This is an extract from my first novel, The Golden Virginian. Set in Gravesend in 1997, our hero is Tommy Tucker, a 21 year old stoner. Things are going from bad to worse for Tommy; he’s been dumped by his girlfriend, lost his job and he’s got sick on his shoes. But a Sunday lunch with his ex’s parents changes everything. Alf and Lou try and convince Tommy that all is not what it seems in Gravesend…
There is a hidden side to Tommy’s home town, driven by a mysterious force called Shade, and overseen by Alf, who is The Searcher of the Thames, a secret role going back to the 1400’s. In this scene, Alf takes Tommy to see someone who might help him understand Shade.
‘Lou not coming with us?’ asked Tommy when they were outside.
‘Where we’re going is no place for a lady.’
Alf headed away from the river into town at such a brisk pace Tommy struggled to keep up. The cobbles on the High Street were slippery underfoot, and the three pints, double brandy and hefty dose of weirdness at lunch had left Tommy decidedly wobbly.
‘Come on,’ Alf called back, ‘Not far now.’
For a big bloke, he sure could shift.
When Tommy caught up, Alf was stood outside a grotty looking shop front. The words ‘Pete’s Cabs’ were stuck onto the inside of the filthy window, along with a phone number. The pavement outside was littered with polystyrene cups and fast food wrappers.
The door to Pete’s Cabs opened, and out stepped a woman. She could have been thirty five. She could have been sixty five. Her face was hard and sun beaten, like an expertly tanned leather. She wore garish pink eye shadow which clashed with her electric blue mascara, applied so thickly her eyelashes had banded together to form three solid points on each eye. Her neck was draped in gold chains, hung with various trinkets including a massive golden clown and a boxing glove spiked with tiny gem stones. A stonewashed denim jacket and some baggy leggings hung off her skinny frame.
‘I thought you said this was no place for a lady?’
‘That was no lady,’ Alf said once she was out of earshot. ‘That was what is affectionately known in the cabbing trade as a rank-rat. They like to hang around taxi ranks, giving the drivers…er, shall we say… helping the drivers to relax in between jobs.’
Alf pushed the door open and went inside. Tommy followed.
The stench of sweat was the first thing that assaulted Tommy’s senses upon entering. Stale sweat, with an undercurrent of rancid cheese. The next layer of odour was more understated, but all the more offensive once Tommy realised what it was. The unmistakable tang of male ejaculate, mingled with the cheap perfume of the rank rat. The next wave to hit the nose was shit; the stink of a thousand blocked toilets. The final note in the delicate bouquet that pervaded Pete’s Cabs was smoke, a miasma of which hung visibly in the air of the cramped office, a couple of inches above head height.
On the wall was a huge map of Gravesend, with pins stuck in at seemingly random points all over the town and surrounding villages. In front of the map was a desk covered with piles of paper, behind which a woman’s voice was barking orders.
‘Sierra-Two…Sierra-Two…pick up at Woodlands.’
A crackly voice replied over the radio, ‘I’m P.O.B. Won’t be clear ‘til gone six.’
‘Ok Sierra-Two. Anyone clear for pick up at Woodlands?’
To the side of the cluttered desk was a doorway, partially covered by a mildew stained curtain.
Alf shouted through the opening, ‘John! JOHN! You in there?’
‘I thought his name was Pete?’
‘It is,’ said Alf, as if it were obvious.
A loud spluttering cough announced the entrance of a man whose palette consisted entirely of two colours: grey and yellow. His skin was a sallow ash, as though no oxygen had made it to the surface since the 70s. The whites of his eyes. were no longer white, but a sickly, pale lemon. His shirt was the colour of used dish-water with yellow stains mushrooming out from under the arms. Wispy grey hair was dotted about the sides of his head, the top of which was shiny-bald. A smile broke out on his face when he spotted Alf, presenting to Tommy an array of misshapen, rotted tooth stumps, also shaded in two-tone yellow and grey.
‘Alf! Good to see you, my boy. This is him, then?’
‘Yep, this is the one. We haven’t exactly got very far though.’
‘I’m sure you’ve got far enough to let Old Uncle Petey take over.’
