Miracle Air Bra that Maddy, my glam American Wundacousin, had promised to send me, a bra I so desperately need if I'm not to appear lopsided in the bap department for ever.
So, after a nice long Saturday morning lie-in, I'd got to the post office just before it shut at midday. But when the dry old stick with the thick tortoiseshell specs opened the glass window and handed me the parcel and I saw The Kipper's handwriting, not Maddy's, I realised it wasn't a miracle performing bap-pack from New York after all, but something nasty from my father's evil girlfriendif not a bomb, perhaps a box of beetle dung, itching powder or decaying rats.
Caroline Cole might look like a dead smoked fish (bony, fake-tan orange skin, dead glassy eyes, reeks of stale fags), but Dad's current girlfriend is really a very much alive and dangerous piranha, a man-eating gold digger only after Dad's money, and out to trap him into marrying her and getting her name double-barrelled on the platinum credit card.
When Mads was staying at half-term we even got video evidence of her evil plan, and proof that she loathes me. But as I couldn't bear to upset Dad by confronting him with the facts, and The Kipper wanted more time to flash his cash, I made a pact with her. I won't tell Dad she's a gold-digging bully if eventually she admits to him she hates his kids and wishes me and my little bro, Jack, aka The Little Runt, had never been born, at which point, I'm pretty sure Dad will bin her. It's much better to be the dumper than the dumpee, and this way I reckon Dad's heart won't be quite so broken.
I knew I'd made a pact with the she-Devil, but I hadn't counted on her wanting revenge so soon.
My moby rings and I look down to see Claudia Barnes's boobs flashing on its screen, still cracked from when I hurled it into a rack of T-shirts in a fit of parental-induced temper. Because of the whole shoulders back, boobs out look she always has, the girls and me secretly call Claudia Tits Out, so it seemed entirely normal to have furtively snapped her at the bus stop one morning and added the pic to my phone. Now, I'm thinking of binning it in case anyone sees a girl's chest on my mobyeven one covered by a white shirt and green blazerand thinks I have a touch of the lesbionics.
"Is Lucy with you? She's not answering her phone."
"Starbucks at Eastwood."
"Give me two mins."
And then she rings off.
"What was all that about?" Luce asks as one of the Starbuckies eyes up our table.
One of the downsides of being here compared to BK or Macky D's is that they notice if you haven't ordered anything for hours, or get three straws with one drink and keep topping up your cup with free milk. No one has actually said anything, yet, but that whole hovering-with-a-spray-bottle-and-cloth routine can be very intimidating.
"Tits Out is after you," I say, taking a slurp of Lucy's coffee, a bitter expresso which I feel takes the whole grown-up beverage thing too far. "She's on her way here. You weren't answering your moby."
"I felt it vibrate but thought it was Mum," Luce groans. "She's been stressing me out over my birthday. Anyone would think it was her day, not mine."
"I thought we were all going to that beauty place," I say. "Isn't it all arranged?"
Bella Malone had promised to treat Luce, me and Sorrel to an afternoon at Cloudz beauty salon for Lucy's fifteenth birthday next Saturday. It's going to cost a bomb, but probably not as much as it cost to put our house back together after my disastrous fourteenth birthday party, where the house looked as if it had been bombed, I got wrecked, and our guinea pig, Google, ran away and ended up half eaten and buried in a pale-blue Tiffany box, which is probably why Bella wants us away from their house. Given that she stresses out over stray pubes on the bathroom floor, even a tiny scratch on their polished wood table could tip the Neat Freak into a mental meltdown.
"Oh, don't say your mum's changed her mind?" I moan, gutted that I won't be pampered at Bella's expense. "I was planning on being fake-tanned all over."
"She's now talking about taking me for a posh meal at Giovanni's," Luce says, rolling her eyes. "Without you two."
Bella has made it quite clear she thinks I'm a bad influence on her daughter, but surely even she knows I'm not going to run riot in a beauty salon. What does she think I'm going to do? Start rampaging with wax strips? Throw mudpacks around? Turn up the voltage on the electrolysis machine and electrocute people?
