An aggressive form of cancer swept through Cynthia’s 59-year-old body and tightened its death grip within weeks, leaving Elsie in the unnatural position of burying her second child. It was a disturbance in the order of things that quickly took its toll on the octogenarian, and it wasn’t long before Elsie’s health deteriorated and she followed her daughter to the grave.
This would have been shock enough to an already grieving family. But for Dan, it was a particularly painful time. He had reconciled with his mother at her death bed, finally laying to rest a long-held grudge over an argument they’d had almost a decade before. The consequences of their mutual silence would plague him for years after, a guilt magnified by the fact that when Elsie died, he owed her a small sum of money which he had never been in a position to repay.
In the weeks leading up to Elsie’s death, she had become forgetful, confusing Dan with her first husband with whom he shared an uncanny likeness. She had no idea who her great granddaughters, Alice and Claire, were and it was painful to see her unable to comprehend her relationship with them. In her mind she was 30 years younger and couldn’t possibly have great-grandchildren.
The maternal side of Dan’s family had been wiped out in just a few short months and with it the opportunity to put things right. So when Elsie’s last will and testament was read, leaving him and his daughters just £1,000 a piece, he considered it a punishment, albeit an unnecessary blow to his offspring who were innocent in the choices he’d made. It rankled with Dan that Elsie would all but cut out her great grandchildren, especially when she had so much to give.
The legend of Elsie’s wealth was the stuff of hushed family legend, spoken about in low tones at funerals and referred to as a substantial, though unquantified, fortune. It was rumoured she had around half a million pounds stashed in her little terraced house, stuffed under the mattress and in shoe boxes at the bottom of the wardrobe, in biscuit tins in plain view and a bucket under the sink. She really had no idea of its worth but was generous with it to a fault.
Elsie came from a generation that earned so little that it seemed pointless to open a bank account. Why entrust it to someone else when it could be kept safe under your own roof? What she didn’t take into account was its value. She spent virtually nothing over the course of nine decades and the meagre amount she squirreled away each month multiplied into unprecedented figures the longer it remained in her home.
Of course, Elsie’s wealth was not why Dan and his daughters visited her over the years. Her grandson had doted on his grandmother since he was a little boy, writing letters to her about the trials and tribulations of his various pets.
For Alice, her strongest memory of visiting her great grandmother was the taste of bitter lemon – the only drink resembling squash or pop available to a five-year-old as an alternative to tea. (It would be another two decades before Alice revisited the retro citrus beverage as a perfectly passable gin partner). She remembered Nana Elsie clucking around the kitchen calling, “Shall I put kettle on, duck?” and noting the peculiarity of the bathroom it adjoined, a feature Alice would, as a student, realise was common in properties of a certain age.
After a few hours, Dan and Alice -and in later years, Claire – would pop around the corner to visit Elsie’s brother. Uncle Patch lived in a near identical house to his sister, decorated in 1970s hues and filled with commemorative royal mugs. They would knock on the door and walk in, Uncle Patch installed in the armchair at the centre of the room as if he hadn’t moved since the last time they’d seen him. Alice would sit perched on his thigh – him in his old man uniform of grey polyester trousers and knitted vest, her in the black velvet dress she insisted on wearing when visiting relatives – and look puzzled when he asked if she wanted ‘five bob’. Her answer was always ‘yes’, but it was years before anyone explained to her why she went away with 50p in her pocket and not five pounds.
Back at Nana Elsie’s, the smell of fried bacon would waft through to the living room. She would hobble through in her floral housecoat and orthopaedic shoes, fussing around Dan and asking if he needed anything. She doted on him as he did her, which is why her apparent dismissal of him on her death would come to strike such a strange cord with Cynthia’s side of the family.
It was an established fact that Cynthia and her sister, Judith, did not get on and never had. Their sibling rivalry caused mild tension at family gatherings, but nothing so palpable as to cause a scene. They were very different: Judith, the elder, was bossy and had gotten away with things in the way that first born children do when they’re sent to their father for punishment. The apple of daddy’s eye seldom got a telling off and she breezed through to her 18th birthday with barely a belt scar on her back.
