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During the COVID-19 pandemic I was on hiatus from my regular assignments as a professional writer, so I decided to adapt personal stuff I'd been working on, as well as create new works - some about life inside L.A. (particularly during Lockdown) but also travel pieces from abroad. Thanks ever so much for reading them :) Hope you're safe and well wherever you are. ----- sophia (teamgloria, inc)

BACK IN BRIGHTON

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Maisie had not intended to go back.

But as soon as the first year ended, her rich University friends took off for family-funded adventures abroad, or headed deep into the English countryside.

Maisie wanted to fly off somewhere glamorous. But, as usual, her bank account was empty.

She sighed and took the train back to her hometown of Brighton.

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Someone told her about a sub-let, a room in a house up by the Duke of York cinema.

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The owners were away for the summer. It looked nice, in that funky, Brighton, slightly hippy but a bit chic, way.

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She left most of her stuff locked up in storage unit back in the University halls of residence. You didn't need much in Brighton during the warmer months. A few faded print dresses, vintage leather jacket and a pair of Doctor Martens.

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BACK AT THE FITZ

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Then she walked down to the seafront and asked for her old waitress job back at the Fitz.

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After a double-shift on Friday followed by a manic Saturday night during which she barely caught her breath, it was as if she had never been away.

On Sunday, before the doors opened, there were the same lilting voices of the art students from Liverpool, Manchester and Yorkshire, drifting across the wooden tables and mismatched chairs, as they all sat eating a fry-up before retreating to the kitchen to prep for brunch.

Only the waitresses changed each season. All except Maisie who had started there when she was seventeen and, with her recent return, now felt as if she'd never really left.

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Slipping back into the old routine; she cleared another table and looked out at the July rain.

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It was the depressingly usual kind of (British) summer. A day or so of bright sunshine during which the British tourists flocked to the beaches and got horribly sunburned. Followed by days of rain when the pebbles were so water-logged the seagulls picked their way gently over them to find tidbits to eat.

At the Fitz, Maisie slowly and methodically wiped down the wooden tables and set up the funky cutlery and outre glassware.

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The chefs were busy downstairs, she could hear their loud music coming through the walls. The other two waitresses – Joan and Sue – were gossiping in the back by the coffee pots over Joan’s new conquest, Darren, the sous chef.

Occasionally they looked over at Maisie and then exchanged smirks. Maisie knew they thought she was young, naive and not attuned to salacious gossip about boys and other distractions.

And they were right.

THE FITZ BACKSTORY

The Fitz was hardly an upscale restaurant, it was a place you sunk into, gratefully, to escape the rain or to while away the afternoon with one cup of coffee during a quiet afternoon writing a sad pop ballad.

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The cafe was named after Mrs Fitzherbert, the mistress of the Prince Regent, who later became George IV. There had been a cafe called Fitz on the premises since between the wars. A gay man from Chicago had bought the restaurant on a whim from bankruptcy court in the mid 80s and, just as quickly, sold it on to two brothers from Leeds who needed it to launder their ill-gotten gains.

The menu was risk-averse to say the least. They served reasonable, dubiously English-style meals, or one of the slightly risqué-named hamburgers - the “magic mushroom burger” (the only magic was a lethal garlic mayonnaise – she watched Darren make it fresh once a week) or the “Saturday night burger”.

Maisie didn't know why it was called that. The pineapple on melted cheddar - an extra special – only-once-a-week treat? Or was there something suggestive? That was Darren’s theory.

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When the boarding school boys came in with their local-girl-dates and ordered the burgers by name, the blood rushed up the backs of their necks. The sassy Brighton girls sucked on a cherry on the top of their ice-cream sundae swizzle sticks, knowing full well what the boarding school boys wanted.

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They might get it - they might not.

Usually not.

And why should they put out?

The Brighton girls were street smart. They knew the posh boys didn't see them as anything more than a "bit of skirt" - definitely not girlfriend material.

