Jessica Ridley is determined to appear fashionable to her schoolmates whatever her mother says; by Anne Goodwin.
Jessica glances down at her flamingo-pink cropped T-shirt and black flared hipsters. The gap between the end of her T-shirt and the top of her trousers exposes a narrow band of pale skin, like a belt with her belly button where the buckle would be. "Why shouldn't I?"
"You know quite well," Ruth snaps. "It's a totally unsuitable get-up for Cranwell Craggs."
"I don't see why," says Jessica. "It's what everyone else will be wearing."
At the kitchen table, Dominic, still in his pyjamas, turns up the volume on his iPod and shovels another spoonful of muesli into his mouth.
Ruth bends down to put her coffee cup into the dishwasher. "Maybe everyone else isn't lucky enough to have proper walking clothes."
Jessica goes to the fridge, pours herself another glass of orange juice. Pours herself a bit more time. "But Mum, honestly, it's a school trip, not a weekend hike."
She looks towards her brother for support, but he is assiduously reading the cereal packet, as if revising for his SATs.
Her mother glances at the clock. "Jessica, be sensible! We were there not long ago. Can't you remember what you were wearing?"
Jessica has an all too clear memory of what she was wearing at Cranwell Craggs. Just like her mother and brother and father, she sported a thermal vest, light fleece, jogging trousers, Gore-Tex jacket and hiking boots. With Dad grasping his ski poles to save his dodgy knees, and Mum with her map case hanging from a cord around her neck, they could have been models for an outdoor clothing catalogue. But what she was wearing then has no bearing on what she should wear today.
Sometimes, her mother struggles to grasp even the simplest things. It occurs to Jessica that her mother might be going loopy, like Caroline's grandmother. When they went to visit her in the old people's home, she had mistaken Caroline for her own sister, who was probably about a hundred, which was really spooky. Jessica knows that if her mother deteriorates that far, she will have to be extremely patient with her. When Ruth starts to confuse her with Auntie Eileen, Jessica imagines she will be the perfect daughter, and go on television to be presented with one of those Heroic Children Awards.
But not today. She thrusts her hands into the pockets of her gorgeous trousers and pushes out her bottom lip. Patience will have to come later. "I don't see your problem."
"For a start, if it rains, those flares will be flapping about your legs and you'll be cold and miserable."
"It's not going to rain."
"You know how unpredictable the weather is at this time of year," says her mother. "And you can't go out with a bare midriff either. You'll catch a chill."
How come, Jessica wonders, there is no such thing as a chill when it is Auntie Eileen who fears catching it? How come her parents, on such occasions, look at each other with raised eyebrows, but willingly suspend disbelief when it means making her look a geek? Jessica tries to hold her brother's gaze in the hope that they might share a raised eyebrow moment, but Dominic is too absorbed in the rap coming through his headphones to notice.
"And while I remember, why don't you take the Tilley hat Auntie Eileen bought you for Christmas?"
Jessica is tempted to run upstairs to her bedroom, throw herself face down on to her bed, punch her pillows, kick her legs in the air and scream. But, satisfying as it would be to make her mother late for work, she fears that by the time her mother has crept up the stairs, stroked her hair, and helped her into the bathroom to wash her face, the bus to Cranwell Craggs will have left without her. So she stays in the kitchen, leaning against the fridge door, listening to the ticking of the clock and staring blankly at her mother. Maybe her mother isn't losing her marbles. Maybe she just hates her. "There's nothing wrong with my baseball cap," she mutters.
Her mother wipes down the worktops with a J-cloth, and gives her daughter what might be an attempt at an encouraging smile. "Your baseball cap's fine. It's just that the Tilley hat is more practical. You've got all-round protection, not just a peak, and it'll keep off the rain as well as the sun."
Now her mother sounds like an advert, as if she had been taken in by all the geeky recommendations from supposedly satisfied customers that came with the packaging for the hat. Why is it, Jessica wants to know, that her mother treats brand names like the axis of evil if they are associated with anything ordinary like trainers or jeans or even breakfast cereal, but as objects of desire for boring things like hiking gear and organic yoghurt? Except that she doesn't really want to know, because there is no logic to it at all, other than her mother being deliberately mean, or going senile, or both. All she needs now is for Ruth to mention Lemi, and she really will have to have a tantrum, even if it does mean missing the bus.
