The construction on the new building had only just been completed. All the scaffolding had fallen away to reveal the imposing structure, a full five stores high. The brushed steel reflected the weak winter brightness, and the glass sparkled to greet the Saturday morning shoppers to Camden Town Market. The secrets and stories the building held were about to be released. A clerk came and unlocked the doors.

The streets filled up quickly. This was the first weekend of the New Year that wasn't miserably cold or chucking down icy buckets of rain. A swell of people had emerged from their claustrophobic homes to bask in the rare and blessed sunshine. Hats were pulled firmly over ears and scarves were wound tight to keep out the sly wind, but most people trundled up and down the high street with smiles on their faces and rejoiced at the hope the sun brought of an end to winter greyness. By lunchtime, the streets were heaving and the press of bodies meant that coats were being unzipped and mothers were having mittens shoved into their faces to hold.

Eleanor had left the flat early that morning, having had a restless night of fruitless work. Her essay was giving her inordinate trouble. The title had seemed open and friendly when she had started work, but now is was loose and cavernous and engulfing. It had no parameters and she could not pin down the wants and desires of her examiners. She had gone off on many wild tangents, only to be brought up short by the original question. Eleanor had even tried to rewrite the question in an attempt to make it easier to answer and understand but again had been frustrated. So she had pulled the money left by the end of the month into her pocket, snatched up a list of chores to make her time at procrastination worthwhile and fled the blinking computer screen.

By lunchtime she was clutching several small bags and still had some money to play with. She made a spontaneous decision and jumped onto the tube.

Emerging into the hubbub that was Camden Town she relaxed. This was home, a safe territory. She carefully placed her bag and wallet underneath her coat against questing fingers, and set off to search out winter sales.

Something was vibrating. Eleanor rummaged inelegantly in her purple bag for the buzzing phone. Once it was retrieved, she snapped it open, and shook the wisps of blonde hair from her eyes. Then she turned back to the array of notebooks and binders before her.

"Sweetie, where are you?" It was Sarah. "I've been trying to reach you all morning."

"Ah, the woman of the hour! I hear it's someone's rather special birthday soon."

"Now listen you, I've given you strict instructions; no big fuss! I don't want a party. Just a nice dinner with all of you. A quiet night in, and no extra expense. We've been over this, Ela." Sarah growled in mock annoyance. Eleanor smiled into the phone.

"Actually its perfect timing that you've called. I need your measurements."

"You're shopping. You. Actually shopping. I don't believe this, you traitor! How could you go shopping without me? You didn't even tell me or anything. I've been trying to get you to come shopping with me all holiday. Ela, you're a pain you know that? Well tell me where you are, I'm coming to meet you. We can still grab a coffee or something."

"Sarah, you can't be too upset, I'm on a mission to get your present, and you couldn't come with me or you'd see it." Eleanor had the phone clamped against her shoulder as she counted out coins to pay for her new diary. "Now will you please tell me your sizes?"

"You expect me to divulge to you my real measurements? Once I do that, we really won't have any secrets. I won't have anything to be mysterious about with you. Can't you just guess, and make it up?" Sarah whined.

"Well if you want it to be roomy, I guess so. And I'm not keeping the receipt; you won't be able to take it back!" Eleanor knew that Sarah was very particular about the fit of her clothes. "And we will too have secrets. I know I haven't told you all of my deepest, most mysterious thoughts. Like this dream I had the other night. I haven't told you one peep about that."

"Oh, did it have Larry in it?" Larry was the tree they had planted in the park together, when they'd discovered the council chopping them down to make way for telephone cables. "Hot stuff Ela! And besides, you've told me now, and I've totally guessed what it was. You try to be mystery woman, but you can't pull it off. You're just a loveable dork at heart really."

"You know me like no other." Eleanor grinned, "That's me, alright. Geek and proud of it!" She was back on the street, heading for the main street, towards the clothes shops. "Whereas you; you're veiled in mystery and intrigue. I never know what's going on in your devious little mind, but I know that you're heart is too big to keep secrets from me."

