The first two weeks of January passed as those weeks so often do, with cold, grey, damp, miserable weather. After a hectic time fulfilling commissions for Christmas, Nikki found she now had time on her hands, especially after Katie had gone back to school, and she couldn=t think what to do with herself. Roger began to feel even more that his was a dead-end job and that he was just going through the motions in order to see the end-of-month pay slip. The excitement of the pier picture had faded for Max and the grey light was not conducive to starting on a fresh canvas. Ted and Val Watson didn=t really notice much difference from a month before: Ted still enjoyed his daily pint at the Porter=s B three on Sundays B and Val thought of little beyond her diet of television soap operas. The Gee-Gees weren=t seen in Brighton, but a local estate agent was seen to visit number 72. A couple of days later, a board was fixed to the drainpipe advertising the house was for sale.
After two weeks of gloomy weather, Sunday was completely different: bright, dry B almost warm even. Tom felt in need of a breath of fresh air after lunch and decided on a stroll along the sea front. By coincidence, Irena had made the same decision and opened her door just as Tom was pulling his shut behind him. Despite being next-door neighbours, they had neither spoken to nor even seen each other since Christmas Day.
>I was just going for a walk along the sea front,= announced Irena. >It seemed a pity to waste such a nice afternoon just sitting around indoors.=
>Same here,= replied Tom.
They headed off towards Queen=s Road together in an awkward silence. It was quite normal for Tom to have nothing to say for himself, the garrulousness of Christmas Day being a result of all the wine he had drunk, but Irena didn=t usually suffer from the same difficulty. Years of telling strangers what lay in store for them had disposed of any shyness that she might have had. By the time they reached the bottom of West Street, she had put Tom much more at ease and they were chatting quite comfortably.
They went through the underpass to the promenade and, by unspoken agreement, turned towards Hove, away from what they still regarded as the Palace Pier, Irena=s place of work. The café on Hove Lawns was open for business and they went in search of a pot of tea.
>Heavens, that was a long time ago. I really wanted to be an actress but I just wasn=t good enough, so when I left school I got a job in a shop. A fair came to town and I went along with some other girls. We all had our fortunes told. One of the girls got quite friendly with a chap who worked at the fair. He told her that the fortune teller was having to give up and asked her if she knew anyone who would do it. I think it was just a bit of a joke, really, but she took it seriously.
>I had always been a bit of a dreamer and could see pictures in the fire and all that sort of thing, so I tried looking at the patterns made by tea leaves in the bottom of cups. I found I could see pictures in them as well, so it wasn=t too difficult to link them into stories about peoples futures. Just for a giggle, and as a bit of a dare, I went along to the fair and offered to stand in for the fortune teller. She never did come back, and when the fair left town, I went with them and it went on from there.=
Tom sat in silence and thought about this. It sounded so much more exciting than the life he had led, going straight from school into his caretaker=s job at what was then the Polytechnic, a job he was still doing more than forty years later.
>I must seem a real stick-in-the-mud to you,= he ventured.
>No, not a stick-in-the-mud, just steady.=
>That=s the same thing, isn=t it?=
>I don=t think so. Anyway, look at me. I=ve been in the same place now for, what, fifteen years or so. Perhaps I=ve got steady as I=ve got older. But it=s starting to get chilly. How about we head back and I toast some crumpets for tea? I bought a pack when I was shopping this week and this seems just the right sort of day for them.=
Irena was about to put the crumpets under the grill when Tom had a thought.
>I=ve got a real toasting fork next door. If we use that, we could sit in front of the fire to toast the crumpets.=
>This really brings back memories,= said Irena later, as they sat on the floor taking it in turns to hold the toasting fork, >except that we had a coal fire when I did this as a girl.=
>Whereabouts was that?=
They sat discussing their childhood memories until Tom happened to glance at his watch.
>Good heavens,= he exclaimed, >It=s eleven o=clock! I must be going.=