It was an exchange. The girls got treated to dinner before some inept fumblings. The boys got a contact high with a class they'd probably never mix with again.

MIKE

The brothers who owned The Fitz needed to leave England for tax reasons in the mid-Eighties, so installed a proper restaurant manager to handle things back home.

He was called Mike: a thin man who dressed in ill-fitting grey suits, losing the jacket to help out during Saturdays in his shirtsleeves.

One night Mike suddenly appeared before the evening shift, wearing tight jeans and a black leather bomber jacket. Maisie served him the staff meal downstairs by the kitchen. He said he was on his way to hear a big punk band play down in one of the clubs under the arches by the beach. It seemed so unlikely.

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But she knew Mike had another side. Everyone at Fitz had another side, it seemed - except her.

THE ZAO CLUB

One Wednesday, on a particularly gloomy day, when few tourists had ventured out to eat, Mike told Maisie to clock off at four and gave her the lion's share of the tips, as she'd done most of the work. This didn't endear her to Joan and Sue, who both grabbed bottles of red wine when Mike wasn't looking and left by the back door.

Maisie saw them but didn't say anything. Instead, she headed for her locker downstairs by the kitchen. But when she opened the door to grab her leather jacket, she nearly smashed it into Darren who was bringing beers up from the basement.

She saw the beer crate about to hit the floor and grabbed it.

He looked surprised that she could lift it.

Then he gave her a half-smile and handed her a beer, leaning back against the wall to see if she'd take it. She did, but couldn't meet his intense gaze.

“I didn’t think you’d come back,” he said, continuing to look directly at her in that art student way of his, as if appraising her face for the way the light fell before he drew her.

“Not once you’d been to London.”

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He said London as if it didn't impress him at all. The inverted snobbery of the Northerners was not lost on Maisie. The way they left Liverpool and Manchester to come to the art school in Brighton, by-passing London entirely and yet, if they had any hope of a commercial career in art, the very city they would have to settle in, eventually.

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She wanted to answer Darren in a way that would make him realize she had been changed by university. His opinion set the tone at Fitz so she needed to make sure this summer got off on the right foot. While she was still thinking of an answer the kitchen bell rang and Darren got up, handed her another beer from the ice bucket on the steps and disappeared through the double swing doors.

Maisie put the cool beer against her cheek but didn't open it. Instead she put it in her bag and walked down to the beach to see if the rain had stopped.

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She felt lonely. None of her friends from university had contacted her during their summer break. She'd left messages with various parents and/or answering services but no one called back. Maisie was beginning to realize that she was only part of that scene during term-time.

It looked like this was her reality for the moment. She just had to make the best of it.

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Walking slowly back to her room in the rented house, she wondered what the rest of the summer might be like.

It occurred to her that it might be exactly the same as every other summer working at The Fitz - despite dreaming of adventures, it would be one long shift, followed by another until she'd paid off her debts from last term and had enough money to return to London.

Depressed at the thought of another wasted summer, she stopped off at the art-house cinema next door and ate popcorn for supper like the old days.

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DARREN

After their shifts ended on Saturday, Maisie got her stuff together and overheard Joan asking Darren if he wanted to go clubbing.

"Yeah, why not?" he said.

Then jerked his head at Maisie.

"Did you ask her?"

Joan didn't look best pleased. But she could tell that Darren wasn't just being nice. She gritted her teeth and said, as brightly as she could:

"Wanna come?"

Maisie did rather. Because she hadn't nothing else planned.

"I can get us into the Zao," said Darren. "My mate's sister Connie is DJ-ing."

"Constance Stallard?" said Maisie, surprised.

Darren raised an eyebrow.

Maisie pretended she was looking for something in her bag.

"Yeah, Pete's sister," nodded Darren, putting his arm around Joan who was seriously miffed by now. He gave her a squeeze and let his hand run over and down her back. She gave a squeal that was probably louder than she'd realized. Darren frowned and looked over again at Maisie.

"You on the list too, then?" he asked.