Think of Lemi, Lemi would be delighted to have that, her parents say, whenever they want to make out that she's spoilt and bad and ungrateful. You should be thankful you have a comfortable home with good food and clean water, not like poor Lemi, living in a mud hut and walking four miles to school in his bare feet, they say. Her parents treat Lemi as if he is their third child, putting a photograph of him on the mantelpiece, dressed in his school uniform - and it's not even a proper uniform, just a drab open-necked shirt and shorts, flimsy looking, like summer pyjamas - right next to the photographs of Jessica and Dominic in their proper blazers and shirts and ties. When a letter comes from him, her parents get all excited, which is stupid, as he always says the same thing: the weather is hot, his parents send their best wishes, and he is working hard at school. But if he is working hard, why isn't there any improvement in his letters? Jessica suspects that the money that her parents pay out to the charity each month is not going on Lemi's education at all. And she's not convinced he's as poor as they claim. Okay, maybe it is true that he doesn't have a television or a computer or a PlayStation, and Jessica can just about accept that he may not have a toilet inside the house - it would be like camping in France - but she reckons that someone is pulling the wool over someone's eyes when they tell her that he can't afford shoes or the bus fare to school. Because, of course, if Lemi really were destitute, they'd be sending him a lot more than they do. The standing order to the charity is no more than her pocket money, which only just covers sweets and magazines and the odd accessory.
And then Jessica has a brainwave. She could send Lemi the Tilley hat! What a cool idea! It gets rid of the hat, which will stop her mother nagging her to wear it. She can demonstrate her generosity towards others who are not so well off. And if Lemi really is poor, he can sell the hat and buy something useful. Alternatively, if he is a fraud, he will have his comeuppance when his mother makes him wear the horrible hat. She'll find his address in her father's desk and go to the Post Office as soon as she gets back from the school trip. This solution is so satisfying she is almost prepared to appear before her classmates in her hiking clothes. Almost.
"Look," says her mother, "I've got to go now or I'll miss my train. Jessica, be a good girl and get changed. Dominic, you check your sister is properly dressed before she leaves."
Her brother grunts, gets up and deposits his bowl and spoon in the dishwasher. Jessica holds her breath. If her mother now turns towards him, puts her hands on her hips and says in that haughty voice, Dominic, are you listening to me, he will make her go on the trip dressed like a geek. But if she just sighs and shakes her head, Dominic will take no notice of his sister, and she can wear what she likes.
Her mother picks up her briefcase from beside the kitchen door. "Don't forget, whoever's last out, make sure you set the alarm."
As she hears the front door slam, Jessica grins at her brother. Scowling, Dominic pushes past her as if she is of no more interest to him than the kitchen cupboards.
Jessica's route to school takes her through the centre of town. Every time she catches a glimpse of her reflection in the shop windows, she smiles: everything about her appearance is perfect. Her hair falls exactly the right length below her shoulders. Her cropped T-shirt is just the right shade of pink, bright enough to be noticed without looking too gaudy. Her trousers sit perfectly on her hips and the flared bottoms all but brush the pavement as she strolls along. Her trainers, although hidden by her trousers, are this season's most popular style.
Jessica's pleasure this morning is not just with herself. Everything around her seems just right, too. The shops she passes feel like friends. Here is Accessoright where she goes with Caroline on Saturdays to spend her pocket money on trinkets and jewellery, and Teenscene, where they try on clothes. Here is Headlines where Fiona washes and trims her hair. Here is the Building Society where she has her savings account. Here is the newsagent's where she buys the magazines that help her keep up-to-date. Jessica is thankful that, unlike Lemi, she has so many pleasant things to look at on her walk to school.
And here is the office where her mother used to work. Ruth wouldn't have picked on Jessica in the old days before she got her important new job. Still, that isn't Jessica's problem. She has forgotten the rage she felt earlier. Aren't mothers supposed to find fault with their children's clothes? Jessica is looking forward to telling Caroline and Mumtaz about it. Can you believe it, she will say, she tried to get me to wear some nerdy hiking outfit? But I was like, Mum, I don't tell you what to wear for work, so don't you tell me what to wear for school. And her friends will raise their eyebrows in commiseration.
