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'This is my favourite part,' Molly whispered as the glamorous couple on her TV screen walked sadly but stoically to opposite ends of London's Westminster Bridge. 'He's going to turn back to her any minute now.'
Molly was curled on her couch in a tense ball. Karli, at the other end of the couch, helped herself to more popcorn.
'Don't miss this, Karli. I cry every time. Look. He hears Big Ben, and he stops, and' Molly's voice broke on a sob. 'He turns.' She hugged her knees. 'See the look on his face?'
'Ohhh ' Karli let out a hushed breath. 'You can see he really, really loves her.'
'I know. It's so beautiful.' Molly reached for tissues as the gorgeous hero stood alone on the bridge, stricken-faced, shoulders squared, waiting for the woman in the long fur coat to turn back to him.
Karli grabbed a cushion and clutched it to her chest. 'He'll chase after her.'
'No. It's up to her now. If she doesn't turn back, he knows she doesn't love him.'
On the screen, a red double-decker London bus slowed to a stop and the movie's heroine, in her ankle-length, glamorous coat, hurried to catch it.
'No,' Karli moaned as the bus took off with the woman on board, and the camera switched to another close-up of the hero's grimly devastated face. 'Don't tell me it's a sad ending.'
Molly pressed her lips together to stop herself from speaking. The camera tracked upwards to a bird's eye view of London, showing the silvery River Thames curving below, and the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben the solitary figure of the hero standing on Westminster Bridge and the red bus driving away.
Karli was scowling. Molly hugged her knees tighter, gratified that her friend was hooked into the tension.
The camera climbed higher still, and the London bus was matchbox-size. The sounds of the city traffic were replaced by musicviolins swelling with lush and aching beauty.
Molly had seen this movie more than a dozen times, but tears still rolled down her cheeks.
And then at last
The bus stopped.
The tiny figure of the heroine emerged.
The camera swooped down once more, zooming closer and closer as the lovers ran towards each other, arms outstretched, embracing at last.
The credits began to roll. Karli wrinkled her nose. 'OK. I admit that wasn't bad.'
'Not bad?' Molly sniffed. 'I suppose that's why you practically bit a piece out of my sofa cushion? Come onadmit it's amazing. The look on Christian's face when he thinks he's lost Vanessa is the most emotional moment in cinematic history.' She gave a dramatic sigh. 'And London has to be the most romantic city in the world.'
Shrugging, Karli reached for more popcorn. 'Isn't Paris supposed to be the most romantic city?'
'No way. Not for me. Paris isParis is Oh, I don't know.'
Molly gave a helpless flap of her hands. 'Paris just isn't London.'
'Admit it, Mozza. You have a thing for English guys. You're convinced that London is full of perfect gentlemen.'
It was best to ignore her friend's sarcasm. Molly wasn't going to admit that it held a grainOK, maybe even more than a grainof truth. Her love affair with London was deeply personal.
Pressing the remote to turn the set off, she went to the window and looked out into the night. The moon was almost full and it silvered the tall pines on the headland and the smooth, sparkling surface of the Coral Sea.
'One thing's for sure,' she said. 'Nothing romantic like that is ever going to happen to me. Not on this island.'
'Oh, I don't know. Our island might not have Big Ben or Westminster Bridge, but the moonlight on Picnic Bay's not bad. I wasn't complaining when Jimbo proposed.'
Molly smiled as she turned from the window. 'Sorry. I wasn't counting you and Jimbo. You guys are as romantic as it getsbest friends since kindergarten. Everyone here knew you'd end up together.'
'Well, to be honest, it's not exactly romantic when your husband spends half his life away on a fishing trawler.'
'I guess.' Molly moved to the kitchen and reached for a saucepan to make hot chocolate. 'I shouldn't keep watching that movie. It always makes me restlessmakes me want to take off and live in London.'
'Does it have to be London? If you want to get off the island, why don't you try Sydney or Brisbane? Even Cairns?'
Molly rolled her eyes. As if any Australian city could live up to her vision of England's famous capital. For as long as she could remember, she'd been entranced by Londonby its history, its buildings, its pageantry, its culture.
