“It’s tea and toast only today, remember,” Tom said with a finality that nobody either cared to, or dared to, challenge. For only a shilling extra, they could have had a ladleful of beans on top, Katie thought hungrily.
Happily, they had managed to secure their usual seats by the window. In a rapid whirl of practiced movement, they buttered their toast, sugared their tea (Tom had four spoons, Alan two, Katie one and Jess none) and spread their allowance of jam; tinned plum today, Katie thought, although all Tony's jams were virtually identical in both appearance and taste, and it took years of experience to tell them apart. For a few minutes, the children munched contentedly.
Alan had sat closest to the window and now peered out of the portal he’d rubbed in the condensation. There were few people about. Not greatly surprising, as it did not look pleasant out there. A grimly uninviting grey sea churned restlessly. On the promenade, a stiff breeze snatched at a row of flags and, with the diligence of a tireless ringmaster, whip-cracked them repeatedly. The white horses riding chaotically towards the beach paid not the slightest attention to their imminent passing and charged heedlessly on, to destroy themselves on the shingle bank.
Since it was not particularly busy for a Sunday, Katie didn’t expect them to be hustled for their table by a stressed Tony, and so she took off her coat. Evidently, Alan had had the same idea and had already removed his. “I’m keeping mine on,” Jess said when Katie looked across. “This top’s got short sleeves; it makes my arms look fat.”
Tom turned slowly to playact a saucer-eyed stare of incredulity. Without asking, he reached over and clamped her upper arm between his thumb and fingers. She yanked her arm away, rubbed it soothingly and watched as Tom held his hand rigidly out in front of her, the thumb and fingers no more than two inches apart. “Jesus, Jess. I’ve seen more meat on a butcher’s pencil.”
Katie watched as Jess shot Tom a glance that, while indignant, was at the same time grateful, like she appreciated the concern and, as if to settle the issue, returned quietly, “Well, they look fat to me.” Then, in a bid to change the subject, began, “So, Alan, how did it go at the zoo?”
Alan appeared to be oblivious to the proceedings at the table and continued to stare out of the window. “Promising,” Katie replied in his stead. She described their meeting with Bob Leno and his offer, and gave them a leaflet each. She held up the shopping bag. “We’ve got 500 to give out. They all need stamping with this, first. Then they’re ours.” She pulled out an inkpad and stamp and set them on the table.
“Ooh, let’s do it now,” Jess volunteered. She opened the tin box containing the inkpad, pressed the stamp into its soft surface and pulled a handful of leaflets out of the bag. “Come on, Tom, you open them and I’ll stamp them.”
Tom did not look enthusiastic, but he complied and even refrained from reacting when Katie asked him to wipe his greasy fingers on the tablecloth first.
Alan had finally become bored with looking at nothing much going on outside and brought his attention back into the room. “What do you call that string you get inside bananas?” he said to nobody in particular. “Does it have a name?” Tom took no notice but Katie smiled at Jess’s exasperated, ‘who cares?’ sigh. Alan noticed that Katie had already emptied her own plate and now eyed the half slice of toast still sitting on his. A wounded-puppy look and a smile, and it was hers.
While Katie munched Alan’s toast, he took up their zoo report-back. Clearly, he had been at least half-listening and continued where she had left off. “Bob Leno thinks we should be able to shift a hundred of these over a weekend, and if we’re choosy about who gets one then a good number should pay off.”
“Plus, we’ll get free entry to the zoo every time we go for more,” Katie added brightly.
“And we could help,” Jess said, giving Tom a dig in the ribs, “couldn’t we?”
Tom looked less than thrilled and stared into the middle distance while sipping his tea. Hanging around on the sea front dishing out zoo leaflets didn’t sound very rock and roll, to say the least, and it increased the risk of meeting people he’d rather avoid.
“So, that’s us. How about the car washing?” Alan enquired mildly. “How did that go?”