Sarah sighed slightly, "Yeah, I don't hide much from you, or you drag it outa me. And I'd always do the same for you, sweetie. I'm a twelve okay? Don't spread it around. And besides, I'm still working off all that extra from the holidays. I'll be an 8 before Easter. Lent and all. You'll do it with me, right?" It had been a tradition for the two of them to support each other through the Lenten fast, although Eleanor was not very religious, and Sarah proudly wore a crucifix.

"I honestly can't believe you're worried about a twelve, for crying out loud. And you're focusing on Lent already? I've still got food in my fridge from the holidays and you're thinking of Lent? And besides, you have the most gorgeous long legs around. And don't you forget it."

"You're so right, Ela. Thanks, m'dear." Sarah sighed again. "Do you mind if I don't rush out and meet you this time? I'm all cosy here. Me and Chaos were about to take a catnap." Chaos was the ginger tomcat who had appeared one day and insisted upon becoming part of Sarah's family, and by default, also Eleanor's. He was old now, and not so frisky, but once had been a terror and didn't like anyone to forget it.

"No it's fine; we'll find another day before term starts again. I still have a horrible essay to write and about 4 books from my list I haven't even started on. You?"

"Oh, honey, don't ask about that. It's not polite to tell me how far ahead of me you are. You'll spoil a perfectly good nap with worry. No, I refuse to work for another 2 days. I'm relaxing if I have to force myself."

"You're such a workaholic," Eleanor teased, knowing the retort before she said it.

"Look who's talking!" Sarah hooted, "Little Miss Perfect! Always got a question for the prof, always got an extra credit paper, always up to date on her reading list, always got the perfect counter argument to make the prof stop in their tracks. No, you couldn't possibly be calling me the workaholic!"

Eleanor laughed. She hadn't felt so carefree in days, talking with her friend about nothing, and allowing her mind to relax and not have to guard it so rigidly against straying into unpleasant or painful areas.

"Alright you, I've gotta go and get your present. I'm wasting all your credit, surely."

"No, no, it was my turn to call. I'm keeping track. Alight, my dear. Don't get anything over 30, no wait, 25 pounds. Got that quite clear?"

"Crystal. Love ya."


Eleanor went first to Gap. She was fairly sure that she could find the perfect thing in there. She had seen an advert for a beautiful dress which she thought would be perfect, but was unsure if it was still available, or if it was last season. Not many people were in the store; no babies wailing and people kept their voices hushed, respectfully. The uniformed guards at the door nodded to her as she went in. She wandered around the store, running her fingers along the rails of hanging clothes, occasionally pausing to pull one out and consider, before sliding it back onto the rack. Downstairs she found the dress. It was pretty; better than the advertisement had portrayed. It had looked so good on first the model and then the hanger, that Eleanor doubted how good it would look on herself or on Sarah. But when she tried it on, in her size, it was cut elegantly and flattered a curvier figure than Gap normally would allow for; the neckline was not too low, but low enough for eveningwear, and the hem skimmed the knees. The blue silk was woven with a faint dappled pattern and silver threads dancing through it. It had short ruffled sleeves and a scalloped hem though, which Eleanor did not fancy looked any good on herself, and she silently lamented the waste of such a fine material. It was more expensive than Sarah had decreed acceptable, yet she bought it anyway. It may not look good on her, but it would look very lovely on her friend.

She continued to wander. In the back of the store where all the lost or damaged items tended to turn up, she rummaged through a pile that had been left; a shop assistant interrupted while sorting. Her fingers sought out the soft, silky, slippery feel of comfortable clothes. Suddenly her fingers felt something which seemed to slip away from her as she touched it in a liquid pool of silk. She dug her arm further into the teetering pile. There it was. She made a snatch and then laboriously dragged her prize out to examine it. She had hit pure gold. It was a jacket. No, Eleanor decided, it was an old fashioned thing, what would have once been called a frock coat. It was long, down to her calves. In the front were large lapels and buttons of mother of pearl down to the waste, close together. The back was panelled and fitted. There was an ever so slight ruffle beneath the small of the back, where the coat was clinched in. And there was a slit in the back, until the knee, like a traditional tails coat such as a conductor would wear, so that it would billow regally. And the fabric. Eleanor took a while staring at it before she could decide if it was blue, black, twilight, shadow, midnight, coal, deepest ocean, inky velvet or glassy obsidian. There was a faint brush of bruised purple mixed in somewhere too. Those were the subtle colours swirling in the fabric. It had silver running through it that looked like the light of the distant stars or the backs of tiny fish which flick through the inky water of the sea under a full moon. She stroked it lovingly again. The fabric rippled and shimmered. It was beautiful. With a dread Eleanor searched for the price tag. It had fallen off.