As she walks through the school gates, Jessica settles her trousers on her hips and smoothes down the hem of her T-shirt.
"Jessica! Over here!"
Beaming, Jessica hurries across the yard towards Caroline and Mumtaz. But as she gets nearer, her pace slows. There is another girl with her two friends. Amber Jackson hangs on to Caroline's arm, waving just as enthusiastically as the other two, as if she has always been part of the gang. Jessica's cheeks turn as pink as her T-shirt. The tension in her shoulders recalls the episode in the kitchen this morning. But she is at school now. She has to deal with this alone.
She strides over and links Caroline's free arm. "Have you seen what Paula Conway is wearing? She looks like she's off to climb Mount Everest!"
Caroline, Mumtaz and Amber turn towards the girl kitted out in a replica of the outfit Jessica's mother had wanted her to wear.
"She's a geek, that Paula Conway," says Caroline.
"I pity whoever has to sit beside her on the bus," says Jessica.
Her friends giggle. Amber gets out her phone. "Never mind Paula. I want to take your photo."
The girls rearrange themselves: Jessica in the middle flanked by Caroline and Mumtaz. As the flash lights up her enormous grin, she feels her spine tingle with happiness.
Amber passes the phone to Mumtaz. "Now one with me and Caroline and Jessica."
The girls regroup with Amber in the centre. This time Jessica's smile is less enthusiastic. She turns to Caroline. "Let's practice our dance before the bus comes. I had an idea for some more steps to go at the end."
"Jessica," says Amber, "you're messing up the photo."
"I thought she'd taken it," says Jessica.
Caroline grabs the phone. "My turn to take one."
"What about our dance?"
Caroline laughs and pushes her friends into line. "Smile."
"We said we'd practice every day."
The flash goes again. Caroline scowls at Jessica. "I said smile."
Jessica feels suddenly cold. The others stare at her starkly, as if she's the new girl in school. Under that gaze, everything about her that she has hitherto taken for granted is open to scrutiny: her face, her hair, her clothes. Her navel.
"Urgh," says Amber, "you've got a sticky-out one."
Caroline laughs. "Oh, Jessica, how come I never noticed your funny belly button before?"
Jessica looks down at the bobble of flesh above the top of her trousers. "What's wrong with it?"
"It's supposed to go in, not stick out," says Amber.
"It doesn't matter," says Jessica, "they can be either way, in or out." But she can see that the evidence is piled against her. Both Caroline's and Amber's navels are indented. She doesn't know about Mumtaz: her navel is covered by one of the long shirts she always wears.
"It wasn't made properly when you were a baby," says Amber.
The others nod. With a mother who works as a nurse, it is generally accepted that Amber is an expert on medical matters.
"It's cute," says Mumtaz.
"No, it's not," says Caroline. "It's minging."
Jessica feels a prickling at the corners of her eyes. She might as well have had that tantrum this morning. The trip is spoilt for her anyway, and at least back home she would have had her mother to comfort her.
A bus pulls up outside the school yard. "Come on," says Amber. "Let's make sure we get some good seats."
Caroline, Amber and Mumtaz pick up their backpacks, and run off towards the school gates. Jessica hesitates. She decides that the day isn't quite warm enough for just a T-shirt. Maybe her mother is right that a bare midriff, on a day like this, could give you a chill. She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, takes her blue fleece jacket from her backpack and puts it on, pulling the zip right up under her chin. All she needs now is the big headscarf, and she'd be covered up as much as Mumtaz.
Jessica joins the others on the bus. The seat they have saved her is beside Mumtaz, not Caroline. She sits down and lets Mumtaz help her to do up her seat belt. Mr Harrison stands at the front, nodding as he counts the children. He tells one of the boys to get back in his seat and the bus moves off.
"Just think," says Mumtaz, as they approach the ring road, "we should be doing double maths."
Just think, Jessica tells herself, I should be sitting with Caroline. Except that she shouldn't. Caroline is best-friends with Amber now. And she is left with Mumtaz.
Mumtaz is all right, miles better than Paula Conway, but Jessica has never thought of her as best-friend material. Now that she gives it her consideration, she finds Mumtaz to be lacking in the essentials. How can Jessica trawl around the clothes shops on a Saturday afternoon if her best-friend can only wear big headscarves and baggy shirts?
