On the book tour Rosie Curtis’ stunning new book called ‘We Met In December’, enjoy an extract from the first chapter of the Christmas story.
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.
Becky shakes her head. ‘You can’t? Imagine how I feel.’
‘And your mum really didn’t object to your grandparents leaving you their house in their will?’
She shakes her head and pops open the two bottles of beer she’s holding, handing me one. ‘She’s quite happy where she is. And you know she’s all property is theft and that sort of thing.’
‘True.’ I take a swig of beer and look at the framed photographs on the wall. A little girl in Mary-Jane shoes with a serious face looks out at us, disapprovingly. ‘She’s keeping her eye on you: look.’
Becky shudders. ‘Don’t. She wanted me to come to Islay for a Christmas of meditation and chanting, but I managed to persuade her that I’d be better off coming when the weather was a bit nicer.’
Becky’s mum had been a mythical figure to all of us at university. She’d been a model in her youth, and then eschewed all material things and moved to an ethical
living commune on the island of Islay when Becky was sixteen. Becky had stayed behind to finish her exams with a family friend, and horrified her mother by going into not just law, but corporate law of all things. Relations had been slightly strained for quite a while, but she’d spent some time in meditative silence, apparently, and now they got on really well – as long as they had a few hundred miles between them.
I look at the photograph of Becky’s mum – she must only be about seven. She looks back at me with an intense stare, and I think that if anyone can save the planet, it’s very possibly her. Anyway, I raise my bottle to her in a silent thank you. If she’d contested the will, Becky might not have inherited this place, and she wouldn’t have offered me a room at £400 a month, which wouldn’t have got me space in a broom closet anywhere else in commutable distance of King’s Cross, where my new job was situated.
‘Just going to get out of this jacket,’ Becky says, looking down at her work clothes; then she disappears for a moment and I’m left looking around. The house is old-fashioned, stuffed full of the sort of mid-century furniture that would sell for vast amounts of money on eBay – there’s an Ercol dresser in the sitting room and dining chairs that look like they’ve come straight out of Heal’s. I take a photo of the huge potted plant that looms in the corner like a triffid, and then I wander into the hall. It’s huge and airy, with a polished wooden banister that twirls round and up to the third floor where there’s a skylight – dark just now, because it’s midwinter, but I bet it fills this space with light in the middle of summer. There’s a huge wooden coat stand with a mirror by the interior door, and a porch with ceramic tiles worn through years of footsteps passing over them. The place must be 150 years old, at least. And – I push the sitting room door open – there’s enough space for everyone to collapse on the sofas in a Sunday-ish sort of way. The paintings on the walls are draped with brightly coloured tinsel and fairy lights, and there’s a Christmas tree on the side table, decked with multi-coloured lights and hung with a selection of baubles, which look—
‘Hideous, aren’t they?’ Becky’s voice sounds over my shoulder. ‘I couldn’t resist. They’re from the pound shop so I just went to town a bit. If you can’t be tacky at Christmas, when can you?’
‘I love it,’ I say, and I do. Becky disappears back into the kitchen and I can hear the sound of her warbling out of tune to Mariah Carey and the clattering of plates and saucepans. I stand in the hallway and look at this amazing house that I couldn’t afford in a million years, and I think back to about two months ago when I saw an advert for my dream job in publishing come up and wondered if I should take the chance and apply. And how Nanna Beth had said, ‘Nothing ventured, lovey – you never know what’s around the corner . . .’
If you liked the sound of this book and would like to read more, you can pre-order ‘We Met In December’ from Amazon and will be available to buy from good bookshops from 3rd October 2019.