“She’s absolutely wonderful, nothing is too much trouble.”
My old friend Jonathan Dexter beamed with pleasure as he touched the arm of Bella Fazakerly, who was helping him climb the stairs to his flat. Jonathan was 95, and a recent fall had landed him in hospital with a broken leg. After he got better he was determined to return to his own flat but the social services said he couldn’t manage alone. He had always been a bachelor, had no close relatives, and knew no one who was willing or able to live with him, so what was he to do?
That’s when Bella came into his life.
There were various stories about how the happy coincidence of her needing accommodation, and Jonathan needing someone to live with him and them actually getting together, and none of them really added up. Jonathan said they met on a station platform, his social worker said that she was a ‘friend of a friend’, but no one quite knew the truth and Jonathan refused to be drawn on the matter.
They bickered occasionally, but on the whole Bella’s sunny disposition was the perfect foil for Jonathan’s acerbic temper, and on the whole he was good company, even though the aches and pains of old age made him grumpy now and again.
Whenever my wife and I took Jonathan out for a meal, or to a concert, dear Bella always came with us, and she really was delightful company. Friendly, charming, always one for a good laugh, we always enjoyed her company. Most of all, she had this amazing wonderful smile that could really lift your spirits, Jonathan called it her ‘million-dollar smile’. She had this strange ability to cheer you up, just by being there. Her age? It was very hard to tell, but anywhere between 65 and 80 was a possibility.
The funny thing was, it wasn’t just her age she was secretive about. Whenever anyone asked about her life, she tended to answer in a vague way and quickly change the subject. She appeared to have been variously a teacher, a social worker, a nurse and a spy, and a whore with a heart of gold, according to how the mood took her.
What was clear was that she seemed to be entirely alone in the world, and she didn’t seem to have any means of support or anywhere of her own to live. So while her presence was a godsend to Jonathan, we assumed that she, in turn, was very pleased to have a roof over her head.
We had chatted to Jonathan when he was alone, telling him that she was probably in dire straights and since with his various illnesses he might die at any time, had he thought of including her in his will? And he had promised that he’d remember to do so and to make sure that when he died she wouldn’t be destitute. But as so often happens with elderly people, when he did die it was before he’d been able to see the solicitor, so his distant cousins, who had never even visited him once, got his flat and his money.
But what made thins even more strange was that Bella never turned up for the funeral, as we’d assumed she would, she just seemed to vanish into thin air. When the solicitor came to look at his flat, they found none of Bella’s possessions, indeed no indication that anyone other than Jonathan had ever lived there.
“Poor old soul,” my wife Jane said to me. “She must have been so hurt that he never thought of her in his will, and too proud to face his friends, so she just upped and left without telling anyone. Where can she have gone?”
“Well, she must have had a life of her own before she met Jonathan, and it’s her business,” I told her. “Let’s just leave well enough alone.”
But Jane isn’t like that. Jane once worked for a private detective, and she decided to ask her old boss, Nigel, to try and trace her.
“And what are you going to do if you find her?” I asked.
“Ah now, that’s where I’ve been a bit naughty,” Jane said, looking shamefaced. Jane has what you might call ‘flexible morals’, and more than once she’s broken the law and got away with it. That’s not to say she’s a bad person, it’s simply that she has no time for petty rules.
“When we called round to see Bella just after he’d died,” she told me, “I suspected that he would have forgotten to change his will. I remembered him talking about having a lot of those gold coins, krugerrands, hidden away in a drawer. When no one was looking, I searched through everything and in the end I found them. And I took them.”
“For goodness sake, Jane, that’s theft!” I said in shocked outrage.
“No, it’s using my initiative to do what Jonathan would have wanted me to do. I took them and hid them away. No one knows about them, trust me, it’ll be okay. I reckon there’s about thirty thousand pounds’ worth. I know that Jonathan wanted Bella to be provided for, so all I’m doing is carrying out his wishes. I’m going to trace Bella and give her the krugerrands.”