"You don't mind me having the window seat?" says Mumtaz. "We can swap on the way back if you like."
Jessica is too busy thinking to care about the view. "It's okay."
Why is it, she wonders, that Mumtaz can get away with being so different, while I get picked on just for having a sticky-out belly button? Of course, she knows why. To pick on Mumtaz would be racist. Her cheeks would burn with shame were she to do such a thing. But even so, it seems unfair that some things should be ridiculed while other deviations from the norm pass without comment.
"We've got a treat at lunchtime," says Mumtaz. "My mum was up at six making samosas. She's packed enough for the four of us in a thermos."
Jessica winces. If her mother were ever up that early, it wouldn't be to prepare her packed lunch. In the past, Jessica has always been conscious of the limitations of her friend's lifestyle: waiting for the women-only sessions at the swimming baths, foregoing the sausage rolls at parties. Now that seems a small price to pay for peace of mind. For Mumtaz, the rules are cut and dried. Not for her the daily wrangle with her mother about what to wear.
Mumtaz is content, Jessica reasons, because she isn't different on her own. She might be the only Muslim girl in the class, but everybody knows there are lots of other Muslims in the world who share the same traditions, who dress and eat and pray just like she does. Mumtaz is comfortable with who she is because she is part of a group. But where is the group for people with protruding navels?
Jessica refuses to accept that her navel was a botched job on the maternity ward. She knows there are other people with navels like hers, it's just a matter of finding them. She wonders what kind her mother and father and brother have. She must have seen their navels, in swimming gear, at least, but has never studied their appearance. It would be logical if sticky-out navels were genetic and all her family had the same. But Jessica is not sure if being in a group with her family would be enough.
She looks around, to see if she can spot any other aberrant navels among her classmates. Across the aisle is Chantelle Forrester, but Jessica is at the wrong angle to see her navel properly. In the seat behind Chantelle, is Kylie Smith, but she must also have a mother who is afraid of chills, as her T-shirt is tucked into the waistband of her trousers. Jessica may not be able to see Kylie's navel, but she can't miss her earrings. Despite the rules which forbid flamboyant jewellery, Kylie's collection of earrings is admired throughout the school. Hanging from her ear lobes today are silvery zigzags reminiscent of lightning flashes. Jessica fingers the plain studs in her own ears, making a mental note to look out for a pair like Kylie's when she is next in Accessoright.
The boys and girls on the back seats have started singing. Jessica keeps her mouth tightly closed. Under the cover of her fleece, she tries pushing her belly button back in. It seems malleable, soft to the touch, but as soon as she releases the pressure, it pops straight out again. She needs something to hold it down, something like the clip on the lid of her jewellery box that keeps her purchases from Accessoright from sprawling all over her dressing table.
One row back and across the aisle, Kylie Smith joins in the singing. In Year Seven, Kylie was as much of an outcast as Paula Conway is in Year Eight. Now she is one of the most popular girls in the year group. Last year, she was bullied because of her sticky-out ears. Now she is admired for her cool earrings.
In the two seats in front, Amber and Caroline are joining in the singing, opening their mouths like opera singers and laughing with their eyes. They say that Bethany Richardson from year Nine has had her belly button pierced. In the seat beside her, Mumtaz is singing too. All the magazines advise anyone with an unattractive feature to find a way of disguising it. It is a daft song, a baby song, but appropriate enough for a bus trip. Headlines stays open till nine in the evening during the week. Jessica can't quite tell, but it looks as if even Mr Harrison is singing. Headlines does piercing as well as hairdressing. Didn't she have her ears done there?
"The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round," sings Jessica, and gives Mumtaz's arm a friendly squeeze.
"Make sure you're back by nine."
"Okay," says Jessica sweetly.
"And give my regards to Caroline's mother," says Ruth, returning her attention to the pile of papers spread out over the coffee table.
It's not a complete lie, Jessica reasons, as she closes the front door behind her, and heads off in the opposite direction to Caroline's house. She will find a way of passing on her mother's regards to Caroline's mother, it's just that it won't be tonight.
