Dee from accounts was asking us to name a giant furry gorilla. We had to give up a pound for the privilege. I rolled a quid along the desktop. Fridays were dress-down days. I took my hand from the mouthpiece.
‘Perhaps we can talk at a better time....’
The accent was posh Scots, with a tone that suggested the caller was not used to being kept waiting.
‘It’s Henderson, David Henderson.’
There was a pause on the line, then what sounded like the shuffling of papers.
‘I’ve got some interesting news for you. Does the name McGraw ring any bells?’ Henderson said.
I scratched my head. Dee was pulling a face from over the partition. One day I’ll get my own office, I thought. Then David Henderson told me something that made me drop my coffee.
I turned off the Edinburgh road, glad to leave the blinding headlights and speeding trucks behind. I pointed the Golf between two gnarled gateposts and up a steep, narrow gravel track. There were still patches of snow beyond the reach of dripping hawthorns and gorse. It was a sharp, bitter night where the frost lay like scattered jewels on the fields and hills. After a hundred yards or so I snapped on the handbrake and checked Henderson’s note. This had to be the right place. It was the only turnoff for miles. I pressed on, reaching the brow of a hill and trundling down in second, foot hovering over the brake. The lane was icy, but made of half-bricks and broken tiles held together by moss. From the hilltop I could just make out the faint, distant glow of Edinburgh. The gate was locked as Henderson said it would be. A thick, rusting chain was looped around the gatepost and held in place by a brass padlock. The gate’s hinges squealed as I clambered over and jogged down the track, torch in hand, the beam flicking across the silvery, shining tufts of grass.
‘I’m afraid that’s a condition of the will,’ Henderson said.
‘I don’t even get to see it?’
Henderson shook his head. I’d met him off the train at New Street. He was at odds with the city; dressed in mustard cords and a battered, parcel-brown wax jacket. We sat in the newly-refurbished Town Hall and I ordered cappuccinos. Henderson sniffed, unimpressed, stirring three twists of brown sugar into his cup.
‘I’m afraid it’s a condition of the will that you decide beforehand,’ he said.
He lifted his briefcase onto the table. It was scraped and scarred around the edges and not unlike the Chancellor’s box in its dishevelled appearance. Perhaps he was the type who had so much money he had the confidence to appear a bit rough round the edges.
‘What if I go and have a look?’
‘You don’t know where it is,’ he said, with the faintest trace of a smile.
‘So how long do I have to decide?’
‘Today,’ Henderson replied, flipping open his briefcase.
He angled the briefcase away from me, but I saw a bruised banana, a chunky mobile phone and a hard-backed pocket book – hardly the contents I’d expected. I sipped at the coffee. Henderson handed me a document, tugging it free from its brown envelope.
‘When you’ve decided, you have to sign,’ he said.
The deal was simple. I could take fifty thousand pounds in cash or take ownership of my great aunt’s cottage. I guessed the land alone had to be worth more than fifty grand.
‘Is the cash here?’
Henderson shook his head. ‘But I could get it from the bank now if that’s your choice.’
I shook my head. Even if it was run down, I could get it demolished and sell the land for a fortune.
‘It’s not a difficult decision, is it?’ I said.
Henderson held out a fountain pen. There was that faint trace of a smile again. Yes, I thought, you know I’m making the right decision.
‘I’m afraid I can’t influence you one way or the other. The decision is entirely yours,’ he said.
‘But you’ve seen the place?’
Henderson cracked his knuckles.
‘I’ve seen it, yes,’ he said, ‘are you sure you wouldn’t like a little more time?’
I shook my head. I was in negative equity with a leaking roof. I was just making ends meet. And now I had a second home. I liked the feeling I had something secret, something even Michelle didn’t know about.
