As promised, following a website erroneously offering a free download excerpt of Take A Look At Me Now, here is an official, EXCLUSIVE first-look from my new novel, out this Thursday!
This is the scene when Nell arrives in San Francisco, after being made unexpectedly redundant and deciding to blow her redundancy cheque on a trip of a lifetime to visit her cousin Lizzie in the City By The Bay. Hope you enjoy it! xx
Excerpt from Take A Look At Me Now ©Miranda Dickinson 2013. May NOT be reproduced without permission of Miranda Dickinson and AVON (HarperCollins).
‘First time in San Francisco, Ma’am?’ the huge Immigration officer asked, his politeness at odds with the fact that he looked as if he could quite easily snap my neck like a pencil if he wanted to.
‘Yes it is.’
He held up my passport, dark eyes beneath his thickset brow flicking between my face and my totally embarrassing passport photo. Just as the scrutiny was beginning to verge on uncomfortable, he handed it back. ‘Thank you. Enjoy your trip.’
As heartfelt sentiments go, this wasn’t a contender for welcome of the year, but I smiled my thanks and scurried away in case the neck-snapping option began to appeal to him.
Even though I was surrounded by my fellow passengers from England and France, the moment I walked into the baggage hall I knew I was in America. The noise in the cavernous hangar was distinctive in tone, the phrases on the overhead signs a little dissimilar to those at Heathrow or Paris Charles de Gaulle – even the atmosphere of the admittedly impersonal surroundings seemed different.
Emerging from the long tunnel-like walkway into the blast of noise, light and activity, I struggled momentarily to gain my bearings. Scanning along the selection of name signs being held by the barriers, I spotted Lizzie, grinning like a Cheshire Cat on happy gas and brandishing a sheet of card framed in what looked like a cerise feather boa, my name artfully spelled out in multicoloured glitter-glue and sequins. I was struck by how beautifully relaxed she looked. Her wavy blonde hair was loosely pinned up, her sunglasses tucked into it at the crown of her head, and her tanned skin glowed against the loose white blouse and pale blue shorts she wore.
‘Nellie!’ she yelled, ducking underneath the stretched elastic barrier, shedding bright pink feathers as she went.
I was hit with the full force of my cousin’s embrace as she nearly rugby-tackled me to the shiny-tiled airport floor.
‘I’m so glad you’re here! How are you? How was the flight? Are you hungry? I bet you’re hungry. Well we’re catching a cab home so we can pretty much stop anywhere. You just tell me what you fancy and we’ll find it. This is San Francisco, after all. Coffee! I bet you need coffee. Your first shot of American Joe is always special, trust me . . .’ She paused long enough to draw breath and gave me a rueful smile. ‘I’m talking too much, aren’t I?’
I had to laugh. ‘Um . . .’
‘Oh I’m sorry. I couldn’t sleep last night because I was so excited, so I had my first coffee at five a.m. Consequently, I’m buzzing a bit. So – welcome to San Francisco!’
I laughed. ‘Thank you. Nice sign, by the way.’
‘It’s a bit showbiz, isn’t it?’ Lizzie giggled and shook the sign, sending a small cloud of glitter and stray feathers fluttering to the floor. ‘I told the kids at the after-school club I run about you and they wanted to help. I’ll have you know this is a unique, one-of-a-kind welcome sign.’
‘Well, I’m honoured.’
‘You’ll have to come and meet the kids while you’re here. They’re so excited to meet “another English”. You’ll feel like a celebrity.’ Lizzie took my suitcase and we walked through the terminal building towards the exit. ‘Now, we can do whatever you like. I’d recommend not sleeping yet, to lessen the chance of jetlag beating you up. That flight used to slay me every time.’
I was tired – the kind of weariness you feel aching in the very marrow of your bones – but I was also suddenly ravenously hungry. And, like a kid in the early hours of Christmas morning, I was determined not to miss a second of the day that lay ahead. Sleep could wait: I had a brand new city to meet.
Our cab driver, a portly Greek man in his early fifties, introduced himself as Apollo as we pulled away from the airport terminal and joined the lines of traffic heading onto the freeway.
‘Your first time in San Fran? You’ll love it, lady! I been here sixteen years this fall, and it’s the best place I ever lived. Bar none. I make my home here, I meet my wife here, I raise my kids here. It’s a special place.’
His dark eyes twinkled as he looked in the rear view mirror at Lizzie and I in the back seat. I smiled back, overwhelmed by the feeling of being at home, despite being a thousand miles away from it.
