Today's Reading

PROLOGUE

Jess
22nd December

Christmas and London are a match made in heaven. There's a man on the street corner selling hot chestnuts by the bag, filling the air with the smell of cinnamon and vanilla. The ornate wooden windows of Liberty are glittering with lights and decorations. I stop to look at a huge tree swathed in ribbons and hung with a million dancing fairy lights and—

'Watch out!'

A woman crashes into me, giving me a furious look and weaving past, muttering loudly about bloody tourists.

I am not a tourist, I think. I am—or will be, in just a couple of hours—an official Londoner. I step out of the way of the thronging crowds, pasting myself against a carved wooden window frame, and watch as a sea of people scurry past.
 
I add stop dead on the pavement to my mental list of Things London People Never Do. I know that already, really, but it's easy to forget when everything is so sparkly and festive. I pause for a moment and take a photo to share on my Instagram stories, because it's just so ridiculously perfect and my life has been so beige and boring for months—it's lovely to have something interesting to put on there. And then I take another of the street scene, because it's just so...London-y and Christmassy and perfect.

I look at the flowers in the doorway of Liberty, thinking that it would be a nice idea to take Becky some as a thank you (again) for offering me a room in a house that would otherwise be completely out of my reach. There doesn't seem to be a price anywhere though, which I think is weird, then I hear my Nanna Beth's voice saying, If you have to ask, you can't afford it. But they're only flowers, surely. How expensive can a bunch of flowers be?

'Can I help you?' The girl behind the faux-Victorian wooden flower stall looks at me. She's tiny and has huge brown eyes that match the expensive-looking Liberty of London apron she's wearing.

'I was wondering how much these are?' I lift up a ready-prepared bouquet—deep red roses mingled with silver-grey foliage and white lilies streaked with lime green, still not quite open. They're wrapped in thick, luxurious waxed paper and sealed with a gold Liberty sticker. They'll make the perfect thank you present for Becky.
 
The girl chews her gum for a moment and looks at me, taking in the fluffy pink coat I bought for my big move (if I'm going to be a London creative, I thought I should wear something that suits my new job), along with my denim pinafore, blue tights and my trusty silver Doc Marten boots. When I got off the train from Bournemouth earlier I felt quirky and artistic, but now under her supercilious stare I think perhaps I look like a kids' TV presenter.

'Forty-seven pounds,' she says. 'And five pounds extra if you want our gift-wrapping service.'

Ouch. That's a week's worth of my new food budget. I put the flowers back in the stylish metal bucket. I think Becky would understand.

'I like your coat,' she says, as I start to slink off. I turn, surprised, and smile a thank you.

'It's from eBay,' I tell her, patting my fluffy arm.

'Cool. It's really nice.' The girl lowers her voice, conspiratorially. 'I couldn't afford the flowers either, if it helps. There's a stall a couple of minutes away on Noel Street—he always has decent flowers.'

She waves her hand briefly in the air, but then another customer appears and she turns to them, greeting them with a cheerful smile.

'Thanks,' I say, in her general direction, but she's not listening.

So I take my phone out. My sense of direction is absolutely hopeless, and I still can't work out how people find their way around London. I've worked out bits of it, but I can't seem to join them up. It takes me three tries, but I make it to Noel Street in the end. There I find a round-faced man wearing a Santa hat, singing along to Christmas songs from a Bluetooth speaker. His stall is piled high with fruit and veg, and—phew—surrounding it is a rainbow array of flowers, which look to my uneducated eye just as nice as the ones from round the corner at Liberty. Well, almost as nice. A bit gaudy maybe, but I can't afford to be fussy on my new London wages.
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