Today was the day I’d been dreading for over a month. Grandfather had died five weeks ago and after the funeral was finally over just three short days ago it was time for us all to meet at the solicitor’s office for the reading of his will.
I didn’t much want to go, for it was unlikely he’d be bestowing much on me, as I’d disappeared for several years, which I won’t go into now, but I had my reasons. That does sound melodramatic and even stereotypical but that is what it is or was.
The smell which greeted us all as we made our way in through the hallway and up the grumbling staircase was one of age; that incredibly musty, trapped-in-history smell, of papers and folders ceiling-high in what you’d hope; if for the secretaries even if for no one else, was an organised state of disorganisation.
My brother was huffing impatiently, checking his watch about every ten seconds to see if time had moved on far enough for him to get back to work. His hands anxiously scraping through his hair when he saw only a matter of seconds had passed.
Dad had passed away eleven years ago and so everything he would have inherited was likely to be shared between us three siblings. As I said I’m not sure I’ll be included now as I feel it’ll be a case of ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ and if I had been left anything Ian and Charlie were sure to contest it for years.
Mr Benjamin stood in the doorway of his office and called the five of us in. Mum made it her duty to get there first, so she was right under his nose. She was expecting a percentage of something from Dad’s inheritance too, claiming that as his ex-wife he should or would have made provision for her in her old age too. Why is what I want to know. She did the dirty on him and flew off into the world with the alleged love of her life, although he was not but strangely, she didn’t realise that had been Dad until he died. Families are strange things.
I sat at the back and let Uncle Matthew sit at the front with Mum and Ian. I wanted to be invisible, or ethereal, ghost-like. I felt that I should have stayed at home and just hear from Mr Benjamin when this was over. Charlie was not here, and Mr Benjamin mirrored Ian’s earlier actions, obviously anxious to start. He shuffled his papers, read a few lines then glanced back up, checked his watch, doublechecking with the ancient wall clock the time was correct. Giving a rasping sigh he looked up at the clock one final time before clearing his throat and beginning.
Half an hour later we all left the office confused and there was a hum of discussion which had been lacking prior to the appointment, although Charlie was hissing at Mum as she had scolded him for arriving late. There was precious little in the estate. Apparently, Grandfather had sold or mortgaged everything years ago and there were several legal commitments concerning those which would leave a big, fat zero.
For me, there was no disappointment as I had expected nothing. The one thing which had been bequeathed to me left me more confused than everyone else as it was something palpable, real. A photograph album. It was in the back-sitting room at the house and I was to collect it before tomorrow evening.
We all travelled to a swish restaurant for a meal which had already been paid by Grandfather. Mum was mouthing off at why Grandfather had left nothing and her entitlement to at least some of the non-existent estate. I had the feeling she had been relying on it for her own retirement. She’d just have to find some other man to jet off into the sunset with.
These family meals were a joke. There was no sense of family; no concern for the other parties despite the blood connection, no interest in each other’s lives, relationships or circumstances. Sad for others, but I have no remorse; left all the sentimental slush back far beyond the customary glimpse from the rear-view mirror. I was glad when everyone skipped dessert for coffees and even happier when the evening was over.
I jumped in a taxi with the briefest of goodbyes to everyone. There was nothing left to say; had been precious little over an uncomfortable dinner saturated with stilted, insincere conversation. Not wanting to return to my hotel room straight away I asked the driver to drop me outside some houses in a street I knew. Turning as if entering one of them I watched as the taxi pulled away and as soon as he was out of sight I turned and headed through the alley to the side of the terraces which led to the river.
Sitting on a bench in the darkness seems a crazy thing to do but I knew this town and the immediate vicinity very well. On the other side of the river was the land which led directly up to the mansion I would visit for the last time tomorrow.
My thoughts returned to my Grandfather, a man who had been kind, loving and even fun until the day everything changed for the entire family; the day Grandfather was at the centre of a voyeurism accusation and, despite his denials over a lengthy period of time, was discredited and with a full case of evidence found in the cellar, found guilty and sent to prison for fifteen months.
The scandal led to familial disgrace and many of us were assaulted, humiliated and suffered allegations and degradation to the basest of levels. I lost my friends, my boyfriend, had my hair pulled out in clumps at school and found excrement every night at the bottom of my bed until I’d been caught smearing it into the pillows of the three girls I knew had been responsible and had been suspended and sent home, which was the place I least wanted to be.
I must have fallen asleep as I was suddenly wide awake as could hear loud singing coming in my direction. Partygoers; lucky them. I stood and walked back through the alley to the terraces. My hotel was a short walk on the same side of the road, and I made my way quickly toward it, sighing with relief when I entered the warm, bright reception area.
Why do tomorrows approach so fast? It was already the morning and the alarm on my mobile phone was singing to me. I covered my head with the pillow but eventually admitted defeat and leant over to switch off the screeching 1990s track which I used to force me out of sleep. I wasn’t looking forward to today, apart from the taxi ride which would take me back out of here in the middle of the day, and sooner if I could do it. Collecting a photograph album from the mansion wasn’t going to take me long and I had no plans for a sickly-sweet plan to reminisce.
Arriving at the mansion I was met by Walter, who had been Grandfather’s assistant forever. We had all known the relationship between them was closer than implied; but in a time where acceptance wasn’t the watch word, they’d preferred to spurn recognition.
I hugged Walter briefly and he followed me to the rear sitting room. There was a tray with two large mugs of tea and an open tin of Family Circle biscuits on the coffee table. I smiled for the first time in quite a while. Walter used to save the smiley face, jam and cream-filled biscuits in a separate tub just for me and if I’d not visited for a while there’d usually be a whole tub of smiles waiting for me. The joy I felt at someone doing something so simple but perfect for me was cute and I felt understood like nobody ever had before.
We sat for half an hour. Walter was interested in me, my life and I opened up a little, shared some of what had been going on in New York. He then reached over to the side table, picked up the photograph album and passed it to me. Turning over the cover I saw my Grandfather and I in a number of natural, non-posed pictures. I was smiling or giggling in every one of them. As I turned the pages I saw more of the same and the silly tears formed and escaped my eyes leaving a long trail of salt down my cheeks. I desperately wanted to leave but felt obligated to stay for Walter’s sake.
The last page had a document tucked into the space between the sticky clear cover and board base of the page. It was the deeds to the mansion. They were in Walter’s name. I smiled through the tears, glad that the man who had devoted his life to Grandfather even when life had gone bad was being acknowledged now.
There was another document with the deeds. A sealed envelope addressed to my New York apartment. Walter took the document, telling me I was not to read the document until after my return and that Grandfather had left strict instructions the document was to be posted once I’d received the photo album.
Thanking Walter for his care I made plans to leave. He offered to drive me into town to save me calling for a taxi. After all he had to go to the Post Office to send the envelope to my home.