I didn't feel much like Julia Roberts as I emerged from the hot and crowded London underground. There were no paparazzi ready to photograph my every move-unless you counted the two Japanese tourists snapping away at a black London cab that was just dropping off a fare. And neither did I probably resemble her that much, trundling my old blue wheelie suitcase along the pavement while I looked in awe at the Notting Hill area of London I thought I knew so well.
It was usually another movie star people compared me to, but one from Hollywood yesteryear. With my black hair and green eyes, I suppose I did bear a passing resemblance to Gone with the Wind's Vivien Leigh. And since my parents had kindly christened me Scarlett as a baby, this only added to the illusion.
It certainly doesn't look much like the movie, I thought as I made my way down Portobello Road, which was lined with many antique and craft shops. Where was the vibrant market that Hugh Grant had walked through, with its eccentric market traders selling their wild and wacky wares? So there were a few stallholders, but I really didn't think a fruit and veg stall and a man selling dodgy-looking watches equated to a Hollywood movie.
I've always loved any film Hugh Grant was in. I don't really know why-I don't fancy him exactly, I just love watching him up on the screen. I was certainly at my happiest during the Four Weddings, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones era. There's something very comforting about watching a Hugh Grant movie. You know no one's head will be blown off in the first three minutes, no one will be tortured, and the worst thing that might happen is seeing a lanky Welshman eating mayonnaise in his underpants.
Now I'm sure it said I have to turn off somewhere near a coffee shop...I glanced at the piece of paper in my hand. I must concentrate on finding the house first. The movie stuff can all come later...
I looked around for a street sign.
Oh, but isn't that the house with the blue door where Hugh Grant lives in the movie? No, Scarlett, concentrate for once in your life-stop daydreaming. You're here to prove something. Not to let them be right about you!
I found the exit off Portobello Road and set off on my way again. But I was distracted almost immediately-this time I felt justifiably so. This time it would just have been rude not to stop and take a quick look. Because I'd only gone and stumbled across the bookshop.
You know the Travel Bookshop? The one in the Notting Hill film where Hugh and Julia meet for the first time? I hesitated in the doorway for a few seconds...I really should go and find the house...but it was the bookshop...a few minutes couldn't hurt.
I hurriedly pulled my suitcase inside and tried not to look too overjoyed when I saw just how much the real shop resembled the movie version.
As I moved farther into the shop and stared at the bookshelves, I pretended I was actually interested in buying a book, hopefully not looking too much like a tourist, just lurking there hoping to spot Hugh Grant serving behind the counter.
"Wonderful area, Nepal," a voice said next to me. I hadn't even noticed anyone standing there, so entranced was I to be virtually "inside" one of my favorite movies. "Have you ever been before?"
I looked down at the book on the Himalayan Mountains I was holding.
"Wha...er, no I haven't. Have you?" I asked, turning to see a young man replacing a book on the shelf beside me.
"Yes, quite a few years ago now, though-I highly recommend it if you are thinking of going."
"Thanks-I'll bear that in mind. Erm, do you work here?" I asked hopefully, thinking I'd struck it lucky right away. This was too good to be true, being chatted up in a travel bookshop in Notting Hill. Perhaps you should call me Julia after all.
"No, why on earth would you think that?"
On closer examination I realized the man was wearing a long black raincoat, holding a briefcase and carrying a bag full of groceries.
"Oh sorry, no, of course you don't," I said, chastising myself for getting too carried away in a movie moment as always. "Silly mistake."
"Yes," he said, looking me up and down scornfully. "It was."
Then without saying another word, he turned smartly away and walked out of the shop.
I stared after him for a moment, the sound of the shop's doorbell still ringing in my ears. "Charming!" I muttered as I grabbed hold of my suitcase again. "I hope everyone's not that friendly here. Now I really must concentrate on finding the house. Where on earth did I put that address?"