"Probably not," said Maisie, following them both up the stairs, averting her eyes as Darren had his hand on Joan's behind. "I haven't seen her since we left school."

As Darren and Joan walked ahead, Maisie wished she had enough self-esteem to make her own plans.

But she continued to tag along, ready to turn up Station Road if it looked like she was killing their vibe, or she chickened out before seeing Constance again.

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THE ZAO CLUB

At the Zao, the corrugated iron door was ajar and she could hear a track of music blending into another as a line of melody clashed with dark drumbeats and then, finally, silence - and then, the first strains of King Curtis' rendition of "A Whiter Shade of Pale".

It was still early. Before the club had really got into gear. Most people were drinking in the bar next door and the dance floor was empty. By 1 AM it would be heaving, but that was hours off. Maisie wasn't sure she'd last that long.

Her childhood friend Constance, dressed in boy’s jeans and a stringy tank top waved from the DJ booth. Maisie waved back and took a warm beer bottle from the crate in front of the booth.

CONSTANCE

She watched Constance for a while and tried to see if she had changed at all since last summer when they all celebrated the end of school and the beginning of what was next. Constance had stayed behind in Brighton to continue DJ-ing at the Zao.

Her parents were both in the music industry so rarely around and certainly didn't bug Constance to head to university. So she didn't.

When she was 16, Maisie had learned how to blow smoke rings in Constance’s bedsit opposite the Palace Pier. Her parents had emancipated her because she was either mature enough to deal with life, or they just couldn't take their friends knowing they had teenagers.

As far as Maisie knew, Constance's parents paid her rent, and gave her money for food. The rest she earned, or went home to get more. They'd offered to buy her a flat, somewhere nice, but Constance preferred the street cred, safe in the knowledge that her parents wouldn't visit her in the bedsit as it was horrible.

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Constance's bedsit was a one room disaster zone in a crumbling Regency house. The orange/brown swirl carpet studded with cigarette burns from the mid-70s, a kitchenette, never used, a bed, always unmade, and a nubbly brown sofa rescued from the street.

She lived with Jolyon, her sometime lover/sometime lodger, barely subsisting on pizza, beer and cigarettes, projecting Jean Luc Godard movies and stolen classics onto the blank wall from an old projector.

Jolyon was studying philosophy at Sussex University. At least, that's what his parents thought he was doing with their money.

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He wasn't doing much philosophy at all. But he certainly read a lot of books, mostly about Marxism and societal change.

Constance approved of radicalism. Yet Maisie was sure Jolyon would end up as a stockbroker like his father. It was in the genes. He was just too tall, willowy, effete and unsuited to life to be a real Marxist. The market would claim him at some point, she was convinced. He was harmless. Beautiful - but harmless.

On the other hand Maisie was a bit frightened of Constance. She had a tendency to say things that were unkind and not notice, or care, about the results. Then, just as quickly, she'd be so very friendly, and funny, that you wondered if she'd said any of those things at all.

BACK AT THE ZAO

Which is why Maisie was rather wary of approaching Constance during her set so she wondered around, sat on the beach for a while, came back into the club and suddenly it was late - and now everyone was dancing.

Finally Constance wrapped up her mix session in the booth and came down to look at Maisie who, like Constance, had changed radically in the course of a year. Constance took in the black bob that replaced the long blonde hair, the thin layer of black liquid eyeliner on her eyelids and the distinct dark circles underneath - then smirked.

Constance took the points of the new black bob and pulled them towards her cheekbones.

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“Very Louise Brooks,” she said.

Maisie grinned, but felt really foolish.

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Of course it was exactly why she had a black bob cut in the first place. But it was embarrassing to have someone know that about you.

Well before closing time, she slipped out the side door. Darren and the others had ignored her all night so she didn't say goodbye - they'd see each other in a few hours anyway.

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She made way up the hill, past the railway station.

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Once inside the front door, she paused.

It was a strange house (to her). No clutter or eccentricities or junk flowing down the stairs. There was even a coat stand by the door and a little shelf where you could hang your keys.

