22nd December, 15 Albany Road, Notting Hill
I pause for a minute outside the house and look up, still not quite believing that this terraced mansion is home. It's huge, slightly shabby, and has an air of faded grandeur. Six wide stone steps lead to a broad wooden front door, painted a jaunty red that is faded in places and chipped away to a pale, dusky pink. Each window on the road is topped with ornate stuccoed decorations—the ones on our house are a bit chipped and scruffy-looking, but somehow it just makes the place look more welcoming, as if it's full of history.
Next door on one side is freshly decorated, the black paint of the windowsills gleaming. They've got window boxes at every window, crammed full of pansies and evergreen plants. I can see a huge Christmas tree tastefully decorated with millions of starry lights, topped with a huge metal star. There's a little red bicycle chained to the railings and a pair of wellies just inside the porch. This must be the investment banker neighbours Becky talked about. The mansion on the other side has been turned into flats, and there's a row of doorbells beside a blue front door.
I rush up the steps and lift the heavy brass door-knocker. 'You don't have to knock,' Becky says, beaming as she opens the door. 'This is home!'
'I do, because you haven't given me a key yet.' I love Becky.
'Ah.' Becky takes my bag and hangs it on a huge wooden coat hook just inside the door, which looks like it's been there forever. There's a massive black umbrella with a carved wooden handle hanging beside my bag.
'Used to be my grandpa's,' she says, absent-mindedly running a hand down it. 'This place is like a bloody museum.'
'I can't believe it's yours.'
'Me neither.' Becky shakes her head and beckons me through to the kitchen. 'Now wait here two seconds, and I'll give you the tour.'
I stand where I've been put, at the edge of a huge kitchen-slash-dining-room space, which has been here so long that it's come back into fashion. It's all cork tiles and dangling spider plants and a huge white sink, which is full of ice and bottles of beer.
I think Nanna Beth would be impressed with this.
With all of it. I've taken the leap.
'Life is for living, Jessica, and this place is all very well, but it's like God's waiting room,' she'd once said, giving a cackle of laughter and inclining her head towards the window, where a flotilla of mobility scooters had passed by, ridden by grey-haired elderly people covered over with zipped-up waterproof covers. The seaside town I'd grown up in wasn't actually as bad as all that, but it was true: things had changed. Grandpa had passed away, and Nanna Beth had sold the house and invested her money in a little flat in a new sheltered housing development where there was no room for me, not because she was throwing me out, but because—as she'd said, looking at me shrewdly—it was time to go. I'd been living in a sort of stasis since things had ended with my ex-boyfriend Neil.
Weirdly, the catalyst for all this change had been being offered a promotion in the marketing company where I worked. If I'd taken it, it would have been a job for life. I could have afforded to buy a little house by the sea and upgraded my car for something nice, and I'd have carried on living the life I'd been living since I graduated from university and somehow gravitated back home when all my friends spread their wings and headed for the bright lights of London, or New York, or—well, Sarah ended up in Inverness, so I suppose we didn't quite all end up somewhere exotic.
But Nanna Beth had derailed me and challenged me with the task of getting out and grabbing life with both hands, which is pretty tricky for someone like me. I tend to take the approach that you should hold life with one hand, and keep the other one spare just in case of emergencies. And yet here I am, an hour early (very me) for a housewarming party for the gang of people that Becky has gathered together to share this rambling, dilapidated old house in Notting Hill that her grandparents left her when they passed away.
'I still can't believe this place is yours,' I repeat, as I balance on the edge of the pale pink velvet sofa. It's hidden under a flotilla of cushions. The arm of the sofa creaks alarmingly, and I stand up, just in case it's about to give way underneath my weight.