She married young and rich – a doctor called Dick – and produced a brood that went into similarly well-paid jobs, a lawyer here, a dentist there. They were not lacking in the financial department, and she liked to remind Cynthia of the differences in their wealth at every opportunity.
Her sister on the other hand had worked hard as a hotelier for almost 20 years, getting up at dawn to make full English breakfasts for 20 guests before stripping 10 beds before the next lot arrived. When the work became too difficult for her arthritic hands, she became a teaching assistant at a local school, reading to children in the afternoons and helping them with their sums.
Hers was not a rich life when it came to money. As a consequence, she had always counted the pennies. Her motto was ‘waste not, want not’ and she never bought anything she couldn’t pay for there and then. Cynthia did not believe in debt, prided herself on living within her means, even if that meant she went cold come December when her coat was no longer thick enough to protect her from the seafront chills. Her whole adult life she wore the same wool pea coat, repeatedly sewing up the pockets when their linings frayed and replacing the buttons that invariably came away.
It was a constant mystery to Cynthia how her son managed his finances. As far as she was concerned, she hadn’t bought him up “to be a wastrel”, as she liked to say. What she failed to appreciate in the changing times was that he was a product of 80s consumerism and when the money came in, he and his family lived well. But what followed was a dark spell that lasted far longer than any short-lived economical boom, which saw Dan fall on hard times at about the same time both his mother and grandmother died.
Dan’s father, Harry, was another casualty in the events that unfolded. He hadn’t expected to get anything by name in Elsie’s will because they had hardly seen eye-to-eye over the years. He was something of an anomaly for his time, having divorced his first wife to marry Cynthia in the 1950s, and to add to the scandal, he was a single dad. So it was to Judith’s eternal glee and Elsie’s woe that Cynthia saw fit to marry a social outcast.
But Harry had assumed that Elsie’s will would have remained unchanged from the state he had previously known it to be in: an equal division of assets between Cynthia and Judith in the event of Elsie’s death. And thus, to put it bluntly, he would see some of the money that was rightfully his wife’s by virtue of the fact that his son was next in line in to Cynthia’s inheritance. So when the will was read at the solicitor’s office in Harrogate, he knew something was amiss.
Harry didn’t care that he didn’t get any money. But he cared a great deal that his wife’s legacy was being stolen from under his family’s nose. He also knew what a scheming witch his wife’s sister was and when Dan was unceremoniously cut from the will, he knew it was Judith’s doing.
He shared his theory with Dan, who, outraged, called his aunt and confronted her. It was the last conversation they would have – a bitter exchange of words in which Judith denied convincing her senile mother to write her sister out of the will. Phones were slammed and anger bloomed. With no proof to back up their claims, Dan and Harry simmered in quiet rage for years after.
Nobody realised that young Alice had in her possession the proof of her great aunt’s treachery all along, and it would be another decade before she stumbled upon it and realised its significance.
Just before her Nana’s death, Alice had received an envelope in the post from Judith, containing a number of letters. There was little in the way of explanation in the note, other than that Judith had ‘come across’ the contents quite recently and thought Alice would like to see them. There were four letters, each written by her father when he was a child. They were addressed to Elise, each more touching in their simplicity of observation than the last.
Hope you are very well. Sandy died a week last Friday. Alfie keeps making a lot of noise. The roses are all coming out in the garden. Daddy is painting the dining room in magnolia.
Love Dan xxxxxxxxxxx”
That’s nice, his daughter thought, and shoved the letters in a drawer for safekeeping.
It would be ten years before Alice pulled that same envelope out of a shoe box and looked at it, unable to identify the handwriting on the front. She read the sheaf of letters and the note from Judith and the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
In the years that had passed, her father had vehemently shared his theory that his aunt had screwed him out of what was rightly his. And there it was – the postmark on the envelope the proof of her great aunt’s betrayal. The affirmation that even before her mother’s bed was cold, Judith had been sifting through her belongings like a vulture a week before Elsie died, no doubt stuffing the money she found in the folds of the pillow cases into carrier bags as she went.
A woman who kept 40-year-old letters safe would never dream of cutting her grandson out of her will.
Sadly, her greedy daughter did.