Maisie still thought that was so grown-up, so strange, but she carefully hung up the still unfamiliar key ring and checked her appearance in the hall mirror. She peered sadly at herself, thinking of Constance’s reaction to her carefully crafted new self-image.

Then she went upstairs and crawled into bed and try to fall asleep but she was hungry. She lay staring at the ceiling for ages. Then looked at the bedside alarm clock.

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It was 3 AM.

She padded downstairs and looked in the cupboards to see if they had any biscuits. She found a packet of Ovaltine cookies that she knew she could replace at the corner shop, and warmed up some milk in a saucepan on the top of the stove.

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Constance had asked her if she'd wanted to crash at their place. Even though that would have come with all sorts of complications, Maisie wished she'd said yes.

Then she took the milk and cookies up to her room, knowing she had a sleepless few hours ahead until going back to The Fitz for the breakfast shift.

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The Party (that wasn't really a party)

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The best thing about working in restaurants is they feed you. The worst thing about working in restaurants is you never buy food to keep in the house. Maisie woke up with a start as soon as the alarm went off and, because there was nothing to eat at home, got dressed and headed for the restaurant, early.

Summer passed quickly as the restaurant got busier and Maisie fell back into the routine of working, watching endless old movies and going clubbing at the Zao at the weekend.

Constance and Jolyon kept her company on the nights the Zao club was closed which made her feel like an interloper or a potential part of their perpetual drama.

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At the Fitz, Darren continued to flirt with her, while still sleeping with Joan, and Maisie just got used to half-enjoying the attention. The rest of the time she ignored his brooding glances and got on with her job.

One night, when the Zao was closed for a refit, Maisie had invited Darren, Joan and some of the other art student chefs and bus boys back to her rented house. It was a huge mistake. She didn't know how to throw a party - and, anyway, it wasn't strictly a party.

She bought bread, cheese, and some vegetables to cut into crudites and served them on large platters she'd found in the kitchen cupboards. They milled around outside while drinking wine filched from The Fitz's supply store, and awkwardly made conversation. No one was drunk enough to flirt, and Maisie's rental wasn't her place, not a student hovel, or a just-getting-by post-college crash pad.

It was overwhelmingly grown-up, with ceramics bought from interesting shops abroad, and art chosen by someone with money, but no real personal flair.

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The person who owned the house had been very clear there should be no smoking. So when someone lit up in the living room, Maisie rushed in and stammered that they'd have to go outside.

It wasn't really warm enough to have the party, such as it was, outside, so a few people stuck it out bravely munching raw vegetables and spreading runny brie on baguette, while privately wondering how long they could stick this out before they grabbed a smoke outside and then bought a slice of salty, hot, salami-laden pizza from the shop near the train station.

Just as Maisie thought it couldn't get any worse, Constance and Jolyon showed up. They were both starving, so pounced on the brie and finished off the baguette (they didn't do raw vegetables) and Jolyon chain-smoked while sitting on the back wall and giving a running commentary of the "Eastenders" episode playing on next door's television screen.

Darren tried to engage Constance in a deep conversation about rare vinyl but she wasn't having any of it. Joan was furious and threatened to storm off until Darren paid attention to her. By that point the wine had sunk into everyone's bloodstream and tempers were rising. The boredom threshold of people trying to interconnect with others they had nothing in common with had been not just reached, but breached.

One by one they took their leave and guiltily met up again at the pizza joint.

Jolyon had passed out in an armchair.

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Constance pretended to help Maisie with the washing up but was pretty ineffectual.

Eventually they left too.

No one mentioned Maisie's failed party the next day.

And, anyway, it wasn't really a party, as she kept telling herself in the bathroom mirror at The Fitz during her shift. So there was no need to cry about it.

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JOLYON LEAVES FOR LONDON

Then, one day, Constance moved to Glasgow to DJ and didn't leave a forwarding number. Maisie only found out when someone else was in the DJ booth that night.