The man’s flies were undone, exposing a sliver of urine soaked underpant. He gestured for Tommy and Alf to follow him, and they both ducked under the moth-eaten curtain, into a small back room. Plates covered with putrid, rotting food were stacked up in the corner. A huge ashtray overflowed onto a tea-stained fold-out table. Wrinkled newspapers and the odd technicolour porno magazine were strewn around. A Sikh man reclined on a threadbare armchair, snoring loudly. His white turban shone as a lonely beacon of cleanliness in an otherwise foul space.
‘Right, who’s for a cuppa?’ said Pete.
A discarded mug on the floor with hairy green mould peeking out over the top told Tommy all he needed to know.
‘We’re good, thanks Pete,’ Alf jumped in, ‘Just come from the pub. Tommy here could do with a sit down and a smoke though. I showed him a nymph-stone, and now he doesn’t know if he’s coming or going.’
‘Ah, first introduction to Shade, eh? Bet you think Alf is having you on? Big joke on you, eh? Well, sit down, make yourself at home, and Old Petey will tell you all about it.’
Pete, or John, or whatever his name was, strolled over to the armchair in the corner and poked the sleeping Sikh with his foot.
‘Vik, time to go back to work. Time is money.’
The young man opened his eyes a crack and surveyed the room, getting his bearings. He jumped up, gave the trio a quick nod and bolted out of the dingy backroom.
Tommy sat down on a rickety chair next to the equally unstable table, and began to skin up.
‘Ah, fan of the old wacky baccy, eh? Like to smoke the peace pipe? Good stuff, good stuff. Makes you more open to the world, widens the perception. Yes, good, good.’
‘Look, Pete, or John, or whatever your name is,’ Tommy said as he lit his spliff. ‘This is all very nice, but can we get to the point. Alf showed me this weird nymph-stone thing and told me he was a magical tax-collector. So what’s going on?’
‘All in good time, all in good time. First, let me introduce myself. My name, to answer your first question, is John Pete, and I am a Gentleman.’
Tommy giggled at the idea of this grubby little gnome as a gentleman. John Pete carried on, pretending not to notice.
‘There are, and there have only ever been, Four Gentleman in Gravesend.’
‘Now that, I do believe,’ Tommy said firmly. Gravesend men were a lot of things, but in his experience, none could be described as gentlemen.
‘Before there was a Searcher, there were Four Gentlemen. In the Roman times, there were Four Gentleman. In the Saxon times, there were Four Gentlemen. In the wild and ancient, tribal times…’
‘Let me guess,’ Tommy cut in. ‘There were Four Gentlemen.’
‘No, there weren’t. That’s why they were the wild times.’
John Pete looked over at Alf. ‘He hasn’t half got a smart mouth on him, are you sure about this?’
‘Sure about what?’ Tommy felt there was a second conversation going on here. A party he wasn’t invited to.
‘You know I’m sure. I’ve known him since he was a kid, seen him grow up. He’s not there yet, but he’ll learn. There’s no rush, is there?’
‘No rush for what? Sure about what? I’ve got places I could be you know, better places than in this shit-hole listening to you two prattle on like a pair of old women.’
John Pete fixed Tommy with a stare, and a television flicked on in the corner of the room.
Where there was no television.
‘Where have you got to be, son?’ His voice, previously so frantic and nasal, was now slow and dripping with purpose, like a recording played through treacle.
‘Where have you got to be, other than right here? You’ve got no girlfriend. No job. No money. And right this second, there is a mouse nibbling its way through the only food you’ve got in your flat. So tell me, where you gonna go?’
As the little man talked, Tommy saw a tiny mouth in the centre of his pupil, and as he watched that mouth talking, his eye was drawn in further to see another, even more tiny mouth inside that one. The longer he stared, the more mouths were reflected inside John Pete’s grey eyes, an infinity of mouths stretching away from him, each saying the same thing, ‘Where you gonna go? Where you gonna go? Where you gonna go?’
Tommy looked over at Alf, then down at the half-smoked joint, and back to John Pete.
‘Alf, can you see that? What’s wrong with his eyes?’
Alf beamed. ‘See, I told you he was the one.’
John Pete raised his eyebrows at Tommy.
‘So, strong enough to resist A Good Talking To, eh? Great stuff, great stuff.’
‘Strong enough for what? Seriously, Alf, I’ve had enough of this now, tell me what the fuck this is all about, or I’m gone.’
Alf’s jowls softened out of their grin, and he looked at Tommy with watery eyes.
