Authors: Oliver Tidy
The First Booker & Cash Story
Copyright 2014 Oliver Tidy
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Oliver Tidy has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
This is a work of fiction. All characters in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead is purely coincidental.
Good wombs have borne bad sons
William Shakespeare. The Tempest. Act I Scene ii.
Table of Contents
Like everything that ever happens, it had to start somewhere. For the want of a nail and all that... But the nail had to be missing for a reason, right?
Everything has a trigger, a beginning. A train wreck has to pull out of a station. A chain must have its first link. But even that has to be forged somewhere and designed before that. Like trying to contemplate the infinity of space, or the stupidity of Mankind, that kind of thinking can make your head swim. And it never seems to help.
It was going to happen regardless of me. But my involvement in the aftermath could have been limited, if not avoided completely, had I not been where I was when I was. And the only reason I was there then was because of something that happened somewhere else.
I’ll say it started when my wife fell down two steps and lost our baby. Looking at it that way gives me something concrete to blame – metaphorically and literally – something nothing to do with me. I wasn’t there.
The truth is we were struggling long before that. The baby was a reckless attempt at finding something to hold our brokenness together. Like taping up the fractured wing of a plane with duct tape before taking on an ocean, we were doomed to failure. It was also stupid because I think not so deep down we both knew we’d had enough of each other. Our bell had tolled. Its death knell had sounded loud and clear and we had ignored it.
If we hadn’t lost the baby I would have stayed in Istanbul for the holiday. If we hadn’t lost the baby we would’ve had something to cling to, an excuse to pretend we could still make us work. It seems a tough thing to think now but I can’t be sorry for what happened.
With the superstitious influence of her cultural DNA, my wife saw the loss as a sign. I saw it as an opportunity. When I’m drunk and honest, I see it as a blessing. And then I hate myself.
To our shame and with renewed and increased hostility, we fell back to our trenches, to our sniping, rowing and blaming with the new ammunition.
I booked a flight back to England for the school mid-term break. We had decided to give each other a bit of room – the kind of room you could fight a small war in.
I was teaching English in a little private school to spoilt kids of rich and ruinous parents, having fled to Turkey on a whim after a failed marriage. I was married again within a year. To a Turk. Frying pans and fires. It seemed like a good idea at the time and I’ll never regret those first sweet months.
I had an uncle in Kent – a book dealer. He became another victim of the economic recession and hiked business rates. His candle was being blow-torched away at both ends. It was sink or swim and he didn’t care to get wet so he retired, gracefully. Although the way my aunt told it the towel hit the far wall pretty hard. You’ll notice the use of the past tense. He’s dead. They both are.
He had a good stock. Signed modern first editions were his field and after half-a-lifetime farming it, he knew his onions. He knew enough to have made a name and a living for himself and his wife. They never had children.
So I took advantage of the loss of a life, the breakdown of a relationship, a school holiday and a retirement and offered them the help they needed. They were closing the business, boxing the stock and shipping it off to a collector in the States. They’d done well out of it, all things considered. The buyer was generous – American, new money, looking for an instant library to impress his visitors, I guessed.
My uncle and aunt needed help with the packing and recording of the stock for shipment. It was a big job for six and there’d be three of us. They also needed help from someone who knew what they were doing. That’s why me. You could say it was in my blood.
I know about books. With my family background, I should. I also shared my relatives’ passion for the written word. I don’t know everything but I know enough. I know something of authors worth collecting. I can identify a first edition. I know about the importance of condition. But most of all I know how to handle a book and that is what my relatives needed: someone who cared something for what they were doing; someone who knew what they were doing when it came to handling, packing and boxing. They needed someone they could trust, someone who was available and someone who would work for love, board and lodging. And with those requirements and rewards there weren’t many applicants, let alone qualified contenders.
I caught the midday plane out of Ataturk airport on a warm Istanbul April morning. As soon as we were airborne, I felt a weight lifted. I was getting away from the source of my unhappiness. Leaving behind another failed relationship. But it was temporary. I would be back in a week to face the consequences of my
. As soon as the refreshment trolley rattled up the aisle, I started drinking.
If I hadn’t fallen asleep after the in-flight meal I might have had problems. As it was, I got off the plane with a tongue that could have come from one of my running shoes and eyes that felt like they’d played marbles in the sand.
Through immigration, baggage reclaim and customs. I got a quick black coffee and a slow train down to Ashford.