After her shift the next day she went round to Constance’s bedsit and found Jolyon reading the newspaper.

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"When did she leave?"

He just shrugged. He couldn't quite remember.

They talked for a while. Jolyon did not appear to be upset. But there again she couldn’t remember Jolyon ever actually having any sort of emotion for as long as she had known him.

"Are you really reading a newspaper?"

He put it down and looked at her directly. He had never really met her eyes before and she could see something was different.

"I'm moving to London."

"London?"

"Yes, it's the capital city of the UK."

"I'm familiar with that fact. The question really is why?"

"I've got a job."

He got up and washed out a cup, poured her a cup of coffee and then vaguely motioned in the direct of the bedroom. Maisie decided not to pick up on the bait. She sipped the coffee and pretended to read the headlines in the Financial Times newspaper.

Her curiosity got the better of her.

"Like a real job?" she called out.

Jolyon didn't answer. She could hear the shower running.

It would be awkward to leave now, perhaps she'd wait for him to get ready and then maybe he'd tell her what was going on.

Plus, if she left now, she'd never find out if Constance had a forwarding address. Not that, now she thought about it, she'd actually write to her, but maybe, you know, the odd postcard, from the road. If she ever got on the road and had an adventure.

Jolyon walked back into the kitchen, a towel around his waist.

"You still here?" he said, sounding surprised.

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Maisie was about to become offended but realized she couldn't be bothered.

"I'm not due at the Fitz until 5 so I thought I'd hang out here until then. Unless you need me to go now," she added quickly.

"Well, yeah, sorta. Because I'm locking up soon. But if you wanna walk me to the station that would be grand."

"The station?"

"Yup. I'm catching the train. The station is where they keep the trains."

"Funny," said Maisie, not amused in the slightest.

"I'm moving to London," he continued, not picking up on her mood at all.

It was clear Jolyon had cleaned up his act. Maisie realized she'd never seen Jolyon sober. Or, in daylight. He was quite a different beast. Perhaps his stoner philosopher act had been for Constance's benefit and now she'd gone, he could revert to type.

"My brother lives in Blackheath," he continued.

Maisie had met Jolyon's brother. He was a fight instructor at The National Theatre, who lived with a crowd of dancers and actors in the top two floors of a massively rundown Edwardian town house in Blackheath.

Apparently they passed through each other’s bedrooms and lives under the watchful gaze of the mural of Salvador Dali painted on the kitchen wall, his mustache flicked over the peeling paint on the window frames.

“You could come and visit me, sometime,” said Jolyon, leaning back on the kitchen wall, taking a last look at the place.

Maisie stood up and looked around. She knew she'd never see this bedsit again. An era had ended.

They both knew she'd never visit him in London.

She wondered if she'd ever hear from Constance again either.

As she walked out into the rain-soaked street, she realized she was now late for work. She pulled her leather jacket close about her body and ran for the bus.

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LAST DAY AT THE FITZ

The next day at The Fitz was meant to be her last before she returned to university. She didn't tell anyone. But Mike, the manager, had quietly let the others know.

After the shift ended, Darren cut the lights while Joan carried out a huge pink frosted cake.

Maisie was stunned.

“Blow!” said Mike, a bit over enthusiastically, as the waitresses snorted.

She blew out the candles and everyone clapped, then rushed to grab cheap house wine from the back table. She looked around, confused.

Everyone was being nice to her, now she was leaving.

Maisie now understood that she was completely replaceable. That some other young girl would show up, asking for a job, once she'd left. They would slip into her place, just as she'd slipped into whoever preceded her.

Mike was signaling it was time to lock up. Everyone quickly stashed what was left of cake and wine in the kitchen, leaving the busboys to finish up.

Darren was already halfway out the door, his arm around Joan, when he looked back. Maisie was about to wave and smile, but she decided against it.

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“See you next time you're back in Brighton?” he said.

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“Oh, I'm not coming back,” she replied.

