‘And now to the reading of your Aunt Sarah’s Last Will and Testament.’
Mr Hutchinson Goodbody, of the law firm Boring, Leech and Bickers, adjusted his gold-rimmed spectacles and cleared his throat. He was an elderly man with sparse, snow-white hair and he seemed to be covered in dust, just like the hundreds of documents and files that lay scattered around his office.
There were three of us seated on hard chairs on the other side of his ancient mahogany desk. We were Aunt Sarah’s only living relatives. Next to me was cousin Gilbert, a sallow-faced man with a permanently vexed expression and next to him his wife Doris, a retired hairdresser with the moist protuberant eye of a rabbit.
‘Get on with it,’ said Gilbert, ‘we haven’t got all day.’
Mr Goodbody glanced sternly at them before picking up a single sheet of paper upon which were written the last instructions of an aunt of whom I had always been very fond.
‘It is a brief document,’ said Mr Goodbody, ‘but to the point.’
‘Well?’ asked Gilbert.
‘Your aunt left her property to her nephew Michael (that’s me, in case you’re wondering), and all of the furniture and chattels therein, except for a grandfather clock and a barometer, which she bequeathed to you both.’
‘Is that all there is for us, after all I’ve done for her?’ wailed Doris. ‘I cooked for her, cleaned for her, took her to the shops. Is this how she repays us?’
‘I am afraid so,’ said Mr Goodbody. ‘I regret to say that she was of the opinion that you stole from her on a regular basis – small sums admittedly, but they did mount up. I think that may have worked against you.’
‘We’ll contest the Will,’ said Gilbert.
‘That is up to you, but you would have to prove your aunt was of unsound mind, for the Will is perfectly legal. You would be prepared to meet all the costs of litigation?’
‘All the costs? How much would that be?’ asked Gilbert.
‘It is likely to amount to many thousands of pounds.’
‘We haven’t got many thousands of pounds,’ pointed out Doris.
'You don't have to tell me that, you silly woman,' replied Gilbert.
‘I haven’t finished reading the Will yet,’ said Mr Goodbody – if you would kindly allow me…’
The two moaning minnies shut up and waited for him to continue.
‘She left the remainder of her assets to various local charities.’
‘Remainder of her assets? What assets?’ asked Gilbert.
‘Let me just check.’ Mr Goodbody picked up another sheet of paper. ‘Ah yes, the sum of one million, two hundred and forty-three thousand pounds.’
Gilbert uttered an oath and Mabel almost fainted with shock.
I was flabbergasted too, for my aunt was notoriously parsimonious. She was in the habit of using a tea-bag five times before discarding it, and here she was, a closet millionaire.
‘Cash?’ gasped Gilbert.
‘No - sound investments on the stock exchange. I ensured that she took the appropriate financial advice.’
‘Why did she leave me her house?’ I asked.
‘Your aunt loved you, Mr Phillips. She said you were kind, gentle and caring, even though as a human being you were almost totally useless…’
‘Hear, hear,’ remarked Gilbert
‘…and she felt you would be a far better owner of the property than your cousin and his wife.’
‘The old bat,’ was all Gilbert could say.
I’d visited Aunt Sarah every week from my early childhood right up until the day before she died. We used to sit gossiping and I would bring up to date with current events in Britain, because she owned neither a television set nor a wireless, and never took a newspaper. Her demise saddened me, and my last memory of her was of an old, crabbed figure seated in an ancient cottage chair, a thick shawl over her frail shoulders, trying to derive a modicum of heat from a one-bar electric fire.
‘Come away, Doris. I won’t stay here a minute longer.’ Gilbert, on his high horse again, something from which he rarely alighted.
‘Hang on, Gilbert,’ said Doris. ‘Mr Goodbody, how much are the grandfather clock and the barometer worth?’
Mr Goodbody shrugged his shoulders before replying:
‘They are both antiques, in very good condition. They should fetch several hundreds of pounds at auction.’
‘Several hundred pounds is better than nothing,’ said Doris. ‘We’ll have them valued as soon as he (she pointed accusingly at me) gives them to us.’
With that, the pair left the office, harrumphing like a pair of water-buffalo.
I shook the hand of the elderly solicitor before leaving his office. It was like shaking hands with a towel-rack.
The house, a modest two-bedroomed terrace in Sydenham, hadn't been decorated since 1973, when my Uncle Dickie, Aunt Sarah's husband, a lorry-driver, died in a road accident at the age of forty-five. The wallpaper in the living-room was orange, with a pattern of huge brown clover leaves. The curtains were festooned with taupe and yellow diagonal stripes and the carpet, worn and discoloured now, once contained a strange mixture of large auburn and black squares. The decor was as subtle as a gun-turret, but I felt comforted by it, and had no intention of altering it. Besides, I am far too lazy to do anything about it.
I lived in a rented flat in Hounslow, and had about as many possessions as the average Bedouin nomad, so leaving the flat was no big deal. I soon settled in at 26, Ormanton Road, Sydenham. I was comfortably off. Gilbert and Doris duly collected their clock and barometer and, from that moment on, never spoke another word to me.
If I was in the least bit curious, I might have taken some steps to discover from whence Aunt Sarah's money came, but I reasoned that she was so careful with her cash, she might well have totted up a fortune in her ninety-year lifetime.
Life drifted on in its own lazy way. I was comfortable in my bachelorhood and my solitude, required no outside stimuli, and was perfectly comfortable doing as little as I humanly could. I gave all of Aunt Sarah's clothes to a charity shop, which presumably sold them on to a TV studio for use in a wartime drama series, but I retained all of the furniture - amongst which was a chipped, formica-topped kitchen table, a sideboard with one fractured leg, a rhomboid-shaped coffee-table covered in cup rings and a spindly wire standard lamp that fell over if you so much as glanced at it. These items were all dear to me and I was loath to part with any of them.
There was one area of the house I never took the trouble to explore - the loft. Curiosity finally overtook me one spring morning, so, equipped with a powerful torch, I let down the Ramsey ladder and climbed into the loft. The loft floor was boarded, so I could walk in it, albeit stooping low due to its proximity to the eaves of the house. I shone my torch and made my way through innumerable cobwebs, wondering what on earth spiders found to eat amongst such a wilderness of junk.
I picked up a record from a box on the floor and blew the dust from it. It was by a woman called Kathleen Ferrier singing ‘Blow the Wind Southerly,’ from 1949. I walked past abandoned photograph albums, picture-frames, vases, pottery, plastic flowers, candles, and a stuffed perch in a glass case. I picked up a small cardboard box from a shelf and opened it. It was full of baby teeth.
At the far end of the loft, against the chimney wall, stood a metal trunk. It was unlocked, so I opened it. On the top was Aunt Sarah’s wedding dress and below that Uncle Dickie’s best suit, a grey serge pinstripe affair with lapels as wide as the Thames, in which he presumably wed Aunt Sarah. I moved these and various other items of clothing to one side.
Lining the bottom of the trunk was a newspaper, now yellow with age and as fragile as a pair of moth wings. I lifted it carefully out and shone my torch on the front page. It described a court case concerning an audacious bank robbery at the branch of Lloyd’s Bank on Baker Street, on 11 September 1971. The robbery was apparently inspired by the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Red-Headed League.’ The robbers tunnelled up through the floor of the vault from a rented leather goods shop two doors down and got away with the contents of over two hundred safety deposit boxes, a sum amounting to several millions of pounds.
The last paragraph caught my eye. It made the point that four of the gang had been arrested and charged, but the remainder, including, it was believed, the getaway driver, escaped and were being sought ‘with great vigour’ by the Metropolitan Police.