"So, is Saturday on or off?" Sorrel asks. "Please say on or I'll be lumbered with babysitting the kids again."
"I've said I'm not putting a foot inside Giovanni's unless you come too," Luce says. "And I want a pamper party."
Since Luce got help for her self-harm issues earlier this year she's started to stand up to her mum a bit more, though I'm not sure that stamping your feet and demanding two parties counts as progress, just stroppiness.
Claudia Barnes comes trotting through the door. She sits next to Lucy and unzips her puffy silver coat to reveal a tiny pink spaghetti-strapped top, from under which pokes a lacy red satin bra. As she tries to release her arms from the silver tubes her boobs jiggle alarmingly, and I wonder which will pop out of her top first, a natural boob or a chicken fillet and, not for the first time, feel totally freaked that I find Tits Out's boobs so fascinating.
Claudia elbows Lucy in the ribs.
"Luce, guess what? I've just seen Naz Ashriyou know, lower sixth, would be lush if he didn't have a wonky eye? Anyway Naz let slip that Josh Caldwell fancies you, but, when I snogged Josh last summer at the Year 11 leavers' do he was a crap kisser, such stiff lips he was practically dead, which is tragic as he's total eye candy. Anyway, I thought I'd better warn you first."
I didn't know Claudia had snogged Josh Caldwell, though I'm not surprised. She seems to have snogged everyone with a Y chromosome. I'm gutted to find out that what I thought was one of the sixth formers winking at me is really down to a dodgy eye.
Lucy doesn't seem impressed that a sixth former who kisses like a corpse and has snogged Tits Out fancies her. I'd be impressed that anyone fancies me, even one with paralysed lips gasping his last breath.
"What's that?" Tits Out asks, pointing at the package on the table.
"It's a bomb," Sorrel says sarkily, probably hoping that the threat of an explosive device in Starbucks will have Tits Out clambering for the door and leave us in peace.
"You've got a chocolate beak," Claudia tells Sorrel, who glares at Tits Out and furiously rubs her nose clean of brown powder. "No, really. What is it?"
"It's something my dad's girlfriend sent me," I explain before the hovering Starbucky with the sprayer overhears us and, fearing that we're a group of teenage fundamentalists, calls the bomb squad. "She hates me so I was sort of half joking she'd mailed a bomb."
"Well, go on, open it," Tits Out says. "See what it is."
I know it's not a bomb, but even so, as I'm tearing off the brown paper, my heart starts hammering and my hands shake a little, though that could be due to the caffeine shot from Lucy's expresso.
Under the brown paper is a cardboard box with Baby Wipes printed along the side in blue ink.
"I knew it!" I shriek, pushing the package away. "That is so typical of that evil witch. What sort of a woman sends a teenager a box of baby bum wipes through the post? What's she inferring? That I'm still a sprog? That I have a dirty backside? What?"
I'm so busy ranting about The Kipper and her totally inappropriate and disappointing choice of present, I don't notice anything going on around me until I hear all three girls gasp.
"It's not a bomb!" Luce squeals excitedly.
"Wicked," Sorrel says.
"Blimey!" Tits Out squeals.
The Kipper hasn't sent me a box of baby botty cloths.
Buried amongst scrunched up pages from heat magazine is a cotton bag, and, peeping out of the top like a newly-laid egg, is The Kipper's pale cream Chloé bling bag I'd lusted after. The evil witch had taunted me with it, pretending I could borrow it but then denying she'd ever mentioned it. And now, here it is, in front of me, on a table in Starbucks.
"You lucky cow," Tits Out says, reaching over to stroke the soft leather, which makes me wince, as I'm terrified one of her French-manicured talons will scratch it. "It's much too lush to be fake."
"There has to be a catch," I say as I put all our cups on the next table, wipe the surface with my jacket sleeve and carefully lift The Bag of Beauty from its paper nest and soft cotton casing. "I can't believe she'd do this otherwise."