The cottage was whitewashed and sat in a grove of dripping trees. The windows were barely a foot across. The roof looked sound enough. There were no tiles missing or trees growing from the chimney. I felt a tingle of excitement play along my neck and spine. I took out the key Henderson had given me. It was a long and thin piece of metal, the kind you usually poked into a rattling outhouse door. With a scrape of wood on stone, the door gave way. A brush doormat showed a witch on a broomstick. I flicked on a switch. The room was fusty and smelled of cats. Red embers glowed in the grate. I straightened, feeling like an intruder.
‘Hello. Is anyone there?’
Unwashed dishes were stacked against the boiler. Cold porridge had congealed in a milk pan. A pedal bin overflowed with bean cans, cat meat tins and a crumpled, tea-stained newspaper. The kettle was still warm. I ran the tap, filled it and lit the hob. I rummaged through the drawers and cupboards for teabags and biscuits. Each drawer was lined with vinyl wallpaper and crammed with odds and ends; cotton reels, brown string, parcel paper, scissors, needles, spent batteries and church candles.
‘You always help yourself, do you?’
I jumped, sending reels and spent batteries spilling to the stone floor.
‘Wreck the place, why don’t you?’
An elderly woman stood in the kitchen doorway, watching me through narrowed eyes.
‘I thought you were d-’
She folded her arms on her chest. Her face was wrinkled, but her eyes shone. She poked a finger at me.
‘You thought I was what?’
I didn’t answer. She pushed past me and sluiced water round a china teapot.
‘Do you know when I last saw you?’
‘Twenty years ago. It wouldn’t kill you to write. Don’t you send Christmas cards?’
She opened a drawer, took out a teaspoon and clattered the drawer shut setting the cutlery rattling inside.
‘I didn’t know it was that long,’ I said.
She spooned sugar into a bowl. ‘You couldn’t resist it, could you?’
I didn’t say anything.
‘I knew it’d get you up here. You thought you were going to get this cottage. You thought I was dead so you came.’
I bit my cheek. I tasted coppery blood. ‘That’s what the solicitor said.’
‘He’s no more a solicitor than me,’ she scoffed. ‘He’s our pub landlord. He had you fooled.’
I offered to help with the tea things but she’d have none of it. She shuffled through to the sitting room, set the tray on a table and began to pour.
I took my tea and sipped it.
‘What about the documents?’
‘They were good, weren’t they?’ she said.
‘How did you do that?’
‘George’s lad’s a genius with computers,’ she paused, her hand covering her mouth. ‘He won’t get in trouble, will he?’
Not until I get hold of him he won’t, I thought. I shook my head.
‘And you sent him all the way to Birmingham?’
She laughed. ‘He owes me too.’ She didn’t look well. The whites of her eyes were tinged with yellow, like the brittle pages in a book left in sunlight. ‘How long did it take you to get here?’
‘Five hours, give or take,’ I said.
‘You’re off work then?’
‘I was due a few days.’
She wasn’t the kind of woman to admit to taking a sickie to. She took her teacup between cradled fingers, blew the surface and drank. She set the cup back on the table empty. My cup was steaming, sending S’s of steam toward the ceiling. She must have had guts like asbestos. She folded her hands on her lap. She stared out of the window. The wind was rustling through the trees, spearing dead leaves on brittle branches.
‘Are you married, Brian?’
I shook my head.
‘No children then?’
‘But you’ve got someone.’
I told her about Michelle; said we’d been together three years.
‘Well you’re young. You’ve time,’ she said.
‘You worked all this out just to get me up here?’
Her face cracked into a smile.
‘How else would I get you out here?’
‘What if I’d taken the fifty grand?’
‘You’d have given George kittens,’ she said, ‘I doubt he’s got fifty pounds in the bank.’
‘So what happens now?’
She set her cup down with a chink. ‘I’ve already left it to the cats’ home, anyway.’
‘Oh, I see,’ I said.
I had no idea if she was joking or meant it.
Richard is a former journalist and has been published by Londonist, Notes from the Underground, Structo, Oxonian Review and others. He's also won travel writing prizes in the Telegraph and Guardian and lives in Staffordshire, UK.