By the time I stepped out of Ashford International station the English spring evening resembled what little I’d left of my drink: dark, cold and wet. And I had a reminder of one of the reasons I was living in self-imposed exile. I pulled my fleece free from my bag, shrugged it on and scanned the car park for my lift. It wasn’t there.
I’d rung three times on my way down to the coast to no reply. It bothered me a bit. I’d left a message each time. I checked my phone again: no messages, no missed calls. I rang again and waited.
I waited an hour, smoking and wondering and calling. The smoking made me queasy. The wondering turned into worry and then something to gnaw at my spirit, to discomfort me. The phone went unanswered.
I realised I was either going to smoke myself to death, risk a brush with hypothermia or have to shell out for a taxi. I was depressed but I wasn’t suicidal and I don’t like the cold when I’m not dressed for it. I took a taxi. I sat in the back. Either he took the hint or he didn’t feel like talking much either, which suited me just fine. I wasn’t in the mood for banal chit-chat.
Romney Marsh was dark enough that I could barely make out anything familiar. That was good, too. I didn’t need the distraction of what was flashing past outside. I had enough on my mind.
Sometimes on my returns, seeing the old places I’d grown up with and lived in for too long depressed me. Mostly, it was good to be out of it, but just as sad to realise how much of my life I’d spent there, wasted there. Now and again it was fine to come home: when the sun shone down from brilliant blue vapour-trail-streaked skies on a still summer’s day, or the winter snow was deep and crisp and even, Ingoldsby’s ‘fifth continent’ could be quite glorious.
One trouble with Romney Marsh: there’s too much wind and rain and grey in-between. Another is that growing up on the Marsh promises nothing but more of the same if you don’t get off it. For some that seems fine. Good luck to them. It wasn’t for me. I guess I just hadn’t found that thing, or one, to make it seem worth spending the whole of my life there.
Half an hour later and twenty pounds poorer I was standing in a bleak Dymchurch high street outside my relatives’ bookshop. I could smell the sea. The air was clammy with salt and damp. The wind couldn’t make up its mind which way to blow. The winter covers were still on the rides of the fairground opposite. The silhouettes of their oddly industrial shapes looming threateningly out of the night did nothing to hint at fun. There was a trickle of passing watery headlights. As the wind whipped around, I got a nose-full of the Indian take-away and realised how hungry I was. As I stood remembering, a fine misty rain started to fall. Above me, the metal sign above the bookshop creaked as it swung from its bracket – an eerie lonely sound, the sound an iron gibbet might have made at a medieval crossroads.
A stooped figure shuffled up the pavement towards me dragging a reluctant fat, old dog with one hand and holding a hat down with the other. Neither of them looked like they wanted to be out. Above the noise of the sign and the odd swish of rubber on tarmac I heard a wave break on the shingle ten yards the other side of the fun fair – high tide.
I experienced an urge to go and stand on the sea wall, stare out at the inky, forbidding expanse of night and English Channel, drink in the sea air and let it fill and cleanse my insides, soak into my skin. The sentimental thought made me feel foolish. It made me smile.
My uncle and aunt owned the freehold of the building outright. They lived above the business. A warren of a place spread over three floors: one for the business, two for them. Being just them and both being incurable bibliophiles most of the rooms were crammed with books that either the shop didn’t have room for or they weren’t selling.
There were no lights on anywhere and my first thought was they were on their way to pick me up; we’d passed like the proverbial ships in the night. There was still nothing from them on my phone.
The external entrance to the accommodation above was around the back. I hefted my bag and headed towards the narrow track that ran between the bread shop – three doors down – and a tearoom. It was a right of way for the bakers, an alarm company, my relatives’ business, a small general store and a sprawling untidy builder’s yard that spread out behind them all. The way wasn’t lit and I managed to find two puddles in the rutted track.
The shadows and shapes at the rear of the properties were familiar to me. One I didn’t expect to see there was my uncle’s car. It was parked up on the pea shingle at the back of the shop.
I looked up at the three-storey building. Its triple-pitched roof above a dark weather-boarded exterior reached up to the low cloud like a clichéd haunted house. There were no lights on this side either. As I crunched over the small stones my brow furrowed with concern and questions.
I felt the bonnet of the car. It was cold as a slab of refrigerated meat.
I knew from experience that banging on the sturdy back door was a waste of time. There was an airlock-sized space beyond, another stout door and then a flight of stairs before another door to their apartment. No one ever heard banging on the outer door and I wasn’t of the opinion there was anyone at home to listen.