She has been busy since coming home from Cranwell Craggs. So busy she had no time for childish pranks like posting the Tilley hat to Lemi. First she phoned Headlines to book an appointment. Then she walked into town to withdraw money from her building society account. When her mother got home from work, she helped make dinner. Afterwards, Dominic went up to his room, her mother took her briefcase into the sitting room and now Jessica is free to resolve the problem of her unfashionable navel.
Her meticulous planning has left her with time to spare and it would be boring to sit and wait in the hairdresser's, so Jessica takes a stroll around town. Mingling with the grownups on their way to the pubs and restaurants, Jessica feels a thrill at being out in the night. Although she is careful to saunter along casually, inside she feels as if she is skipping.
Turning a corner, she sees people entering the theatre. Jessica used to love going to the Christmas pantomime when she was younger. She draws nearer to see what play is showing tonight. A poster shows a woman in a flimsy nightie. She looks common. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Jessica turns away. She doesn't want to be seen around something so smutty.
What if a pierced belly button were considered common? Jessica knows that her mother wouldn't like it, but that's because she's old and stuffy. But what if Caroline and Amber and Kylie Smith should disapprove? Bethany Richardson's endorsement might not be enough. Jessica shakes her head to banish the thought. She can't give up now.
Will it hurt? She remembers how she flinched when she had her ears pierced. A belly button might be more sensitive than an ear lobe. What if the whole thing goes wrong, and it turns septic and a fountain of pus erupts from my belly?
Determined to be brave, she heads back towards the hairdresser's, moving against the tide of grown-ups on their way to watch a smutty play. She wonders what Mumtaz is doing right now. Perhaps tomorrow evening they could do their homework together. She pushes open the door of Headlines.
It is a relief to see Fiona at the reception desk. "Hallo, Jessica, I wasn't expecting you tonight."
"I rang up earlier to make an appointment. I don't know who I spoke to."
Fiona opens the desk diary, runs her finger down the columns.
"Well, yes, there is a Jessica Ridley booked in for a piercing at seven-thirty." Fiona looks up. "Surely that's not you?"
"It is," says Jessica. She wants to sound strong and confident, but her voice comes out small and far away.
A woman in a white coat joins Fiona behind the desk.
"Here's your seven-thirty client," says Fiona. Can it really be that she is smirking? "A navel piercing, I believe."
The body-piercing woman smiles. "How old are you, Jessica?"
Jessica blushes. She pushes up her shoulders, willing herself to grow another two inches. "Nearly thirteen."
"Does your mother know you're here?" asks Fiona.
"Is that a not-really kind of sort-of?"
"Yes," Jessica confesses, "but she wouldn't mind, honestly."
The women exchange glances, just as her parents do when she wants new trainers before her old ones are worn out.
"What do you think?" Fiona asks the white-coat woman.
"We could call her mother to check."
"She's working tonight," says Jessica. "She can't be disturbed."
"What about your father?" Fiona asks.
"He's away on business," says Jessica. "But he wouldn't mind me having it done. In fact, he'd be pleased."
"It's such a pity we can't contact your parents," says the woman in the white coat. "Tell you what, Jessica, why don't you leave it for today?"
She sounds kind, but Jessica knows she is being rebuffed. "I can't have it done tonight?"
"Not unless we can check with your parents," says Fiona. "But there's always another time."
Head down, Jessica leaves the salon. She imagines the women gloating over her predicament, relishing their power to decide who will have the right navel, and who will not.
Stepping out onto the pavement, however, Jessica feels, not the burden of her resentment, but a strange lightness. Her classmates and their cruel judgements have been banished far away. After the cloying perfume of the salon, the outside air is refreshingly clean and natural. She strides through the streets, like on a country hike.
It was fun at Cranwell Craggs, but it wasn't like being there with her family. Mr Harrison didn't seem to know that you were supposed to go round anticlockwise. Like her dad said, you got a better impression of the rocks approaching them from the left. And Caroline had been such a slow coach; Jessica and Mumtaz and Paula Conway had got so bored waiting for the rest of the class to catch up.
There are still a couple of hours left before bedtime. Jessica knows exactly how she wants to spend the time. She will Skype her dad and ask if they can go walking when he's home at the weekend. Then she'll change into the brushed-cotton nightdress that reaches almost to her ankles, sprawl out on the sofa with her mother, and read Lemi's latest letter.