Darren told Joan to go to the Zao without him, he’d meet her there. She looked annoyed but walked off into the night.

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“We’re not good enough for you anymore?” he laughed.

Maisie knew she had to say something. If she didn't, she'd be doomed to repeat this experience. She'd go back to university for the Michaelmas Term and then find herself back here, yet again, next summer.

“Why are you still here? You graduated from art school three years ago."

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"When I first met you, you told me you were going to be the next Warhol.”

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Darren looked as if she'd reached in and twisted his heart into knots.

“You're really talented,” Maisie continued, feeling stronger and stronger.

“I've seen your graduation show work in Mike's flat. Your paintings are amazing.”

They both knew Mike only bought the canvases because Darren was about to get evicted. But Maisie could see Darren had talent. Mike just took her word for it that they were an investment.

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“It's just, you know,” he said, finally.

And she did.

For the first time since she'd worked at the Fitz, Maisie didn't feel like the youngest, or the most naive person, working there. She had learned something this summer. She wasn't sure exactly what it was. But she knew she wasn't going to stick around here when there were other places to go. This couldn't be her go-to summer gig anymore.

If she didn't make this her last summer, she knew she'd end up like Darren and the others. Not fulfilling their potential. Stuck inside a loop of work-clubbing-sleeping and the constant round of flirtation with the latest newbie staff member on rotation.

MAISIE CATCHES A TRAIN

Mike slipped her an envelope with some money in it as a parting gift.

Maisie walked back to the house she'd been renting and made sure all the appliances were turned off. Then she made the bed, stuffed her clothes into her duffel bag.

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and put the keys through the letter box as she left.

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"Hi," said a voice behind her at the train station.

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It was Constance.

"What are you doing here?" said Maisie.

"I couldn't hack it in Glasgow. I missed Brighton."

Maisie could feel the pull of her life, very recently uprooted, want to take hold again. She resisted.

"Oh. Well, I'm heading back to university on the next train."

"Can't you stay?" said Constance, who looked really tired and wrung out. "Just for a few days?"

"What happened in Scotland, with your job?" Maisie was buying time, and she knew it.

Constance looked around the station. She didn't answer. Maisie realized she was expecting Jolyon to be here.

"Constance, did you know Jolyon's in London now?"

"Since when?"

"He got a job and moved in with his brother, in Blackheath."

"Shit. He never told me."

Maisie was surprised that Constance hadn't known. But there again, their relationship - such as it was - didn't run on tracks called normal.

Constance seemed at a loss. She looked at Maisie's bag.

"Is that all you have?"

"Yes, I left the rest of the stuff in storage at university."

"So you're really going back?"

Maisie realized that Constance thought she'd come back to Brighton, and was going to stay, like everyone else they knew - until Jolyon's recent defection to the Big Smoke.

"I'm glad I caught you," said a voice behind her.

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It was Darren.

Constance looked between the two of them. "Didn't know you two had a summer fling," she said, not hiding her disappointment at Maisie's choice of lover.

"We didn't." Maisie and Darren said at the same time.

Then Constance noticed Darren had his artist's easel and oil paints in a case, with a backpack slung over his shoulder.

"Are you leaving too?" said Constance.

"Yes," said Darren, nodding at Maisie. "She gave me a wake-up call."

"What are you going to do?" asked Maisie.

"I'm going to stay with a mate in Blackheath and paint his crazy housemates until Christmas, then look for a job in a gallery, or something art related, while I save up enough cash to get a studio."

Maisie was impressed and she didn't bother hiding it.

"Are you on the 5:13?" she asked.

"Do you want to sit together?" he said.

"Sure."

They smiled at each other.

"Wait for me over by the platform," said Constance, suddenly, running across the station to buy a ticket for the 5:13 too.

As the train pulled out, Darren, Maisie and Constance were swapping notes about their last summer in Brighton.

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Not knowing, for once, what tomorrow would bring.

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But knowing it couldn't possibly be anything like yesterday, or the day before that, or the day before that.

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