Tom issued a guttural, gurgling sound that needed no interpretation. A deep frown had lowered his eyebrows until his eyes had become dark fugitives, lurking at the back of a fur-bannered cave. His lower face, concealed behind his teacup, was not difficult to picture.
“Not great, then,” Alan concluded quickly. He knew Tom well enough to be able to tell when a tactical retreat seemed the best option. Abandon curiosity, temporarily at least and, in the interests of a quiet life, gloss over the subject. “Oh well…”
“Mick’s Motors went OK,” Jess began, “although we almost didn’t get paid when Mick spotted some small scratches on a car’s bonnet, but Tom said it was probably caused by cats sharpening their claws, and Mick believed him!”
The children all laughed and, while Tom sulked, Jess continued the story. “It started fine,” she began, “but then, well I’m sorry about your pump, Alan. We had to leave it behind after…”
“Pump? What pump? Oh.” Alan looked aghast as the penny dropped. “You mean my dad’s stirrup pump from the war. You’ve been in my flaming shed!”
Jess glared at Tom who, by this time, had sunk so far down in his seat as to be practically horizontal. He blew wet bubbles while feigning a sudden, studious interest in the light fittings. She nodded apologetically at Alan and continued her tale, telling it slowly, giving Tom time to recover. She related their success at Mick’s Motors – “You’re eating the profits, by the way,” – told them of the frustrating search for business around the streets of the Old Town, and finally explained Tom’s ‘great plan’, for drumming up more business in a town with too little dirt, up to the point where it went wrong.
By this time, Tom’s colour had just about returned to normal. He parked his empty cup in its saucer and began speaking to it. “It was Jess’s turn. She wanted to do the Mayor’s Bentley. The spraying was going really well. Jess was pretty good.” Tom tried a smile but Jess was having none of it. “It wasn’t her fault. I’d assumed he’d gone to the races in his official Daimler. You know, the one you see him riding round town in. But no, he was still at home; he just hadn’t set off yet. And his poxy chauffeur was sitting in the driving seat, wasn’t he? We just never noticed him asleep with his peaked hat over his face.”
Katie’s mouth had sagged open. “Did he wake up, then? What happened?”
Jess continued the story. “I saw him first just as I finished the front wheel arch; nearly had an accident right there.”
“And he woke up?”
“So why didn’t you just leg it, creep away?”
“Well, we did, sort of; we started to creep away but then…”
“And then she dropped the bucket.”
“Then I dropped the bucket.”
“Yeh, a metal bucket. On to concrete.” Jess stuck her tongue behind her bottom lip and scowled.
“And that woke him up.” Alan had decided to join the conversation. Despite himself, he had also become fascinated. This sounded far more exciting and dangerous than their visit to the zoo. “And he saw you. Did he see your faces?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Tom said, and actually smiled, as if he had belatedly processed the import of that. “By the time he’d climbed out of the Bentley, we were nearly out of the car park. It wasn’t his regular bloke – I didn’t recognise him – and he didn’t shout our names. I think I might try and change my paper round though, just in case.”
“Wow! What a close shave,” Katie breathed. “It was a brave try.”
“But that wasn’t the end of it, oh no. There’s more isn’t there, Tom?” Jess put in. “Tell them how it ended.”
“Basically, he chased us. He was fast for an old bloke and we had to keep going for quite a way. We cut through the back alleys and ended up in Seaview Street.”
“Street of nightclubs and dodgy boarding houses,” Alan added.
“Exactly. Well, those terraces all have big basements, so we dived down one that looked quiet and hid under a table. We waited about ten minutes and then I sneaked back out for a look. The street was empty, so I waved at Jess to come up, but just then the basement door opened and these three men, dressed in dark suits and dark shirts and ties, in fact dark everything, came out.”
“And one of them grabbed my arm. Look, you can still see the marks.” Jess had already decided to risk fat arm ridicule and had shed her coat. Plainly visible on the pale skin of her upper arm, the children could see the four dull, purple-red streaks that could only have been finger marks.
