No-one would claim that Princess Row was the best street in town. Situated as it was between Queen=s Road up the hill to the west, Marlborough Place down the hill to the east, Trafalgar Street to the north and, paradoxically, North Road to the south (towards the sea), it was in the heart of what had become known as the North Laine. North Laine lacked the feeling of spaciousness one had in, say, Dyke Road Avenue, and it had none of the grandeur of the Regency terraces and squares of Kemp Town in their uniform of cream rendering with shiny black doors and Juliet balconies. But despite these shortcomings, or maybe because of them, it had developed into the arty, some would say bohemian part of Brighton with its specialist shops and funny little back alleys known as twittens.
And if no-one would claim Princess Row as the best street in town, likewise no-one would claim number 2 as the best house in Princess Row. It was virtually indistinguishable from its neighbours, number 1 on the left and number 3 on the right. Of course, mused its current owner and sole occupier, whether number 1 was on the left and number 3 on the right or vice versa depended entirely upon one’s point of view. If one stood in the street and looked towards the houses, number 3 was on the left. On the other hand, if one stood in the house and looked towards the street, number 3 was on the right.
This was a deeply philosophical thought for Tom Finch. Tom was not a man given to much philosophical thought, or indeed much thought of any sort. Ask any person to describe the average man and the description would fit Tom to a T. He was fifty-something, maybe getting on for sixty, of average height and average build. His hair, which was starting to thin a little on the top, was a mid-brown, and his eyes were an indeterminate colour, sometimes grey, sometimes blue, sometimes even seeming to be almost but not quite brown. All in all, one would find it difficult to pick him out in a crowd.
Tom had lived at 2 Princess Row all his life. Well, nearly all his life, he would say. The first week of his life had been spent in the old maternity hospital in Buckingham Place, but after his mother had been discharged and had proudly brought him back to Princess Row, he had lived nowhere else. If he thought about it, which he never did, he would realise that he had no wish to live anywhere else. Princess Row suited him very well. What need did he have of more than two bedrooms, a front room and a kitchen? Most people would find it inconvenient to have the bathroom situated on the ground floor beyond the kitchen, but this didn’t bother Tom at all; he was used to it, and had been for all his fifty-something years. If he cast his mind back, he had vague memories of baths with a clockwork submarine, and his mother wrapping him in a large towel before he could get cold. In his memory, the towel was always blue, but then again, it might have been green.
His mother had always been very proud of Tom. At least, she had always said she was, although she often felt there was something niggling away at the back of her mind telling her that her pride was possibly just a little misplaced. She had felt, when reading Tom=s school reports, that he could have done better if only he could have been bothered to use his mind. She had felt, when he received the very mediocre results of his last school examinations, that those results could have been better. She had felt, when he found a job as a caretaker at the Polytechnic, that perhaps, if she had encouraged him to use his mind a little more while at school, he could have done better for himself.
But Tom was, if not happy, at least not unhappy with his life as it was. To tell the truth, he never bothered wondering if he was happy or not. Life was as it was and there was no point bothering about whether one was happy or unhappy. He rose at six o=clock every morning, drank a cup of tea and walked down the hill to St. Peter=s church, buying his daily paper on the way. He had always read the Daily Mirror because that was the paper his father had bought, and which his mother had continued to buy after her husband=s death. As he had done now for almost forty years, at St. Peter=s he caught a bus along the Lewes Road to the University of Brighton, which had been the Poly until its promotion. Here he performed his duties methodically, even conscientiously, but never imaginatively. Tom was not blessed, or cursed, with much imagination.
That was not something that could be said about his next-door neighbour. On the same Sunday afternoon that Tom stood idly gazing out of his window and had his deeply philosophical thought about whether 3 Princess Row was to the left or right of number 2, his neighbour at number 3 was thinking about him. Irena Kastelevich was not her real name, although nobody living in Princess Row was aware of that. Some might have assumed this to be the case, since it was unusual, to say the least, for somebody with such an exotic name to speak with an accent that was not quite Lancashire and not quite Birmingham. Fifty-eight years earlier, Irena Kastelevich had been born in the Cheshire town of Nantwich, in whose Saint Mary=s church she had been baptised Mavis Muriel, the family name being Oldthorpe. It was not long after starting school that Mavis Muriel Oldthorpe developed an intense dislike of her name, all three parts of it. Even in those days, Mavis and Muriel were distinctly unfashionable names, and as for Oldthorpe, well, the less said the better.
Irena could only just about recall how she started in the fortune-telling business. Her early ambition was to be an actress, the chief attraction of the career being that it would give her every opportunity to change her name. After all, whoever heard of a name like Mavis Muriel Oldthorpe being up in lights in the West End of London? Skegness Pier, maybe, but the West End? Never! Unfortunately, although Mavis was not lacking in self-confidence, she did not have the ability to take even Skegness by storm, let alone the West End. Somehow she had just seemed to drift into reading tea leaves and gazing into a crystal ball before taking up fortune-telling as a full-time occupation. But telling fortunes did give her a chance to lose the Mavis and the Muriel and even the Oldthorpe.
