Michelle was painting her nails. She had cotton wool pads pushed between each toe. She was watching a documentary about a typist from Surrey who’d married a Masai tribesman. She pointed the remote at the telly, killed the sound and frowned.
‘Tell him I’ve got swine flu,’ I said.
‘What’s this job?’ she shouted, ‘is it better money?’
‘It’ll all be a big surprise,’ I said, ‘but don’t start spending yet.’
The cottage was whitewashed and sat in a grove of dripping trees. The windows were barely a foot across. They 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 rattly 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 animal fur. Motes of dust floated past a bare light bulb. 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.’
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. I guessed she didn’t usually go to this much trouble, so I couldn’t be in too much bother.
‘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.
‘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.
‘How long did it take you to get here?’
‘Five hours, give or take.’
‘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 ten grand?’
‘You’d have given George kittens,’ she said, ‘I doubt he’s got ten pound in the bank.’
‘‘I hoped you’d come. You’re all I’ve got left, Brian. And one day it’ll be yours. You made the right choice.’