Tom took over. “Well, I didn’t recognise them at first but then one of them, the small one, said my name. He said he knew my dad. He said he knew things about him and that there would be a reckoning when he got out of prison.”
“So, who was he?” Katie said. “Did he tell you?”
“He said his name was Spit Wilkins. He said he knew my dad from the old days. I’ve heard Dad mention him, and not in a nice way. Dad worked for him but they weren’t ever friends.”
“And I recognised him,” Jess added. “It was him, or one of his goons, who knocked Katie flying over there by the front door, if you remember.”
“He seemed to know you, too,” Tom replied. “He winked at you and tapped his nose. ‘Don’t forget about that call’, he said.”
Jess looked a little flustered. “Well, he runs the rides. Everybody down there knows him. He’s always trying it on.” She looked into her teacup.
The others were silent. Nobody, apart from Katie, seemed to notice Jess’s discomfort. She made a mental note to try to find out what Jess had decided about the modelling offer. But about Tom’s story, what else could anyone say? This was Burns family business, not theirs. Who knew what went on behind the Burns’ front door, or behind anyone’s front door for that matter, unless you were part of it?
“So car washing isn’t going to make us any money,” Alan concluded. His attention, such as it was today, drifted back to the street. It had begun drizzling, but with a cold, stiff breeze behind it: just the conditions that, Alan knew from experience, could quite easily induce an outbreak of the ‘Medgate Stare’, the local name given to the grim, pinched, clenched-teeth expression people tended to adopt under such an inclement battering. He watched an elderly man struggle past, his raincoat flapping in the whipping wind. The man held on to his flat cap with one hand, and with the other tugged at the lead of a Jack Russell, hell-bent on extracting every last molecule of stale doggy scent from the bottom of a lamp post.
Katie followed Alan’s gaze. “Look at that poor bloke,” she remarked. “He’s not having much seaside fun, is he? Bet he’d much rather be in the snug at the Fox and Badger with a half of Mackeson; instead, he has to drag his mutt around the streets.”
The others watched as the man finally managed to yank the dog into motion. A sudden fist of wind and rain knocked him several paces backwards, before he managed to recover forward motion and trudged grimly on, his face rigid in a classic Medgate Stare.
“We may be skint but at least we’re dry,” Tom reflected, flicking a toast crumb at Katie.
“And warm,” Jess added.
“Wonder what he’d pay to swap places,” Katie mused absently.
Jess looked horrified. “What, me give him my nice parka and have to wear his old raincoat?”
“And his flat hat; don’t forget the flat hat,” Tom added. “Might suit you, actually.” Jess poked out her tongue.
“Not to mention the deaf aid,” Alan added.
Katie grinned and joined in. “And the false teeth. No, silly. I meant how much do you think he’d pay someone to walk his dog for him?”
Tom looked thoughtful. “Dunno. For an hour? Five bob?”
Alan had caught on to Katie’s thinking. “Twice a day, Saturday and Sunday?”
“That’s a quid!” Tom gave a low whistle. He would hate to admit it, but Katie might just have hit on a great idea.
Jess summed it all up. “Yeh, that’s a quid each. Four pounds every weekend, and we could still do our other jobs on top.”
“I think this calls for a second cup of tea,” Tom said. “We’ve just enough left.”
With the tea sugared and stirred, the four friends clinked cups. “To the Dog Walkers,” Alan announced.
“The Dog Walkers!” the others chorused. Tom made sure his cup clinked Katie’s and actually grinned as he said, “Nice one, K.”
The four friends left Tony’s in high spirits and parted company at their usual place.
Katie reached home. Today had been something of a first. Tom had actually said something nice to her, and it felt deserved. Dog walking seemed such an easy way to earn a few bob, she thought as she pushed at her front gate. All we need do now is get ourselves some dogs.