"Oh, then I guess it's free," she muttered grimly as she cued up at the till to find out.

The ditzy woman behind the till wearing too much make-up gave her a smiled that was slightly pasted on and rang for assistance.

The assistant who turned up eventually tried to look authoritative but she clearly did not know either. Eleanor felt hope.

"What about twenty pounds?" she suggested. She knew that the gorgeous coat might well be from a posh designer and so worth thousands of pounds. But this being Gap, she thought that a reasonable starting price. It probably had a nick or stain anyway.

"The thing is that it does not appear to be on our stock list, which means we don't carry it, and that I cannot sell it to you. Someone must have left it in the changing room by accident. If you give it to me, I'll take it round the back and deal with it." She held out a manicured hand. Eleanor hung onto the coat grimly, not budging.

"Oh, no no. It's alright. I can put it back where I found it. In fact," she invented smoothly, "I thought I saw a shirt back there that might look stunning with it, you know, like for a wedding?" Eleanor would never have worn the thing to a wedding and she doubted she'd ever have such an occasion where she need worry about such things. But she thought that was an example the manicured lady would understand. She was already backing away.

"Thank you though; I've already bought the dress." She waved the bag in the air to show that she'd bought it, "Lovely isn't it? Well, thanks again. Bye." And she turned, went up the stairs and out of the store, with the coat in her hand, without a backwards glance. Once she was out in the street, she stuffed the coat rather unceremoniously into the bag to nestle with the dress.

Eleanor was finally exhausted and felt resolute about returning to the troublesome text of her essay. She made her way back towards the tube. By this time, the streets were not so crowded by the mad rush of eager shoppers, but by a more sedate crowed who were, like Eleanor, just out on business or chores. She was almost at the entrance to the tube station, when she stopped abruptly. She had grown up in and around Camden. She knew all the streets and buildings and storefronts like an old book. Any change to the familiar surroundings usually stuck out like a beacon to her trained eyes. Yet there it stood. Five stores of corporate-looking building on the corner where The End of the World pub had once stood. It had a lobby area on the ground floor and the escalator leading to the first floor was visible from the pavement. The carpet was of the generic and slightly distracting airport variety, and the barely audible music playing was some cheerful, well-know and much overplayed compilation. Yet it was a book store.

Eleanor had stopped in the middle of the street, considering the building. People moved around her, like a stone in a river diverting the flow. Some muttered crossly or gesticulated at her madness as to block the way, but most moved on, unheeding. Gathering her energy and her shopping bags around her, Eleanor manoeuvred her way to the zebra crossing, making a bee-line for the doors. Her weariness and essay were instantly forgotten.

She finally made it to the glass doors, after much shoving and a couple of guilty and vicious jabs of her elbow into skinny ribs. The doors slid apart, and the current of warm and desiccated air made her thin blonde hair stand up with static. She shrugged off her old coat which she was still wearing and draped it over her arm without noticing. Her eyes behind her spectacles were flicking around constantly. She drank in the shelves of books, the bustle of buyers and assistants and the cheap tables that were set out. That made her pause. She walked out of the doorway where had been once again blocking people. The store had set up a small section with tables and beanbags and soft, overstuffed and stained armchairs where you could peruse through a prospective purchase or work on something quietly. There were discrete signs proclaiming it a quiet area. This was a novelty and an extreme extravagance to scholars everywhere. Eleanor reached down to wear her purple beaded bag hung from her shoulder. She felt the edge of two hard backed books and a pad of writing paper. With a smile, she set off to explore the maze of shelves and the forest of tomes.