Cherry's dad was waiting for them at the school gates wearing blue sunglasses. That was the first difference. Alex and Cherry scrambled up the steps waving their paintings in the air, but Alex slowed as they reached the parents. Dads should be at work.
Cherry lived on the other side of the hill so they went along the old railway line. Cherry's dad didn't mind when they wanted to stop and play on an old tire hanging from a tree. He sat on a stump and smoked a cigarette, while they pushed each other and swung and swung.
When they got going again Cherry said to her dad "We'll have biscuits when we get home, won't we?"
"Sure you'll have biscuits."
"And we can choose which ones we want." Cherry flicked her chin at Alex. They had only gotten raisins at Alex's last week. Cherry hadn't forgotten.
Their house was right at the bottom of the hill on the corner with a street so steep that they had to bend their necks back to see up to the other end. Cherry said she and her dad would pretend they were climbing a mountain when they went to the shops. Alex's street was flat.
They kicked off their muddy shoes at the door and raced in for their biscuits. In Cherry's house there were stairs everywhere you looked. From the hall there were three up to the sitting room, two down to the kitchen, then another to the left going somewhere else. The place was like a tree with many branches. Alex wanted to see everything.
They ran up to the top of the house trailing biscuit crumbs. There was only one door in front of the last step. The wallpaper had stopped and the walls were pinkish and cracked. Behind the door was a room full of wires. They didn't go in, but stood running their eyes over the jumble. This was Cherry's dad's studio. They heard creaks on the stairs below and fled downward.
In her mum' s bedroom Cherry threw open the wardrobe and they inspected the silky dresses. Cherry put on a pair of velvet high heels and teetered round the room with her hand on her hip.
"I wish I had party shoes like that."
"They're not party shoes, stupid. They're house slippers."
"Oh. Can I have a go?"
"No. She wouldn't like it." Cherry tossed her head and climbed down off the blocks. She slid them back under the dressing table. "Come on."
Cherry didn't have curtains in her bedroom. Instead hung blinds made out of shiny pink material. She had bunkbeds even though she didn't share a room with anyone and a proper Sindy house with all the furniture from the adverts. Alex picked up a rubbery armchair from the sitting room and sniffed. Bubblegum. She could just take a bite out of it.
"We can play Sindys later. Come on." Cherry darted out. There was still the rest of the house to show off. Alex dropped the armchair and ran after her. Outside the door she collided with Cherry who was wobbling backwards from having collided with her dad.
"What are you guys up to, Cherry bomb? He smiled at them. Dads were tricky. Alex thought she heard Cherry's voice shake.
"I've got some work to do, so keep out of trouble, okay?" Was he going out and leaving them in the house by themselves? They could do whatever they liked, even try on the high heeled slippers. But Cherry’s dad winked at them and went upstairs to the studio. Maybe he was going to get his briefcase.
"I'll show you the lounge." Cherry was already halfway down the stairs.
In the sitting room they jumped on the sofas to test their bounce. The walls were covered with frames leaving only a thin grid of wallpaper between them. A couple of frames held gold painted records. There were also smudgy paintings of naked ladies and black and white photographs of cities. There were no photographs of the family. Alex thought about the sitting room at home. It was nothing as grand as this. They had empty walls apart from a small picture of some sunflowers opposite the fireplace and everything was smaller: smaller TV, smaller sofas, smaller room.
"Why do you have records on the wall? Don't they want to listen to them?"
There was an odd noise for a moment coming from somewhere else. It sounded like the scratchy clouds on the television when the aerial wasn't working. Then it went away. Cherry hadn’t seemed to notice it.
"What was that?"
"It's just daddy. He'll put his headphones on."
"Oh." That didn't explain anything. Dads were tricky.
They ran down past the kitchen to the lower place that Alex had been wondering about. There was a cupboard crammed with washing machines and next to it a little bathroom under the stairs. Alex had never seen anything like it before. The ceiling was low and covered in silver paper, which they could almost, almost see themselves in. The walls were also silver and only the floor wasn't shiny. There was a big mirror over the sink with light bulbs all around its edges. Alex knew her mum would think this room was tacky, but Alex thought it was fantastic.
