As part of the blog tour for Poor Hands by Oliver Tidy, I am sharing an exciting extract which will definitely make you want to pick up Poor Hands to see what happened next, I know I want to!
In a big old building on the south coast of Kent, David Booker runs a book-themed coffee shop and Jo Cash operates a private investigation business. They live there, too. But not like that.
Jo needs help with tracing a mystery client's living relatives. David needs help with his staffing problems. Will they both get what they are looking for?
Sometimes two heads are better than one. Sometimes a poor hand is better than none. But not always...
‘So which are you and why is it important?’ said Jo, sipping her usual.
The white mocha left a milky residue on her top lip – something innocently childish. Using her tongue like a windscreen wiper to remove it she shattered that illusion, seemingly oblivious to the effect on me.
‘Why is it important?’ I said. ‘You’d better keep your voice down unless you want trouble from locals with pride in their roots.’
Jo raised one eyebrow and the dimple on her right cheek appeared as she gave me one of her stock looks – the one she reserved for fools and flannel.
‘There is a long and bitter history involved,’ I said. ‘Less so now as we’ve become more interconnected, more joined, more … united. But things have not always been so amicable in the Garden of England.’
Jo shook her head. ‘Sometimes it would be nice if you just answered a simple question … simply.’
‘Where’s the fun in that?’
‘Why do you think all conversations need to be fun, David? I have to tell you, I can find that quite trying, especially when I’m not in the best of moods.’
‘They don’t. I don’t,’ I said, skating around the ‘outing’ of her mood. ‘Maybe fun was the wrong word. Maybe I should have said that to give a simple answer to a simple question might, in some cases, be to deny an opportunity for social intercourse.’
‘And that would be a bad thing because?’
‘Because … because I was brought up on BT ads. They’ve had a deep and meaningful psychological impact on my interpersonal skills.’
Now she was frowning at me. Like her raised eyebrow look, it was not something I was unfamiliar with. She said, ‘I know I’m going to regret this but: BT ads?’
‘It’s good to talk.’
Jo closed her eyes for a long moment, breathed in and out deeply. But there was something else, something to make my heart strings strum a melodious chord, something to suggest a thawing of her ‘mood’ – a twitch at the corner of her mouth giving me a glimmer of hope she was about to brighten up the room and my day with a smile. A crumb from her emotional table for my fantasies to feed upon.
I was in love with Jo. Truly, madly … unrequitedly. I’d tried fighting it. Tried to understand how my feelings for her risked the special friendship we were developing. My fancies were foolish and I knew it because Jo had been clear with me from early on in our odd relationship – we were not to be. But as Will once famously remarked: the course of true love never did run smooth. And I was ever the optimist.
I sensed it would be wise to provide explanations. ‘I am a Man of Kent, not a Kentish Man. You want details?’
‘You being simple …’ She waited a beat, ‘… with your explanation.’
I turned up the heat on her morning thaw with some of that direct simplicity she craved. ‘The traditionally accepted dividing line that separates Men of Kent from Kentish Men is the River Medway. North and west of the Medway are Kentish Men. South and east are Men of Kent. You want more?’ She had her mouth full so could only nod for yes. ‘Jutes settled in the east of the county about fifteen hundred years ago, while Saxons settled in the west.’
‘What’s a Jute?’
‘Jutes were one of the three main Germanic peoples of the time. The others were the Saxons and the Angles. Jutes invaded and settled southern England during the Age of Migrations in the fourth century.’
She said, ‘How do you retain this stuff? And why?’
‘It’s my history. History matters. Understanding the past shapes the way we view the present. And it’s important to know where we come from.’
She showed me what she thought of that with her neatly plucked raised eyebrows.
‘As for why?’ I said. ‘I can’t help it. Some things you learn you can’t unlearn.’
‘Unlearn? You mean forget. Unlearn isn’t a real word.’
Jo had developed a liking for finding fault with my English. I put it down to an inferiority complex.
She said, ‘Getting back to your sermon on local history …’
‘It’s not a sermon. Sermons address biblical, theological, religious or moral topics. It’s an … explanation.’
She said, ‘Well, you are starting to sound a bit preachy.’
I used my free hand to make a sign of the cross at her that finished with a karate chop in the general direction of her neck.
‘Getting back to your lecture,’ she said, ‘and the Saxons settled above the Medway.’