Fifteen years before, Irena had been working in the resort of Great Yarmouth, having steadily worked her way southwards down the east coast, when she spotted an advertisement in a trade magazine. The resident fortune teller on Brighton=s Palace Pier was offering her concession for sale. Like so many others before her, Irena had a vision of Brighton as a glorious, cosmopolitan town with a somewhat racy, perhaps even seedy, reputation. She wasted no time in responding to the advertisement, and the very next season the Palace Pier was the working home of Irena Kastelevich, the Hungarian gypsy. It didn’t strike her as odd that a Hungarian gypsy should speak English with a Cheshire accent, or that her hair should be a bright ginger, even though this latter owed more to the supermarket shelf than it did to nature. After a few years she even managed to persuade the local paper to pay her for a weekly horoscope column, not that she knew anything about astrology. The editor would have been horrified if he had ever discovered that Irena was simply copying the previous week=s horoscope from the Carlisle weekly paper for which she had a special order with a friendly newsagent.
Irena=s thoughts had not been about Tom at first. She was standing behind her net curtains idly looking at the house across the street and wishing that she could persuade her landlord to paint the exterior of her house in similar way to number 72, the house opposite. It was owned by a couple called Carstairs who spent Monday to Friday each week in London, driving down to Brighton early on Friday evening. Their house was painted a pale lilac, and the door and window frames gleamed white. She thought that, if only she owned her house instead of renting it, she would paint it primrose yellow with royal blue woodwork.
It was from this point that her thoughts drifted to her next-door neighbour, Tom. He owned number 2, and Irena couldn’t work out if she was irritated by Tom=s refusal to paint his house or if she was envious of him because he could have done so had he wished.
She shook herself and went to put the kettle on.
While the kettle boiled and the tea brewed B Irena was a stickler for a four-minute brew and always used loose tea, never tea bags B she turned to considering her future. She had already decided that the forthcoming season would be her last on the pier. >After all,= she said to herself, >an actress can’t go on repeating the same lines from the same play on the same stage every night for years on end without becoming stale.= And she was an actress, wasn=t she? Well, a sort of actress, anyway. Either way, she knew that the time was approaching when she would need a change.
But if she stopped working, there would be the problem of paying the rent. During her early working life she had travelled the country with a funfair, and after that there was nowhere she had stayed long enough to put down roots until she came to Brighton. Even if she had stayed anywhere long enough, there would have been no chance of buying a house. Her income had always been seasonal and on more than one occasion in the winter months she had been reduced to living pretty much on the breadline before Easter. Her financial situation was less precarious now, especially with the weekly newspaper column, but no-one could justly accuse her of being wealthy.
Tom, on the other hand, must have money. He owned his house and she couldn’t see that he spent much of his wages, so he must have some savings, which was more than Irena had. So what if his wasn=t the most sparkling personality in town? At least he was steady and dependable, which was more than she could say for that Guy Carstairs at number 72. It would be Christmas in a few days. Perhaps she should invite Tom round for lunch.
Irena liked to claim that she wasn=t one to let the grass grow under her feet, so as soon as she had drunk her second cup of tea, she put on her coat and went next door. The bell still wasn=t working. >When will be get round to buying a new battery?= she wondered. >It must be nearly six months now since that bell was working.= She rapped on the door with her knuckles.
>What number is your house?= asked Tom as he stepped back to let her in.
>Number 3, of course,= replied Irena, puzzled.
>And what=s the number of the house opposite?=
Where on earth could this be leading? >That=s number 72.=
>So if you add those together, what number do you get?=
>You=ve got it!=
>Have I? What have I got?= Irena was beginning to get slightly alarmed. Maybe this wasn=t such a good idea after all.
>My house is number 2, and the house opposite is 73, and that makes 75. It’s the same all the way down the street B if you add up the numbers of the houses opposite each other, they all come to 75. Do you know, I=ve lived in this house all my life and I=ve never noticed that before.=
Irena decided to ignore this. >Now,= she asked in business-like tones, >what are you doing for Christmas?=
The change of subject took Tom by surprise.
>I hadn=t thought. I suppose I=ll buy a couple of drumsticks like I usually do.=
>How about having lunch with me this year? I=ll get a small bird and do some roast potatoes and all the trimmings. You can get the wine. White, I should think. I like a sweetish one. I’m sure Mr Malik at the shop in Trafalgar Street will have something suitable. Come round just before one.=
There really was not much Tom could do in the face of this onslaught. He just stood there as Irena bustled out, his mouth opening and closing.