Welcome to a world of dreamy dresses, witty royals and Instagram-friendly kisses, set in whimsical London. My new book doesn't have a cover, it doesn't have a title, but it has one of the most fun characters I ever got to create: meet Sophia, a fierce modern-day Cinderella living in contemporary London. She works in Harrods, one of the world's largest luxury department stores. There she will meet a prince... following a very problematic misunderstanding. Mistaken identity, romance and true faith create magic in this contemporary fairytale.
If fairies had descended from London’s night sky and peered through the skylight above Sophia’s bedroom, they would have marvelled at a picture of peace, beauty and enchantment.
A picture that would be shattered at precisely 4.17 am.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s rewind a little.
Her mom had always said she looked like a fairy-tale princess when she slept. Even now, at 25, she was smaller than most, and her petite frame was made to look even more diminutive by her massive four-poster bed that was fit for a castle. But this was not the only reason she gave more than just a passing resemblance to Sleeping Beauty: perhaps it was the blue-ish light of the moon that made her fair skin look like it was cast from the finest porcelain. Maybe was it the long ringlets of her copper red hair that spread across her pink pillow like a rich, wild crown. It could have been the way she slept, with her long delicate fingers rested on her chest over her green satin nightgown, rising gently with the silent ebb and flow of her breathing. And perhaps it was even the ring she wore, with a filigreed pink-gold butterfly, delicately perched on her finger, as if attracted by the the faintest of smiles that gave an almost imperceptible curve to her rosy lips.
The very definition of pure bliss.
Until 4.17am, when a deafening, high-pitched sound ricocheted off the walls.
It resembled more the shriek of a demented witch than anything as benign as an alarm clock. The maddening ring travelled through the window and its frightful echo rippled across the rooftops on Cloudesley Street, in a small and unexceptional suburb on London’s periphery, sending a stray ginger cat bounding for cover.
Sophia, however, did not move an inch.
Soon, another noise joined in this atrocious symphony. A cell phone beeped and vibrated as if announcing an impending catastrophe, and perhaps it was: for it was perched on a small, rickety desk with a broken leg, wedged between the wall and the bed. The high pile of books on which it casually rested started to tremble dangerously from the vibrations. Finally, as was always its destiny, one of the books slid, starting a chain reaction which ended with a vintage desk lamp crashing on the bed next to Sophia.
Still, she did not open her eyes; she merely moved her head, a contented smile now gracing her face, as if a songbird had whispered a gentle wake-up melody.
Then a third alarm went off, a sort of deep, mechanical rumble, which could have been mistaken for the distress call of a Russian submarine on the verge of disaster. This time it came from the kitchen, which was surprisingly close to the bed. Sophia was sleeping right in the center of a one-room, one-window, one-door studio flat - the “kitchen” being merely a large opening in the wall hidden behind a curtain with a purple flowery pattern that must have been all the rage in 1978. To make the large four-poster bed fit into her tiny home, the furniture delivery men had sawn the posts and re-assemble them with screws, a feat that had required a remarkable dose of ingenuity and effort especially after they had already used a considerable amount of both to climb four flights of old, narrow Victorian stairs. But they, like many others before them, had no way to resist a smile that could magically multiply almost anything, especially the goodwill of strangers.
After a minute or two, the ginger cat brushed his paw frantically against the window, adding frantic scratch noises to the diabolical choir. What made Sophia finally sit up on the bed, eyes still closed, was an angry banging sound coming through the old floorboards: her housemates downstairs had resorted to the broom.
Still with her eyes closed, she slapped her left hand with the butterfly ring onto the vibrating cell phone. With her right hand, she reached across the bed and silenced the shrieking witch. And more zombie-like than princess-like, stumbled out of the bed to find the third alarm. She stubbed her bare toe on a pile of books, which finally caused her eyelids to snap open, revealing light blue eyes that immediately swivelled down to the floor to fix upon the offender: “Neurobiology of Motor Control: Fundamental Concepts and New Directions (2ndnd Edition)”. But another round of bangs from the floor below forced her to forget the offence and hurry to quiet the third alarm clock which was hidden behind the kettle.
When silence returned, Moon, the cat, started to scratch again.
“Yes, Yes, I’m coming.”
She grabbed an antique silver jar from a shelf beside an empty bag of ethically sourced coffee and bulk-priced cornflakes. She placed a stool underneath the window, making sure that its legs rested on the actual floor and not any of the objects scattered across its surface. Since she had moved in, books and shoes had sprouted around the bed like wild flowers in an English garden. Every available space was covered, with no room for anything or anyone; even the cat knew that, and never ventured past the window. Sophia climbed on the stool and unlatched the high window: it slid open onto a small balcony with a stone parapet that almost completely blocked the distant view of London beyond. She twisted off the cap on the jar and poured out some cat food into a dish on the sooty balcony, stroking Moon as he ate.
The cool October air rushed through the window, playing with Sophia’s red curls. She breathed deep, yawned and looked at the cat.
“Alright buddy. I’ve gotta go earn a living. And how are you gonna help with the rent, huh?”
When the cat meowed, she smiled.
“Yeah, I thought so. Useless free-loader. Good thing you’re cute.”
Three minutes later, clad in a bathrobe, she was tiptoeing out of her room and into the shared bathroom across the hall on the creaky landing. She swore quietly as the ancient shower refused to settle on any temperature of water between either freezing cold or boiling hot. Fourteen minutes later, she was dressed in skinny jeans, high-top white Chuck Taylors and a navy wooly sweater with a bow detail. To her dismay, as she was gathering her notes on “Inflammation: From Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms to the Clinic”, she realised she had used the last of the coffee the night before. Cursing again, she grabbed her beige trench coat, her vintage Peruvian bag, a gym bag and a protein bar she found next to the battered alarm clock. She ran down the stairs, and out into the London night.
It was 4.58am and still pitch dark. The first light of dawn would not colour her neighbourhood for another hour and rare were the lit windows on the terraced houses that lined Sophia’s path. Moon, his paws moving silently across the tiled roof tops, always tracked her for a block or so before returning to the balcony. But, too intent on reaching the Tube station in time, Sophia never noticed. As she walked confidently across the broken and uneven paving slabs, slippery with frost, she looked every bit the fairytale princess – so long as the princess in question was a poor student working two part-time jobs, living in a cramped, suburban bedsit with bad plumbing and surviving on four hours of sleep every night. And had forgotten to buy coffee.
Just as she did every day at 5.02, Sophia settled into the empty, neon-lit wagon, pulled her laptop out of her gym bag, and opened her essay where she had left it a few hours earlier. At 5.04am, the train rumbled into motion and slid like a lazy serpent out of the station, towards the city that twinkled on the horizon.
This early October dawn promised a day as unexceptional, imperfect and yet as quietly contented as what Sophia considered to be ordinary. There were no unexpected messages, no changes in the wind, no strange patterns in the last remaining coffee grains or the movement of Moon’s whiskers. No signs at all that today was going to be anything other than a day just like all the others.