I stood on the pavement outside and fumbled around in my pockets for a few minutes, and then my bag, and then my pockets again, desperately searching for the piece of paper with the address on it. Beginning to panic now, I quickly turned, meaning to return to the shop to see if I might have dropped it in there.
So caught up was I in my own turmoil I didn't see the man hurrying toward me along the pavement. As I stepped to cross in front of him, a dog being carried in the man's arms yapped, making me jump with fright. Unfortunately as I jumped, I stopped suddenly, and to prevent himself colliding with me, the man had to stop abruptly too. He managed to save himself from falling, and the contents of his shopping-bag-laden arm from spilling. But not the inside-I noted as it ran down the front of my white shirt-of a large cup of freshly squeezed orange juice.
"Oh my dear, I'm so dreadfully sorry," the man said, quickly putting his shih-tzu dog and shopping bags down on the ground.
"No, it was my fault for stepping out in front of you like that," I said, trying to pull my soaking wet shirt away from my skin. "I wasn't thinking."
But the man didn't seem to be listening to me; rather unnervingly he just stared at my chest. "Quick, take off your jacket before the juice seeps on to that too."
I hesitated for a moment, wondering just what sort of guy I'd bumped into. He seemed incredibly fixated by my chest and getting me out of my clothes at this very moment. I glanced at him again. He was wearing black jeans, a black leather jacket, and dark glasses. But he had topped off his look with a pink cravat and a black beret. And the bags that he'd placed carefully down on the pavement next to the dog were all emblazoned with "Harvey Nichols."
I relaxed a little.
He was right, I didn't really want orange juice all over my new suede coat, so I did as he said and carefully removed my jacket to reveal the offending orange stain.
"You simply must get that shirt in to soak immediately," he insisted. "Orange juice is a devil to get out if it's left. Go home immediately and sponge, sponge, sponge, darling. Then I can rest easy that Delilah and I haven't ruined your gorgeous outfit forever!"
I smiled at him, my earlier fears now subsiding. "Don't worry-I'm sure it will be fine."
He rummaged in his bag and produced a business card. "Look, this is my number. If the stain doesn't come out, be sure to call me and I'll reimburse you for a new shirt."
"No really, it's fine," I said, waving the card away.
"My darling, I won't hear of it-here, take the card, I insist."
I took the card from him. It read:
MARY MARY QUITE CONTRARY
Fabulous Fashions and Divergent Designs
Oscar St. James-Proprietor
"I have a shop on the King's Road," Oscar explained. "But Delilah and I live just around the corner in Elgin Crescent. Are you somewhere nearby too?"
"Er...well I think I am."
"What on earth do you mean, darling?"
"I've just arrived, and I was on my way to where I'm supposed to be staying, but I seem to have lost the address." I shrugged in embarrassment. "I think I'm going to have to phone my friend to get directions again. I'm only here for a month, you see."
"Oh really, why? No, ignore my last question," he said with a flourish of his hand. "Far too probing! My mouth gets completely carried away with me sometimes. Well, most of the time actually, isn't that right, Delilah?"
Delilah looked up at him disdainfully while she peed on a nearby lamppost.
"Look, darling, I can't just leave you out on the street like this. Why don't you come back to my house? You can ring your friend and find out where you're supposed to be going, and while you're getting yourself sorted, I can get that juice out for you in a jiffy." He leaned toward me in a conspiratorial fashion. "I have this fabulous little product, given to me by the Red Hot Chili Peppers' ex-stylist. It works in an instant on every type of stain you can think of." He lowered his voice. "And as you can imagine, with them-there were a lot of stains to deal with."
I grinned. "Really, it isn't necessary. I'll be fine." I knew I didn't have anything to worry about with Oscar by now, but I wasn't used to random strangers being this nice to me, especially in London.
"I insist, darling. Besides, I don't get many opportunities to rescue damsels in distress. Old queens," he said, giving me a wink, "now that's a different story. So what do you say?"