"Let's play in here."
"Why? It's just the bathroom."
"But we can be film stars and this is our special house and we're getting ready to go out to a party."
Cherry laughed, "Alright."
They dragged in chairs from the kitchen and pressed them up against the sink. Cherry switched on the mirror bulbs and they had to squint because of the brightness. They got up on the chairs and took off their T-shirts. Their skin was the colour of light. They arched their backs and stuck their tongues out at their wavy reflections on the ceiling. They slapped their ribs and compared their bee stings. Cherry flapped her black plaits like bird's wings and Alex piled all her hair onto the top of her head and then let it float down over her eyes. Then they shook their heads until they felt dizzy and la-ed along to songs they made up.
Cherry needed a wee so she hopped onto the cork tiles and started to pull down her knickers. But then she stopped.
"Alex!" Alex was looking at herself in the mirror with her hands on her shoulders.
"I think the toilet might blow up."
"Come see, come see!"
Alex rushed over and peered into the bowl. There was a cigarette butt floating in the water. They nodded at each other. The toilet might blow up. What would happen to the silver room if it did? Would it shatter like a mirror and would they shatter too?
"What shall we do?"
"I really need to go." Cherry began to bounce on her legs.
"We could try flushing it."
"No! It might explode." She was right. Cigarettes were dangerous. Who knew what would happen if it moved.
"I could run and tell daddy?" Cherry didn't look convinced. A grown-up would spoil the excitement.
"It might explode before then, though." They cheerfully agreed he shouldn't be involved. Alex was glad. She knew that they would only get told off if he came down. Dads were always shouting.
"Maybe I should just go and we can see what happens. What if my bottom is blown up?" They began to giggle but sobered when Cherry positioned the step in front of the toilet.
"You stand by the door and run if there is an explosion." This seemed like a copout.
"I could do it, if you want. I could go and then your bottom wouldn't blow up." Cherry frowned and pushed Alex towards the door.
"No! It's my house. I'll do it.
They both winced as Cherry lowered herself onto the seat. Nothing happened.
"Don't do it, Cherry! I'll get your daddy." Cherry was breathing hard and she looked relieved, but then her expression changed to terror when there was a little tinkling sound beneath her.
"I can't help it. It won't stop!"
They both shut their eyes and tensed their bodies, but there wasn't an explosion and so they began to laugh and laugh.
"Let's not flush it."
"No. Let's not."
"Shall we go and say hi to daddy in his studio?"
Alex nodded, but she would have rather stayed in their silver cave.
They ran upstairs leaving their T-shirts on the floor. On the stairs Cherry gave Alex a serious look. "Let's not tell him about the cigarette. Let's not tell anyone. We were almost blown up and it is our adventure."
"Okay." Alex beamed. Their adventure.
Cherry told her dad about it as soon as they saw him. Their secret burst out of her and he laughed. She said more and more and mimed sitting on the toilet to make him laugh harder until the story was not at all like it had happened. Alex lingered in the doorway and couldn't laugh because it wasn't her adventure now. It belonged to them. Cherry shouldn't have told. Alex didn't like daddies, but Cherry's daddy was a bit different. He let them have biscuits and he didn't have a briefcase and liked laughing and did crazy things like dropping cigarettes in the toilet. Seeing them enjoying each other's happiness made Alex feel funny, like she should go home and leave them alone. Her life wasn't like theirs.
But then he gave them headphones like earmuffs and made them sing into a microphone. He pressed buttons and made their voices sound like a robot and Alex began to laugh too. The computer cave was the best room in the house. Cherry's dad made a tape of their electric singing and she was allowed to take it home with her.
When her sister wasn't around, Alex hid under the duvet with her portable player that had a handle and listened to the tape. She blocked out her bedroom and the wonky music surrounded her, bringing back thoughts of Cherry’s house with all its special things. She wasn’t going to tell her sister or mum or anyone about what it was like. She would guard it close because Cherry’s house was different and Alex was the only one who knew. She knew all about it.