I open up the bag and, to be honest, instead of the smell of expensive leather, it reeks of perfume and stale cigarette smoke. Still, it's nothing a bottle of Febreze and an airing in the garden won't solve.
"Keep well away," Sorrel growls at a Starbucky who has come dangerously close to The Bag of Beauty with a cloth and a bottle of purple liquid. "Damage that bag and we'll sue you!"
The Starbucky scuttles off, leaving us to coo and stroke the newborn bag, playing with the gold padlock and fingering its dangly bits.
"I'd do anything for a bag like that," Tits Out says, practically drooling at the sight of The Bag of Beauty. "How much do you want for it?"
"As if, Claudia!" I snort. I can't believe The Kipper's given me a bling bag costing hundreds of pounds. "Nothing would make me give up this bag. Nothing."
"Everything has a price," Sorrel says, examining a red glass bead on the end of one of her braids. "Depends on whether what you're being offered is more valuable than what you have already."
"If Claudia offered you five thousand pounds you'd take it," Lucy says showing surprising insight. "Then you could buy loads of bling bags."
"If I could afford five grand I'd buy my own bling bag," Claudia retorts. "Go on, what do I have that you want more than that bag?"
I look at The Queen of Sleaze with her ironed-straight bleached hair, dodgy boobs and the purple badges of slaggery circling her neck. I'd like to be as popular with the boys as Claudia, but not if it meant I had a reputation as a bit of a tart, even one with a good heart.
I'm still thinking when Claudia says, "Name one thing you really really lust after."
I love Luce to bits. We've known each other since first year of infants. Along with Sorrel, she's my best friend. But right now I could cheerfully reach across the table and slap her with one of the dangly bits on The Bag of Beauty, not because she's let slip a secret, but because Jags is so last term.
Yes, despite spending thousands of hours dreaming about splashing in foaming white surf, or running through golden cornfields hand in hand with the Spain-via-Slough Lurve God, I'm wondering if he really is a squat over-gelled greasy little munchkin, which was Maddy's opinion when she met him.
"You fancy Jags?" Claudia sounds gob-smacked. "Javier Antonio Garcia Jags?" She blows air out of her mouth and her fringe flies up to reveal a fine collection of glowing forehead zits. "I never knew. I know Jags really well."
I bet you do, I think.
I still can't forget that after my disaster party I could smell Claudia's chavvy perfume on my duvet, and that at some point during it, Jags was outside my bedroom door. I know he was outside my bedroom door because that's where I collapsed at his feet, having pulled down his jeans as I sank on to the green carpet, totally wasted on coloured buzz juice.
"I used to think he was OK," I shrug, trying to look casual. "Just cos he was a bit foreign and better than the berks at Burke's."
"Even Frazer Burns?" Claudia says suggestively, raising an over-plucked eyebrow.
I can feel my face burn and contemplate putting the Chloé dust bag over my head as an embarrassed-face disguise.
"Pinhead said he saw you and FB holding hands on Talbot Road last week." Claudia obviously isn't going to let this one drop. "I thought you two might be secret snoggers."
"As if!" I gasp, hoping that the Starbucky with the sprayer will throw us out to cut the conversation. "Me and Razor Burns? Get real, Claudia!"
"So Pinhead was lying?" She leans across the table towards me. I expect she's trying to eyeball me, but I'm ignoring her over-made-up eyes and looking down, fiddling with The Bag of Beauty's bits and pieces. "And Gibbo? And Spud? They all said they'd seen you and him with meshed mitts. Are they all lying?"
I give a deep Do I really have to explain? type sigh.
"FB was giving his dog, Archie, a bath and Archie got out so we ran after him. FB just grabbed my hand to make sure I kept up."
This sounds convincing because it's the truth, though it doesn't explain what I was doing at FB's house in the first place. I also don't add that we held hands for slightly longer than was necessary, and that the only reason we let go was because FB had rushed out without the dog's lead or collar, and to avoid the mutt playing Dodge That Car in the traffic and causing a pile-up, FB had to carry him home. Then the moment was lost; he took the wet dog inside, and I scurried back and wrote EB 4 FB in a heart on my maths book, something which turned out to be a mega mistake, as even after nuking it with half a bottle of Tippex, you can still see the design if you hold it up to the light.