She loved all the nameslike Portobello Road, the Serpentine, Piccadilly Circus and Battersea. For her they had a thrilling, magical ring. Like poetry.
Karli shrugged. 'If I went overseas, I'd rather go to America. Jimbo's going to take me to Las Vegas.'
'One day. Ha-ha. If either of us ever gets a job with better pay.'
'Money's my problem, too. The mortgage on this place uses up most of my savings. And the rent in London's horrendous. I've checked on the internet.'
'But you might be able to manage it if you rented out this place.'
Molly shuddered. Renting this cottage would mean a series of strangers living here, and it wouldn't seem right when it had been her gran's home for more than fifty years.
'Or,' said Karli, 'what about a house swap? That way you'd get to pick who lives here, and it would only be for a short time. My cousin in Cairns swapped with a couple from Denmark, and it worked out fine.'
'A house swap?' A tingling sensation danced down Molly's spine. 'How does that work?'
Patrick Knight glared at the towering pile of paperwork on his desk, and then he glared at his watch. Past eight already, and he would be here for hours yet.
Grimacing, he picked up his mobile phone and thumbed a hasty text message. Angela was not going to like this, but it couldn't be helped.
Ange, so sorry. Snowed under at work. Will have to bow out of tonight. Can we make a date for Friday instead? P
Snapping the phone closed, Patrick reached for the next folder in the pile. His stomach growled, and along with his hunger pangs he felt a surge of frustration.
The past years of global financial crisis had seen his job in London's banking world morph from an interesting and challenging career into a source of constant stress.
It was like working in a war zone. Too many of his colleagues had been fired, or had resigned. Some had even suffered nervous breakdowns. At times he'd felt like the last man standing.
Yes, it was true that he had saved a couple of major accounts, but he was doing the work of three people in his department, and the shower of commendations from his boss had rather lost their shine. He'd reached the point where he had to ask why he was slogging away, working ridiculous hours and giving everything he had to his job, when his life outside the office was
Truth was, he no longer had a life away from the bank. No time to enjoy the lovely house he'd bought in Chelsea, no time to go out with his latest girlfriend. How he'd managed to meet Angela in the first place was a miracle, but almost certainly she would give up on him soonjust as her predecessors had.
As for the crazy, crazy promise he'd once made to himself that he would balance his working life with writing a novel. In his spare time. Ha-ha.
Except for Patrick it was no longer a laughing matter. This was his life, or rather his non-life, and he was wasting it. One day he'd wake up and discover he was fiftylike his bosspale, anxious, boring and only able to talk about one thing.
His mobile phone pinged. It was Angela, as expected. Tight-jawed, he clicked on her reply.
Sorry. Not Friday. Not ever. One cancellation too many. Goodbye, sweet P. Ange
Patrick cursed, but he couldn't really blame Ange. Tomorrow he'd send her twono, three dozen roses. But he suspected they wouldn't do the trick. Not this time. If he was honest, he couldn't pretend that her rejection would break his heartbut it was symptomatic of the depths to which his life had sunk.
In a burst of anger, he pushed his chair back from his desk and began to prowl.
The office felt like a prison. It was a damn prison, and he felt a mad urge to break out of it.
Actually, it wasn't a mad urge. It was a highly reasonable and justified need. A must.
In mid-prowl, his eyes fell on the globe of the world that he'd salvaged from the old boardroom when it had been refurbishedin those giddy days before the financial world had gone belly up. Now it sat in the corner of his office, and lately he'd stared at it often, seized by a longing to be anywhere on that tiny sphere.
Anywhere except London.
Walking towards it now, Patrick spun the globe and watched the coloured shapes of the continents swirl. He touched it with his finger, feeling the friction as its pace slowed.
If I were free, I'd go anywhere. When this globe stops spinning, I'll go wherever my finger is pointing.
The globe stopped. Patrick laughed. He'd been thinking of somewhere exotic, like Tahiti or Rio de Janeiro, but his finger was resting on the east coast of Australia. A tiny dot. An island.
He leaned closer to read the fine print. Magnetic Island.
Never heard of it.
