Dee from accounts was asking us to name a giant furry gorilla. We had to give up a pound for the privilege.
‘I don’t want it,’ I said.
‘OK, that’ll do me. Misery the Gorilla.’
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.
‘Sorry it’s Mr?’
‘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. No, McGraw didn’t mean anything. But then I thought of a distant summer; of a sticky orange lolly and a persistent wasp that dipped and hovered and stung me on the point of my elbow. I cried and hollered. The woman who bought the lolly told me to ‘stop ma’ greetin’ and folded her Daily Record. She caught the wasp in mid-flight, crushing it against the picnic table. Her name was Lizzie McGraw.
‘I know her alright,’ I told Henderson.
Then he 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, broken tiles and pebbles the size of a man’s fist held together by moss. From the hilltop I could just make out the faint, distant sodium glow of Edinburgh. There was barely a soul for miles and the sky was black as tar. 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. Bolt cutters, I thought. I imagined Henderson’s aging local handyman turning up in a battered truck and sighing and tutting, hands on hips, at the scale of the job. It’d take me five minutes. 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. Dickens had given readings here. 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.’
Henderson lifted his briefcase onto the table. It was scraped and scarred around the edges and not unlike the Chancellor’s box in its disheveled appearance. He seemed the far more likely landowner. 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.
‘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 banana, a chunky mobile phone and a hard-backed pocket book with a marbled design. 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 that whatever state that cottage was in the land alone had to be worth more than fifty grand. Edinburgh was in commuting distance and prices had boomed.
‘Is the cash here?’
Henderson shook his head. He scratched his chin and stared at me.
‘But I could get it from the bank now if that’s your choice. If that’s what you want.’
I thought of a briefcase stuffed with notes. I thought about jumping around on a bed covered in fifty thousand pounds. I’d never seen money like that in my life. Then I thought of a whitewashed cottage with a wee stream and a patch of purple heather. A little piece of heaven in the Scottish Borders. Course, if it was run down, I’d get it demolished and build a nice four-bed detached with a double drive and pony paddock.
‘It’s not a difficult decision, is it?’ I said.
Henderson held out a fountain pen. There was the faintest trace of a smile. 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.
I took the pen, testing its weight between my fingers.
‘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 that feeling; that I had something secret even Michelle didn’t know about. So I told her I’d got a three-day assessment for a new job.
‘Call Taylor for me, will you?’ I said, as I pushed my arms into my raincoat.