Warm Californian sun flooded into the car and even though my sudden entry into the middle of the morning in a brand new country had left my brain a little befuddled, the scenery whizzing past the windows was enough to grab my attention. Tall hills rose in the far distance, blue skies arced overhead and everything seemed to catch the sun.
‘I can’t believe you’re here,’ Lizzie said, linking her arm through mine. ‘It’s just so good to see you.’
‘You too. It’s been too long.’
‘It has. But we have eight whole weeks to make up for lost time, so let’s make the most of it. Now, I’ve taken a week off from my piano students, so I can show you around.’
‘That’s really kind – but are you sure? I know holidays are like gold dust over here.’
My cousin dismissed my concern. ‘It will be my pleasure.’ Her smile faded a little and she took both my hands in hers. ‘Now, honestly, tell me how you are. Losing your job must have been dreadful.’
‘I don’t know how I am,’ I answered truthfully. ‘It hurt me that they didn’t want me any more but I think I channelled my anger into action to get here. It’s going to take some time for me to work through it.’
‘Take all the time you need, it’s a huge thing to deal with.’ Lizzie squeezed my hands. ‘Have you thought about what you want to do while you’re here?’
‘A little. But I’m up for almost anything. Any sugges- tions will be gratefully received.’
Lizzie observed me, a sly grin appearing. ‘That is not the Nell Sullivan I knew. You were always Miss Five- Year Plan, even when we were growing up. What’s changed?’
‘My five-year plan has. Which had actually become a six-year plan, without me realising. And then became a defunct plan. Up until last week I let it guide my decisions, but now it’s been taken away I don’t have to stick to the programme any longer. I just want to know what it feels like to have no plan – to step out into my life and see what happens.’
‘Amazing.’ Lizzie stared at me as if seeing her cousin for the first time. ‘And what happens if it isn’t what you want?’
I shrugged, loving the rush of positivity I felt. ‘Then two months isn’t a long time to stick it out before I go home and pick up where I left off.’
‘You go for it, glikia mu,’ Apollo interjected. ‘You only get one chance to live your life. What’s the worst that can happen, eh?’
‘Thanks, Apollo,’ I replied, as Lizzie buried her face in her neck-scarf to stifle her giggles. ‘I’ll remember that.’
‘All’s part of the service.’ His super-white smile rivalled the Californian sun for brightness as it flashed at me in the rear view mirror.
Then, suddenly, the glittering cityscape of San Francisco appeared on the horizon and I lost my breath.
‘Oh wow . . .’
Lizzie smiled and squeezed my shoulder as I sat upright, drinking in the sight. ‘There she is. Gorgeous, eh?’
‘It’s beautiful. I had no idea.’
‘I told you it’s a special place,’ Apollo grinned over his shoulder, before launching into his own commentary on the sights passing by. The pride he had in his adopted city was infectious and soon Lizzie and I were both nodding along to everything he told us as we began to pass through downtown San Francisco streets that appeared to have come straight out of a film.
We turned a corner into a wide street lined with kooky Victorian houses beneath which were a variety of busi- nesses. The street was lined with trees and every shop sign was hand-painted. Elaborately chalked A-boards promised everything from t-shirts, ice cream and herbal teas to vintage records and books, while bright awnings hung over gaudily coloured shop window displays filled with vintage clothing, hand-crafted items and candles, next to restaurants and bars that spilled out onto the broad sidewalk.
‘Welcome to Haight-Ashbury,’ Lizzie grinned. ‘Your home for the next eight weeks!’
The taxi came to a halt outside a three-storey building with two floors of hexagonal-shaped windows above a New Age clothing and music store, which wrapped around the corner of Haight Street and Cole Street. At one side was an enormous rainbow mosaic, which covered the wall to the next shop further up Cole Street, and a large tree on the sidewalk shaded the entrance to the shop. In the far end of the rainbow mosaic was a door covered in a hand-painted mural to look like acacia blossoms climbing over a dark green brick wall.
Lizzie turned and smiled at me. ‘Here we are.’
We paid Apollo and I thanked him as he unloaded my suitcase from the boot.
‘You have a great time,’ he grinned.
‘I will, thank you.’
Lizzie laughed as we walked up two flights of stairs to her apartment on the top floor. ‘You’ll certainly meet a lot of characters like Apollo while you’re here.’ She opened her front door and ushered me inside. ‘Here it is – home sweet home…’
Excerpt from Take A Look At Me Now ©Miranda Dickinson 2013. May not be reproduced without permission of Miranda Dickinson and AVON (HarperCollins).