"Sure, why not," I finally agreed. "It really is very kind of you, Oscar."
Oscar fed his arm companionably through mine and turned me in the direction of his house. "Not at all, darling. Oh, do come on, Delilah," he said, impatiently tugging on her pale blue leash when she didn't move. "It won't do you any harm to walk, just this once."
When we arrived at his house, Oscar quickly unlocked the door and swiftly turned off his alarm.
"Now then," he said, turning toward me as Delilah trotted off into the kitchen for a drink. "Let the battle of the stains commence!"
We followed Delilah into a kitchen that could have jumped straight off the pages of Elle Interiors.
Oscar looked pleased by my obvious amazement. "Welcome to my pride and joy!" he flamboyantly announced. "Designed by none other than Iko Katwatchi himself!"
"It's simply-fabulous," I said, thinking this was the type of endorsement Oscar would like.
"Isn't it just? He's the most important name in kitchens right now."
"Indeed," I agreed, even though I thought Iko Katwatchi sounded more like one of those newfangled exercise regimes.
"Now first, the offending stain, please?" Oscar said, holding out his hand like a surgeon asking to be passed his scalpel.
I looked hesitantly down at the front of my shirt.
"Oh my dear, how rude of me. Let me give you something of mine to change into while I work."
Oscar went through another door into what appeared to be a laundry area. "Here," he said, reappearing. "Freshly laundered this morning." He smelt the T-shirt. "Ah, lily of the valley, how appropriate for you with your exquisite lily-white skin."
"Thank you," I said, blushing a little as I took the shirt from him. I'd always been self-conscious about my pale skin and often tried to hide it with fake tan and makeup. But here was someone complimenting me on it for a change. I felt myself warming to Oscar.
"I will return in two shakes of Delilah's tail," Oscar said, leaving Delilah and me alone in the kitchen.
Delilah glanced at the door Oscar had just gone through, and I could have sworn she rolled her eyes.
Quickly I changed into the T-shirt before Oscar could return.
"All decent, are we?" he asked, popping his head around the door.
"Yes, fine now, thanks."
He winked. "Not that you've anything to worry about from me, you understand."
I'd kind of gathered that.
"Would you like to ring your friend now?" Oscar asked. "Then I'll make a start on your shirt."
Oscar made us both a cup of herbal tea while I rang my best friend, Maddie. After a few of the pointless questions that people always ask in these situations, like "Where did you lose it?" and "Have you looked in the last place you had it?" Maddie said she didn't have the address on her but promised to get back to me as soon as possible.
I watched while Oscar went to work on my shirt. While he soaked, sprayed, and scrubbed, I learned how he had inherited his house when his aunt died and how he had started his boutique with the rest of the money she'd left him.
"So, darling, are you going to tell me just why you're moving to Notting Hill for only a month?" Oscar asked while he was finishing up my shirt. "Or do I have to guess?"
"No big mystery. I'm house-sitting, that's all."
"Oh, is that it?" Oscar said with disappointment. "I thought it was going to be a much more interesting tale."
"Well," I said, eager not to let him down but also desperate to tell someone what I was up to-I was never great at secrets, "there is a bit more to it, actually. But I warn you it's rather a long story."
"I knew it!" Oscar said, clapping his rubber-gloved hands together ecstatically. "Wait one moment. I'm almost finished here. Let's go through to the lounge and then you can tell me all about it."
We settled down comfortably on Oscar's sofa in his equally chic lounge. I wasn't sure why I hadn't just stopped at the "house-sitting for a month" excuse. That's what I'd planned on giving everyone before I arrived in Notting Hill as the reason for my being here. But Oscar seemed to have a way about him that made you want to open up and tell him your whole life story.
"Right then, darling-tell me everything," Oscar instructed as he tucked his legs underneath him on the sofa, while Delilah curled herself up into a furry ball on his lap.
So I did.
I began to explain the strange chain of events that had led to my arrival in Notting Hill earlier that day...