‘I always thought you would marry my Linda. You were such a good couple, brought out the best in each other. When you two were together, I saw me and Lou when we was kids. You were always like a son to me, you still are. I’m not gonna live forever, not many people do…’
‘No-one does, Alf. Everyone has to die.’
‘Don’t be so sure, Tommy. Anyway, what I’m saying is, I always assumed it would be you, but when Linda moved back home and took up with that new feller of hers, I thought ‘it can’t be him now’, but it was always you, and I talked to Lou, and she said it had to be you. So here we are.’
‘What has to be me? You’re not making any sense, Alf.’
‘I need an apprentice, son, and you’ve got the job.’
‘What makes you think I want the job?’
Tommy was being as petulant as he could muster, but he was nicely stoned.
‘You haven’t really got a choice now, have you?’ said Pete. ‘You know too much, but want to know more, eh? One foot down the rabbit hole, might as well jump in, hmm? And,’ he added, ‘I think the job wants you, which is more to the point.’
‘The Searcher has to find themselves an apprentice. Sometimes it passes father to son, and you’re all I’ve got, Tommy.’
‘Wait, hang on a minute Alf. This is the 90s – Girl Power and all that. You’ve got three daughters at home, why not teach them?’
‘I love my girls, but which would you choose? You know Linda hasn’t got the temperament for diplomacy, we would be in the middle of a war within two weeks.’
‘War with who?’
Alf and Pete gave each other dark looks.
‘So, Linda’s out. Then there’s Suze. My little Suzie, my baby. She’s only seventeen. And she’s too busy with that band of hers, what are they called – Shredded Wheat?’
This sent Tommy into another giggling fit.
‘Shredding Meat! They’re called Shredding Meat.’
Suze was the bassist in an all-girl death-punk band that were gaining a reputation on the local scene.
‘And that just leaves Katie…’
An uncomfortable hush descended on the three men. No-one would dare say it, so it dangled there between them like a spare bollock, awkward and unmentionable.
‘Ok, so all three Edelmann sisters are out. But how can you be so sure I’m the one? Linda said it herself last night, I’m a loser. It’s like Pete or John or whatever your name is said, I’ve got no girlfriend, no job…hang on, how did you know I lost my job? They only sacked me a few hours ago, and I haven’t told anyone yet.’
‘I,’ said Pete, puffing his food-stained chest out and doing a proud little wiggle in his chair, ‘am what’s known as a Master of Shade. All the Four Gents are Masters of Shade. We can bend its power to our own will. We can see things, know things, make things happen.’
‘Shade didn’t tell you your flies are undone then?’
The little man gave Tommy a crude leer.
‘I sent Pauline packing in a hurry. You must have passed her on your way in? I knew you were coming, see, Shade told me that much. More important things afoot than doing my trousers up, oh yes. Had to meet you, see if you had what it takes to help our Alf here.’
‘Can’t you use your powers to do something better than cabbing? This place is a dump.’
‘My boy, there is nothing better for a Master of Shade than to be a cabbie. Being in the midst of the whirl and the rush of humanity. You see and hear it all in the driving seat. The people in the back of the cab forget you’re there most of the time. Love, hate, revenge, laughter, tears, life, death, the works. All that makes for plenty of Shade, which is too precious a thing in these times.’
‘Plus,’ added Alf, ‘I would be in trouble without Pete’s cabbies. They carry messages for me, find people for me, ferry me about. They can always contact Pete for me over the radio, so I can get help if I need it.’
‘And he usually does. Make no mistake, Tommy, being The Searcher, it’s no game, no bed of roses, no walk in the proverbial park, no no. It’s graft, that’s what it is. You’re not afraid of a bit of graft, are you son?’
What was he afraid of?
Although he hated conflict, he wouldn’t shy away from it. Tommy wasn’t a violent person, all he ever wanted was to make peace, but he wasn’t afraid of it either. Working in a pub meant he had been in the middle of more brawls than the average twenty one year old. And as for the graft, while he had never been officially employed, he was a bloody hard worker.
There was no reason in Tommy’s mind not to take Pete’s advice and jump into this with both feet. He only had one question.
‘I’m starving – when can we eat?’
‘Is that a yes?’ asked Alf. ‘Cos I know just the place. Pete, call us one of your boys. We’re going to see Ethel.’
‘Ah, yes, yes. Perfect.’ John Pete flashed Tommy a grotty-toothed grin. ‘I will be seeing you soon, Tommy Tucker, Apprentice Searcher of the Thames.’