Gin has got bored with her hair. She has had the bottom part shaved off, fixed the top part so it stands up straight and bleached the whole lot blonde. "It's a high-top fade," she says, patting it. "It was big in the 80s."
"It's fairly big now," I say. Gin's new hair is adding approximately three inches to her height.
"Do you feel left out?" says Amanda. "Now that both of us have blonde hair, you can't be in our gang."
"Now that both of you have blonde hair, I'm the one that stands out. You two look like my sidekicks," I say.
We are at Amanda's father's 55th birthday party. Amanda's parents are divorced and don't speak. She gets on extremely well with her father but not at all with her mother, who disapproves of some of her lifestyle choices. The last time I saw Amanda's mother was approximately nine years ago. She pointedly blanked us in the changing rooms of a high-end clothing retailer.
Amanda's father is a professor, or a lecturer, or some form of academic. I'm not entirely sure what the academic scoring system is, but I do know that he is very senior. He specialises in European history. He is currently holding forth about the cultural implications of The Only Way Is Essex to a group of Ph.D students.
His house is beautiful. It is the kind of home I'm fascinated by, partly because the nature of it, all these carefully chosen and expensive possessions perfectly arranged - the original paintings, the deep red and pink carpets and soft brown sofas, the souvenirs from travelling and the walls lined with books, the greenly flourishing plants - is foreign to me. I don't have a home like this, and nor will I ever have one.
Just as I think this, a profiterole slips out of my hand and leaves a trail of cream and chocolate down the front of my blue dress.
Gin pokes me in the arm. "You're why we can't have nice things," she whispers. We giggle. I wander off to try and clean myself up.
Outside the living room, where most of the people are, it's quiet. I seem to remember there is a bathroom upstairs and to the left, so I walk up the wide stairs, running my fingers along the banister.
On the landing is a dark-wood display case. A fern fountains greenly out of a white pot on top. In it there are a number of beautiful objects Amanda's dad has presumably collected. A small bottle of violet glass with a yellowed label; it is half torn off, but a couple of words of faded copperplate handwriting can still be seen. The polished white-and-orange shell of a pearly nautilus. Two kingfisher feathers and one bluejay feather, arranged in a tiny stemmed glass etched with flowers. The fragile, stained skull of a bird.
There are also three carved netsuke, one wood, two bone. A ball of rats tumbling over each other. An octopus with its tentacles coiling like fractals. Two puppies fighting, one on its back and the other pinning it down. All small enough to fit into the palm of my hand.
I really want to open the case and play with the netsuke, but I know I can't do that. Instead I crouch down beside it and stare at them. They are so intricately carved every wrinkle on the rats' tails is visible.
"Are you looking for the bathroom?" a voice says behind me.
I start guiltily, turn, and it's Marianne, a lecturer in English literature. She is Amanda's dad's...I'm not sure. Girlfriend? No. Marianne has never been anyone's girlfriend. Far too frivolous. Mistress? Definitely not; black lace underwear and afternoon shags in hotel rooms. Too sexy. Partner - with its connotations of political correctness and law firms - suits her perfectly.
Marianne is tall, toned and very well-groomed, with smooth shiny hair. She wears tasteful classic clothes, usually in greens, blues or purples, and small gold studs in her ears, and she has probably never been caught on her hands and knees staring at someone else's netsuke while covered in cream.
She frowns at my cleavage.
"Did you know you have cream on the front of your dress?" she says.
"Yes, I did. Uhm, thank you," I say. There is something about Marianne which always makes me feel as if I'm five years old and I have spilt glue on one of the other children.
(I remember Amanda holding forth on Marianne one night when we were - well, I don't exactly remember where we were but we were sitting on wipe-clean brown sofas which had not been wiped clean, the lighting was low to non-existent, and the band was terrible. Amanda was wearing a silver lurex jumpsuit and a pink feather boa and was, at that point, approximately seven-eighths tequila. "Marianne wasn't born," she slurred. "A computer programme constructed her out of Allure by Chanel, the Times Literary Supplement, and a couple of old iron girders.")
"You're one of Amanda's friends, aren't you?"
"Yes," I say.