Today's Reading

Five minutes later I'm back on Oxford Street looking at the Christmas lights with a bunch of (considerably cheaper) red roses, their cellophane wrapping crinkling in my arms. The lights—strung from one side of the street to the other—sparkle against the sky, which ten minutes ago had been the usual English winter grey, but now has shifted to an ominous bruised purple. I'm trying to figure out if it's easier to jump on a bus or get the tube to Notting Hill to meet Becky and my new housemates. I'm standing on a street corner peering at Google Maps again when the first hailstones hit me on the head. And—ow—they really sting.

In seconds the packed streets empty, as everyone ducks into the nearest shop or doorway to shelter, clutching their shopping bags tightly. Only the smug umbrella holders and the hardy few carry on, marching down pavements now clear of tourists and Christmas shoppers. The tyres of the red buses and black taxis hiss on the tarmac and the hailstones hammer on the metal awning over our heads. I'm crammed with a handful of shoppers in the doorway of—I look up to see a shiny brass plaque on the wall—NMC Inc, and then I frown at the screen of my phone once again.

'Are you lost?' a man says. He has Scandinavian-looking blond hair and a dark blue scarf wrapped round his neck. He's got a bit of an accent and now he's indicating my phone with a finger. 'Where are you trying to go?'

'Notting Hill,' I say, feeling like I've stepped into a film for a moment. Christmas is everywhere and there's a tiny split second where the noticing-things part of my brain is looking at me from the outside. The thing about being addicted to a certain kind of romantic movie is that you're always half-expecting that your life might just suddenly take a turn for the better. And handsome Scandinavian types who look a bit like Jaime Lannister are pretty much up there on my list of good things.

'I'm not sure which bus to get,' I say. 'Because I usually get the tube, but my friend said it was easy from here. Easy if you've got a sense of direction, I think. Which I definitely have not.'

And then I find myself telling this complete stranger, who has opened the Citymapper app on his phone and is tapping rapidly: 'I'm picking up the keys for my new house.' I can hear the little note of pride in my voice.

'Nice,' he says, smiling. He points to the bus stop on the opposite side of the road. 'If you get the 94, it'll take you straight to Notting Hill Gate. It'll take a bit longer than the tube, but on the other hand, it's a lovely view if you're new to the area.'
 
'Thanks,' I say. I'm not doing a great job at trying to look like a well-established local, then. A fresh torrent of hailstones batters the canopy above us. 'Might just wait a moment.'

'That's very wise.'

Obviously if this was one of those movies with woolly hats and kissing in the snow and hard-bitten business-women remembering the true meaning of Christmas, at this point we'd start a conversation, and he'd follow me onto the bus, and—well, you know the score. But this is not a movie, I am one hundred per cent single, and despite being as much of a sucker for a Richard Curtis movie as the next hopeless romantic, I remind myself that I am one hundred per cent not looking for anyone else. Because this is my new start, and my new life, and I am doing it On My Own.

The hail stops, and I try my best to stride across the road in the manner of an independent London girl living her best life, aware that the handsome Scandinavian person is watching and (obviously) thinking that I am the one that got away and wondering if he'll ever see me again. What actually happens is I almost get knocked flat by a bloke on a Deliveroo bike, fumble to find my card to swipe it when I get on the bus, and when I do climb the stairs and sit down on a seat, I look across the road to see the handsome Jaime Lannister lookalike beaming with delight as his boyfriend appears from behind the door of NMC Inc in an expensive-looking coat, kisses him on the mouth and runs an affectionate hand through his lovely blond hair. Ah well. It's just as well I'm not looking.

I sit wedged in against the window of the bus, wiping away condensation with my fluffy pink sleeve so I can stare out of the window all the way to Notting Hill. I watch as we pass Hyde Park, the huge trees' bare, branches reaching up to the grey sky. The bus stops, disgorging passengers, and I watch as a woman dressed in a red coat with a fur collar climbs out of a shiny black taxi, her arms full of expensive-looking paper shopping bags.

And then we pull away and I watch as the buildings get smaller and the grey sky gets bigger, and the bus takes me to my new house and my new life. I smile at a woman when she gets on and sits beside me, and I don't even mind that she opens up an absolutely honking tuna sandwich from M&S and eats it. Nothing is going to get in the way of this moment, because I've got a job in London and a room in a house-share I couldn't even begin to imagine. I squish my hands into fists of excitement when I see the words Notting Hill Gate flash up on the information board on the bus. I press the bell—my bell—and my heart gives a little skip of excitement as the bus pulls to a stop. This is London, I think. And now, London is home.
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