I was impressed with her grasp of the rudiments and let her know it with a smile. ‘Yes.’
She said, ‘So between them the Saxons and the Jutes had all the Angles covered.’
Her laugh at the expression I had for that encouraged a couple of nearby customers to turn and look in our direction. Because I owned the place I smiled nicely back.
Jo said, ‘What you’re saying essentially is the south-east of England is largely populated by people of Germanic descent?’
‘Maybe that’s why the south-east is so much more efficiently run than the rest of the country,’ I said, with a wintry smile. ‘For the sake of historical clarity, I should also like to add that the Men of Kent – my side of the Medway – resisted William the Conqueror in 1066 to the extent they were able to achieve an honourable peace settlement with that invader, which in turn led to them being granted certain rights and privileges. The Kentish Men of the day just surrendered to him – capitulated without a fight. And got nothing.’
‘So Men of Kent think they’re better men than Kentish Men for that, do they?’
I made a face indicating my reluctance to comment, while at the same time agreeing with her. It’s not an easy face to pull.
Jo said, ‘And that’s why the distinction is important? Because of something that happened a thousand years ago? Why does that strike me as pathetic?’
‘Remind me, where do your ancestors originate from?’
‘I don’t know and I don’t particularly care. One thing I remember from somewhere I’ve forgotten is what Henry Ford said: the only history that matters is the history we make today.’
‘He was an American; what do you expect? They’re just jealous because they haven’t got anything to be proud of in their short time on the planet. That’s why they’re always flocking over here, desperately searching for someone in their family tree to lay claim to.’
Jo gave me a strange look. It was the kind of look to have me reaching for a paper napkin and blowing my nose.
‘What?’ I said.
‘I hope you’re referring to your thoughts and not what you’re looking at – me.’
She did smile then. Something squirmed in my guts. Why couldn’t she have felt the same?
She took another sip of her coffee before saying, ‘Wait there. Don’t move and don’t let them take my drink. I’m not finished.’
Before I could say, where are you going? she was on her way. My gaze never left her retreating backside, perfectly formed and tightly wrapped in faded denim. Again, why couldn’t she have felt the same?
With a sigh I returned my interest to my newspaper. A shadow fell across the table. It was Linda, one of my ladies. She said, ‘When are you two going to stop pretending?’
I felt myself colour. Chuckling to herself, she moved on to clear tables.
We were about half full, which was fairly good and fairly typical for my coffee shop business for the time of day. After a stuttering and shaky start Bookers was becoming celebrated locally and regionally. We’d been featured in local papers, a couple of glossy Kent-based lifestyle mags, and I’d even done a short interview on Romney Marsh FM. Word of mouth, too, had spread news of our little oasis of culture in a seaside town characterised by honky-tonk tourist tat, and everything with chips to the extent that we were now ‘known’. We’d also enjoyed appreciative visits from foreign tourists who’d heard about the place on the tourist grapevine and dropped in for a look, some coffee and cake. People were driving good distances to Dymchurch, a little seaside village on the south-east coast of Kent with the intention of making coffee and cake in Bookers part of their jaunt. That made me prouder than anything I’d ever achieved in my thirty-something years. And I’d been a teacher.
The coffee was good. The cake was very good – all homemade and bespoke locally with ingredients to do the recipes proud. Truth was I didn’t make much profit on the cake, but it got people coming back. However, I believed the main reason Bookers attracted a certain kind of person and then encouraged them to return was the ambience.
The place used to be a second-hand bookshop. It had been run by my uncle and aunt forever. I’d inherited it after their untimely and nasty deaths at the hands of a trio of psychopaths. As sole beneficiary of their estate, instead of cashing in all assets and retiring to the sun I’d given up my day job, invested a significant amount of their stocks and shares money and turned the place into a book-themed coffee shop. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. These days it seemed like a better one. I don’t know that either of them would have approved but I know a lot of my customers did. Floor to ceiling books in glass fronted cases, thoughtfully arranged groups of seating, carefully considered lighting, the odd rampant and luxuriant green-leaved plant, soothing colours and, usually, a relaxing strain of jazz or classical music seeping quietly out of the sound system’s speakers. I saw Bookers as a refuge in a busy, noisy, stressful world. Somewhere people could come and be calmed by the atmosphere and their surroundings, take some time out to recharge their humanity and civility before once more stepping unto the breach of the real world. That was the theory anyway. It worked for me.
