Tracy and Sunshine are friends. Both of them like magic. Tracy reads books with magic in - Diana Wynn Jones, Harry Potter, Paul Strachan - and Sunshine just paints her nails.
As she often says to Tracy, who needs imagination when there are just so many colours in the Spectacular range alone? And that's before you get into the finishes, the shimmers and sparkles and hologram strands, the French manicure overlays, the undercoats, conditioners and top coats, the inlays, patterns and appliques. Nail care, it's a whole life, from the oil you put on at night to the neat cases of implements for cuticle pruning, the quick-dry sprays and Q-tips, the coloured balls of cotton wool to put between toes and the varieties of nail varnish remover: lotions, pads and a funny little pot you stick one finger in to twizzle it against a sponge soaked in acetone. Sunshine has them all, or most of them.
When Tracy comes over to spend the night, they sit up late. Bewitched, slowly and carefully, like a real lady, Sunshine does all their nails.
Should the toes be the same colour as the fingers? The girls dispute this. Tracy feels everything should match, and at the moment she likes lilac mist with gold sparkles. But Sunshine keeps her toes restrained, with nearly nude peach and a French rose overcoat, while she likes to go wild on her fingers: last Saturday she alternated black grape and inlaid stars with honey yellow and inset diamante S shapes.
At 13 years old, they are just exploring the decorative bits of adult femininity, trying them for size while at the same time playing with ideas like children. Nails are perfect: painting your nails has traditionally been a sexy, even scandalous business, but finger-ends are safely far away from any overtly erogenous zones. It can still be dressing up instead of dressing to kill.
Tracy has only just stopped biting her nails. She used to like being independent of her mother, bearing down with the nail scissors and a fierce expression, yanking her hand forward over the wash hand-basin. So she kept chewing off thin little half-moons, resisting all applications of bitter aloes and sleep mittens. But she fell in love with the little satin manicure set her mother got her for her 13th birthday and so she had to grow her nails in order to have something to trim and buff. (The buffer is so nice with its suede finger.) The girls pack their manicure sets, matching make-up bags and brush, comb and mirror sets when they stay with each other. Their mothers sigh and roll their eyes - "What are those girls doing?" - but actually they are pleased.
It's been years since Sunshine and Tracy spoke to a boy. So when Sunshine's dad teases them and says "Pink to make the boys wink, eh?" or "That'll put their eyes out," they just toss their heads and give a disdainful glare. There are posters of boy bands on their walls, of course, but as for real boys I well, look at them. So small, so spotty, so silly.
They are still in their own realm, the realm where possible and fantastic effortlessly marry, where magic flashes from fingertips and every girl is a princess. Time enough to grow up and take notice of the opposite sex. Time enough not to grow up, too.