About to dismiss it, he paused. I said I'd go anywhereanywhere in the world. Why don't I at least look this place up?
But why bother? It wasn't as if it could happen. He wouldn't be going anywhere. He was locked in here.
But what if I made it happen? Surely it's time?
Back at his desk, Patrick tried a quick internet search for Magnetic Island, and his eyebrows lifted as the first page of links scrolled down. The island was clearly a tourist destination, with palm trees and white sand and blue tropical seas. Not so different from Tahiti, perhaps?
The usual variety of accommodations was offered. Then two words leapt out at him from the bottom of the screen: House Swap.
Intrigued, Patrick hit the link.
House Swap: Magnetic Island, Queensland, Australia
2 bedroom cottage
Location Details: Nestled among trees on a headland, this home has ocean views and is only a three-minute walk through the national park to a string of beautiful bays. Close to the Great Barrier Reef, the island provides a water wonderland for sailing, canoeing, parasailing, fishing and diving.
Preferred Swap Dates: From 1st Aprilflexible
Preferred Swap Length: Three to four months
Preferred Destination: London, UK
Patrick grinned. For a heady moment he could picture himself therein a different hemisphere, in a different world. Free, free
Swimming with coral fishes. Lying in a hammock beneath palm trees. Checking out bikini-clad Australian girls. Writing the fabulous thriller that resided only in his head. Typing it on his laptop while looking out at the sparkling blue sea.
OK, amusement over. Nose back to the grindstone.
With great reluctance, he lifted a folder of computer printouts from the pile and flipped it open.
But his concentration was shot to pieces. His mind couldn't settle on spreadsheets and figures. He was composing a description of his house for a similar swapping advertisement.
Home Exchange: Desirable Chelsea, London, UK
3 bedroom house with garden
Close to public transport and amenitiestwo-minute walk.
* Dining/shopping nearby
Available for three-month exchange: April/May to June/
DestinationCoastal Queensland, Australia
Two and a half hours later Patrick had closed the last folder, and he'd also reached a decision.
He would do it. He had to. He would get away. He would make an appointment with his boss. First thing in the morning.
To: Patrick Knight <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: Molly Cooper <email@example.com>
Subject: We're offlike a rotten egg
I can't believe I'll actually be in England in just over twenty-four hours. At last I'm packed (suitcases groaning), and my little house is shining clean and ready for you. Brand-new sheets on the bedI hope you like navy blue.
I also hope you'll feel welcome here and, more importantly, comfortable. I considered leaving flowers in a vase, but I was worried they might droop and die and start to smell before you got here. I'll leave the key under the flowerpot beside the back door.
Now, I know that probably sounds incredibly reckless to you, but don't worrythe residents of Magnetic Island are very honest and extremely laid-back. No one locks their doors.
I don't want you to fret, though, so I've also left a spare key at Reception at the Sapphire Bay resort, where I used to work until yesterday.
Used to work.
That has such a nice ring, doesn't it? I've trained Jill, the owner's niece, to take my place while I'm away, and for now, at least, I'm giddily carefree and unemployed.
You have no idea how much I've always wanted to live in London, even if it's only for three months. Thanks to you, Patrick, this really is my dream come true, and I'm beyond excited. I don't think I'll be able to sleep tonight.
Have you finished up at your work? Are you having a farewell party? Mine was last night. It was pretty rowdy, and I have no idea what to do with all the gifts people gave me. I can't fit as much as another peanut in my suitcases, so I'll probably have to stash these things in a box under my bed (your bed now). Sorry.
By the way, please feel free to use my car. It's not much more than a sardine can on wheels, but it gets you about. Don't worry that it's unregistered. Cars on the island don't need registration unless they're taken over to the mainland.
It was kind of you to mention that your car is garaged just around the corner from your place, but don't worry, I won't risk my shaky driving skills in London traffic.
Oh, and don't be upset if the ferry is running late. The boats here run on 'island time'.
Anyway, happy travels.
London, here I come!
PS I agree that we shouldn't phone each other except in the direst emergency. You're rightphone calls can be intrusive (especially with a ten-hour time difference).