It’d been suggested, half-jokingly, that we have a visitors’ book. I’d laughed the idea off and then gone out and bought one. It sat on the far end of the counter and was almost full – a written testament to the growing success of the venture. Of all the thousands of books in the place – some of which would easily fetch several hundred pounds on second hand book sites – it was my most valuable. And so it was quite ironic that while all the others were securely locked away behind glass-fronted bookshelves from those with sticky fingers – in both senses of the expression – the visitor book was lying where anyone could knock coffee over it, smear it with greasy fingerprints or just pick it up and walk out with it. Wilde would have something pithy to say about it.
A young woman pushing through the front door in a hurry caught my attention. She shut it behind her and gave a long look down the high street in the direction she’d come from. Something about her struck me as odd. Maybe it was her clothes – they looked like they needed a good wash, or replacing. Maybe it was her restless body language. Maybe it was the itinerant look her grubby holdall gave her. And she was wearing an overcoat. It was summer. I continued to regard her as I sipped my drink.
She turned to see where she’d stumbled into. She looked like she could’ve done with something to eat and drink but had other things on her mind, like seeking sanctuary. Her face was lined and shadowed with anxiety. She was pasty and furtive. I recognised in her a fear of something, or someone. My interest increased a notch.
From behind the counter, Mel, another of my ladies, had also taken an interest in the visitor. Hers was centred on what she wanted to order. Mel had to address her twice before the young woman – she was looking more like a girl to me by now, I guessed it was her troubles that put the years on her – realised she was being spoken to. She flinched and shrank a little.
A bit louder and a bit slower, Mel said, ‘What can I get you?’ I caught the impatience that often infected Mel’s manner when dealing with the distracted and dithering that crossed Bookers’ threshold. We called them our ‘Twiglet Zone’ customers.
The girl blinked rapidly a few times. Her head twitched as her eyes darted between Mel and the window. ‘Coffee,’ she said. ‘Small, black.’
Mel turned to make it. Cautiously the girl approached the front window. Again, she looked down the high street in the direction she’d come from. She saw something that disturbed her. Pulling away from the window, almost colliding with someone on the way out but seemingly oblivious to it, she turned back to the room. She looked paler still and her eyes had widened. She seemed frightened.
‘You have toilet, please?’ she said.
With her back to the girl as she made her drink, Mel pointed to where they were at the rear of the premises. The girl hurried away from the counter clutching her holdall to her chest.
Mel called after her. The girl did not respond. Mel made a face, mumbled something, and set the drink down on the counter.
My attention strayed to the large picture window that gave on to the high street. A steady trickle of people drifted aimlessly up and down. I’d seen some of them more than once already – a sure sign the tide was in.
In the continuous flow of human traffic a man stopped. He was big, broad and bald. He made me think of a boulder dropped into a stream and the pedestrians were the water that had to find a way around him. He cupped his hands against the window and took a good unselfconscious look inside.
After several long seconds he turned back to scan the road, left and right, up and down – this was not difficult for him because he was a head taller than anyone else I saw – but he didn’t move away. His big barrel chest rose and fell, like he’d been hurrying and wasn’t used to it.
A young couple came in chatting loudly. The man approached the counter while the woman found them a table. Mel served him. I watched the man outside. He turned to look back into Bookers and I made a decision. I left my table and went to stand behind the counter with Mel. She shot me a look that said, what are you doing working? Sarcasm as well as impatience.
The man came through the front door. He took a long moment for his vision to adapt from the glare of outside to the shaded interior. His eyes roamed the tables. I felt my heart working. I wondered if, since working with Jo on her private investigator business, I was developing a radar for trouble. The man oozed it.
He turned his big head in my direction. I forced myself to smile a welcome.
He took two big strides towards me and said, ‘I’m looking for a girl.’
His voice was low and raspy, his accent not local. He smelled – a sour unwashed stink. I put him in his late forties. His face had a purple tint to it – booze and outdoor living. His bald head and his stubbly right cheek were lightly scarred. His hard little eyes, like polished black stones, peered out from beneath his jutting brow. I’d seen eyes like that before – the reptile house at Port Lympne zoo.
‘Sorry, we only serve drinks and cake,’ I said.
‘About this tall,’ he said, indicating with his hand the height of the girl in my toilets. ‘Blonde, scrawny. Wearing a green coat and carrying a bag.’