Since then, neither of us has said anything to each other.
"Hmm..." Claudia is clearly unconvinced that I'm not having a passionate affair behind her back.
"Would you go out with FB if he asked you?" Lucy pipes up.
This is a difficult question.
On the one hand, FB isn't known as Freak Boy for nothing. On the other, not many people have seen what I've seen, which is that FB can look totally hot, but only if he's drenched in water, just as he was the day I saw him with Archie. The problem with dating a Just Add Water boy is that I'd have to carry a bucket around with me and keep dousing him every time he was in danger of drying out. This would be embarrassing, restrict our choice of dating venues and might be awkward to explain, not to just to people around, but to him.
"I don't think you'd go out with anybody," Claudia says, sounding very sure of herself. "Even if someone totally lush like Buff Butler asked you."
"I would so!" I'm mad that Claudia is making wild assumptions about my non-existent love life, though slightly concerned that I seem to have agreed that I would go out with our gorge geography teacher, something that would get us both expelled from Flora Burke's Community School.
"Well, have you ever been out with anybody?" she asks. "Even on a double-date?"
I throw Claudia what I hope is the sort of sarky look which could mean anything from Get lost to As if I'm going to tell you!
It clearly doesn't work as she says, "So you haven't, then, even though everyone else has." She elbows Lucy. "You went out with that French lad, Pascal, didn't you?"
Luce wrinkles her nose at the thought of her summer-holiday fling with the blond bogbrush-headed frog called Pascal Fournier who lives in Provence. When she first came back from France she was all Ooh la la! about him, but along with her tan, the romance faded and she no longer sighs and snogs the pictures of him on her phone.
"And you had a sort of thing with that lad who worked at Burger King." Claudia nods towards Sorrel and I snatch the bag protectively towards me in case of sudden projectile vomiting in its direction.
"So it's just you, Electra. A dating virgin."
"I'm choosy," I say, wanting to point out that I'm not the only non-dater as Sorrel didn't actually go out with Warren, but I'm too scared to bring the subject up in case Sorrel brings up her cappuccino.
"You're not choosy!" Claudia trills, looking down and tucking something (a boob? a chicken fillet? her moby?) deeper into her cleavage. "You're just too scared to take the plunge!"
"Crappola, Claudia," I toss my hair in what I hope is a suitably off-hand manner rather than looking as if I'm about to have a fit. "You're talking rubbish."
The reason I haven't been out with anybody isn't that I'm too scared to stick my lips into the dating pond, but that nobody has asked me.
Claudia reaches across and pats The Bag of Beauty. "I bet you this bag that you won't agree to go out with the first lad that asks you in the next two weeks. If you do, I'll get you a date with Jags. If you chicken out, I get the bag. Agreed?"
Ooh, my butterfly brain is flapping and my head is stressing!
I was sure I'd gone right off Jags, but if I did go out with him then I'd finally know whether I really have gone off him, or am merely off him because he's never been on me. And a date with The Spanish Lurve God would look fab on my dating CV. He might be a greasy little munchkin, but he's a bit older, at another school, a posh school, and he's sort-of foreign, which gives him an exotic touch.
It's sooo tempting.
"And if no-one asks me out?" I say. "What then? Do I still keep the bag?"
"Yep," Tits Out says, putting her coat back on and tucking her boobs in. "But there's no Jags date. So, do we have a deal?"
As Claudia struggles to force the zip over her chest, I think for a moment. My brain is doing lots of calculations along the lines of past experience of being asked out (zero), versus future likelihood (unknown but probably zero) and so on. Maths isn't my strong point as Mrs Chopley, my Year 10 maths teacher, would tell you, but it doesn't take me long to come up with an answer.
"Agreed," I say. Claudia sticks out her hand and we shake on it. "You've got a deal."