Today I am really pleased to be a part of the blog tour for Hester and Harriet by Hilary Spiers. It’s a charmingly English tale about widowed sisters and a dramatic interruption to their settled and sedate country life, and there’s a great combination of comedy and mystery.
I’m hosting an extract of the novel, with a review – and giveaway – to follow.
To set the scene, this comes from very early in the book. Hester and Harriet have discovered Daria and her baby sheltering in a bus stop on Christmas Day. After taking her in, they receive an unwelcome visitor…
She opens the door to find it is a man, but it isn’t George.
Where George is tall and thin — not unlike Hester — the stranger is squat, weighty, feet planted firmly on the path, a combative look on his seamed face. A smoker’s face, but one with a faintly weaselly look. His eyes peer past Harriet, searching the dark hall. He tips an imaginary hat.
‘Morning. Sorry to bother you.’ He doesn’t look sorry. A smoker’s voice, too, gravelly and full of phlegm. ‘Christmas and that.’
Harriet looks past him to the lane. No car or van. A new neighbour?
‘Good morning. What can I do for you?’
A shifty smile flits across his face, exposing uneven yellowed teeth; the smile a mixture of embarrassment and suspicion. Harriet stiffens and grips the door’s inner handle more tightly.
‘Thing is, I’m rather hoping you can help me.’ He moves a little closer, uncomfortably close.
‘Oh?’ Harriet folds her arms under her bosom, filling the doorway, all five foot four of her.
‘Yes. See, I’m looking for someone.’
‘Round here? Do you have an address?’
A laugh barks out.
He says almost to himself, as though Harriet has uttered a witticism, ‘Do I have an address? If only.’ Then his face goes hard, eyes like granite. ‘I’m looking for a girl, see.’
‘Girl?’ says Harriet, a catch in her voice. Her heart thumps. Has she taken her blood pressure tablet this morning? ‘What
‘Goodness. Are you a policeman?’ says Harriet, knowing the answer.
‘Seen her, have you?’
He pulls a creased photograph from his pocket, holding it up in front of her so close that she has to pull back to see it clearly. It looks like a police mugshot (not that Harriet has ever seen one, except on TV) or a copy of a passport photo.
Small, serious face, dark hair, smudged eyes. Unmistakably Daria.
‘And who is this?’
A thin smile. ‘You don’t know her then?’
Harriet hates to lie; not only does she hate to lie, she is also hopeless at it.
She says firmly, ‘I asked you who it was.’
‘If you don’t know her, her name won’t mean anything to you, will it?’
Harriet shrugs as carelessly as she can, given the knot in her shoulders. ‘I suppose not. I’m just curious. Seems an odd thing to be doing on Boxing Day, knocking on doors like this. This girl – is she your daughter or something?’
‘And might I know your name?’
‘Can’t think why not, Mrs . . . er?’
‘Pearson. Harriet Pearson.’
She waits. He smirks, then, after a sudden explosive cough, hawks. A gob of mucus glistens on the step in the pale winter sunshine. Harriet inflates her chest; she’s not having this. The man’s eyes drop away under her steely gaze; he rubs the spot
with a mud-caked shoe, little flakes of dirt sprinkling the stone. He taps his chest.
‘Beg pardon. Just can’t shift it.’
‘You always could try giving up smoking,’ she snaps, emboldened by indignation.
This time he gives a genuine laugh. ‘Touché.’ He hands her a business card. Seeing the state of his nails, she takes it by the corner furthest from his hand. ‘In case you do see her anytime, there’s my number. Be grateful for a call.’ He starts to back down the path. ‘Happy Christmas, Mrs Pearson. Take care now.’
She looks down at the grubby card.
Private Investigations & Intelligence Services
Discreet * Efficient * Effective
Archie Dick? She gives an involuntary snort.
He turns back with an embarrassed smile, spreads his hands. ‘I know. Bummer, eh?’ He stops at the gate, as if he’s just remembered something. Harriet isn’t fooled.
‘Oh, and there might be a kid. The girl, she might have a baby. Be about, what, three, four months? Maybe.’ He shrugs as if it’s of no significance, sketches a vague wave and shuts the gate behind him. ‘Be seeing you.’
‘Who are you working for, Mr Dick?’ she calls after him. Even saying the name sounds risible.
In answer, he just waves again without turning and carries on up the lane towards the main road, stumbling once on the uneven surface. She waits a moment or two, heart still a little jumpy, until he disappears round the bend in the lane. She shivers, quietly closes the front door and, turning, sees Daria crouched on the half-landing, sleeve to her mouth, dark eyes unreadable. As Harriet goes to speak, she unfurls her body and runs into her room. Harriet goes down the hall into the kitchen.
‘Who was that?’ Hester is kneading dough; its yeasty richness perfumes the warm air.
Harriet sits heavily, picking idly at the crust of a quiche just out of the oven. Hester reaches across and slaps her hand lightly, leaving a dusting of flour on her skin.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Chap at the door,’ Harriet says.
‘Could you be more explicit?’ says her sister acidly.
‘Sorry. He was looking for Daria.’
‘Oh dear.’ Hester’s hand flies to her mouth, smearing it with flour. ‘Who was he? Father? Husband?’
‘No, private detective.’
‘Really?’ Hester is astonished. ‘Really and truly?’
Harriet hands her the business card. Hester pulls her glasses down from their perch in her hair and peers at it. ‘Golly.’ She peers again at the name. ‘This is a joke, right?’
‘I only wish it were,’ says Harriet. ‘I didn’t like him one bit. Something about his . . . I don’t know. Bit frightening.’
‘He frightened you?’ Hester is surprised. It’s a brave man who takes on her sister. ‘What did he say?’
Harriet is thinking. ‘Says she’s a runaway. Daria. He had a picture. He mentioned a baby. “She might have a baby,” he said.’
‘Interesting. So he knew she was pregnant—’
‘Or suspected. Which means she must have disappeared, done a bunk, whatever, before Milo was born. But how did he
know that she was here?’
So there you have it – intriguing, I thought! That marks the end of my contribution to the blog tour, but there are still a few stops to go, so please do pay them a visit…