This was a man, I understood, who didn’t value the ‘fun’ of social intercourse, who wanted answers to his questions quickly and didn’t appreciate people wasting his time or lying to him.
‘A blue holdall?’ I said.
Like a wrecking-ball in slow motion, his big head swung round to face me. His beady eyes locked onto mine. I felt the unsettling intensity of his rigid stare bore into my skull like an electric drill-bit.
I said, ‘I just saw a girl who looked like that get into a van. It went that way.’ I pointed in the general direction of Hythe.
His jaw tensed and his nostrils flared. For a long and tense moment I thought he didn’t believe me. If the girl were to break cover now thinking the coast was clear, if Mel, was to contradict me and tell him where the girl really was then I could see him reaching across the counter with one of his well developed arms – they had the muscle tone of a professional athlete’s legs – grabbing me by the throat and choking the life out of me without much effort.
I found some bravado. ‘You want something to drink or not, mate? I’m busy here.’
He looked me up and down, letting me know he shit bigger things, scowled and turned to go. His hand on the door handle, he turned back as I was letting out the breath I’d been holding.
‘What was the make of van?’ He really did give the impression he asked questions for answers.
I shrugged. ‘Didn’t see.’ I turned away from him hoping he’d just leave.
‘Colour?’ he said.
‘It was white,’ said Mel.
Jo had to stand back or risk being knocked down as he went out. She scowled after his back. The big man hurried away – a boulder dislodged and on the move. The immovable object turned unstoppable force. I sincerely hoped I’d never see him again.
‘What a charmer,’ Jo said. ‘You really need to up the quality of your clientele.’
I said, ‘He wasn’t a customer, thank God.’ I smiled at Mel. ‘Thanks. What made you say that?’
Mel was still looking out of the window. Her top lip had developed a bit of a curl. ‘That was a bad man.’
‘You know him?’ I said.
She shook her head. ‘I know his type.’
Jo said, ‘Someone going to tell me what’s going on? What did I miss?’
Still talking to Mel, I said, ‘You want to tell her he’s gone?’
‘Tell who who’s gone?’ said Jo.
‘A young woman came in right after you left. She looked frightened. I think she was trying to avoid him. She hid in the loos and then the missing link walked in asking if we’d seen her.’
‘And you lied to him?’
Jo made a face. ‘Let’s hope he doesn’t come back then.’
‘That’s what I was thinking when you walked in.’
The door opened. We all looked round a little too quickly. It wasn’t him.
Jo said, ‘You want me to speak to her?’
‘Thanks,’ said Mel, pinning a smile to her face for the new customers.
I went back to our table and my coffee. I was sweating. Jo headed for the toilets. She was back in seconds.
‘That was quick,’ I said. ‘Where is she?’
‘Gone. Bogs are empty.’
We both looked towards the doors that gave out onto the gravel parking area at the back of the property and then the public car park beyond that. One of the fire doors was open and swinging in the light breeze.
‘That’s that then,’ said Jo.
‘Seems so,’ I said.
‘So, you want to know why I went upstairs?’
‘Sure,’ I said, but I was still looking at the open back door.
Jo waved the paper in front of my face, encouraging me out of my trance and to pay attention.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I’m worried for her.’
‘Did you know her?’
‘No, but she looked so … lost and lonely, vulnerable and afraid.’
‘You want to go and look for her?’
I studied Jo’s face to see if she’d asked the question in earnest. I smiled and shook my head. I took and released a big breath. ‘Go on then – what are you so excited about?’
As Jo unfolded a piece of paper half my attention drifted back to the girl and her haunted look as she’d hurried past my table. I hoped that wherever she’d disappeared to she’d been able to evade the beast pursuing her.
About The Author
Oliver Tidy was born and bred on Romney Marsh, Kent. After a fairly aimless foray into adulthood and a number of unfulfilling jobs he went back to education and qualified as a primary school teacher.
A few years of having the life sucked out of him in the classroom encouraged Oliver abroad to teach English as a foreign language. The lifestyle provided him the time and opportunity to try his hand at writing.
Oliver's success as a self-published author has led to his Booker & Cash series of books, which are set mainly on Romney Marsh, being signed by Bloodhound Books.
Oliver is now back living on Romney Marsh and writing full time.
Connect With Oliver Tidy
Twitter - @olivertidy
Website - https://olivertidy.com/
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Amazon - Oliver Tidy
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