Armed with all the information we’d got on her, Nigel traced her last known address to a posh part of Edinburgh. This seemed to tie in to the facts – she had been living there until a couple of weeks before she had met Jonathan and moved in with him.
We drove up there, assuming that she must have gone back to her previous life, perhaps to stay with a relative or friend, or even to find that she had her own accommodation and we didn’t need to worry.
The lady who answered the door was very welcoming and friendly.
“Come away in the both of you,” she said cheerfully when we explained we were looking for Bella Fazakerly.
“Aye well, I’m very sorry,” she said as we sat in her beautiful living room. “Bella was my grandmother.”
“Was?” I asked.
“I’m afraid she passed on about six months ago. I’ve taken over her flat.”
The shock must have shown on our faces. But of course, Jane and I both realised that Nigel had clearly made a mistake. You would have thought that he would have checked out to see if she was still alive!
“Do you know something?” Bella Fazakerly’s lovely friendly granddaughter Linda, went on, when she’d given us tea and biscuits. “My granny was very frail, she couldn’t live alone towards the end. I wanted to move in, but my husband wouldn’t hear of it, and she didn’t know anyone else well enough, and suddenly this wonderful lady seemed to turn up out of the blue, and Gran and her hit it off straight away and she moved in and helped us out no end. Honestly she was her lifeline.”
“What became of her?” I asked.
“You know that’s the strange thing,” Linda went on, frowning. “We were expecting her to come to the funeral but she never turned up. She simply vanished – no one knew where she went or what she did. It was awful, because although Granny didn’t have very much to leave she told us she wanted Susan to have some kind of token, and we were going to give her some money, as she wanted us to, but we have no idea where she went.”
There was a strange kind of atmosphere then, the air became chilly.
“And do you know something?” Linda went on, oblivious to the sudden chill in the air. “When we cleared up the flat there was nothing left here to show that Susan had lived here, no clothes left behind, papers, nothing. She’d obviously taken everything with her.”
“And her name was Susan?”
“Aye, that it was. Susan Coverdale. I believe she came from London originally, so she said, or was it Bristol? Do you know she had this marvellous smile that made you feel wonderful, and she was so kind. A very special lady.”
When we left, Jane and I were subdued, wondering what all this meant.
And when we got home, and Jane told Nigel what we’d discovered he was very apologetic, but couldn’t find any other Bella Fazakerly who matched the details. Nigel’s good at his job, and yet the only traces of credit card use, national insurance number, pension and all the other myriad methods of tracing people showed only one Bella Fazakerly who matched the right age margins, and that had been the lady who had died.
When Nigel tried to trace Susan Coverdale, armed with the information that Linda had given us, it turned out that a Susan Coverdale had died in Manchester a year ago, in fact just a fortnight before Bella Fazakerly had encountered her in Edinburgh.
There the mystery should have ended.
Indeed to be honest, Jane and I were a bit unhappy about the next turn of events.
As I told you, Jane has ‘flexible morals’, and while we had done our very best to trace ‘Bella’ to give her the krugerrands, it had been impossible. Therefore what were we to do? We had thirty thousand quid that no one else knew about, so it was with a spring in our step that we decided to take it to the gold exchange place she knew of in London.
And, just as we came out of the Underground station, there was ‘Bella’, large as life.
“Bella!” Jane said in delight. “We’ve been searching for you! We wanted to give you Jonathan’s krugerrands.”
“Good. Thank you very much indeed, Jonathan did promise them to me,” she said, and she held her hands out.
True I did feel a bit gutted to have said goodbye to all that money, but what could we do? And I’m proud of the way Jane handed over the very heavy parcel with a smile on her face, even if she was gritting her teeth.
“But Bella, why on earth did you just disappear like that?” I asked. “And why did you take the name of someone who had just died? Who are you?”
And there it was again. That million-dollar smile that could make you forget all your troubles.
And then she was gone, trotting away fast down the street.
“Where on earth is she going?” I asked as we raced after her, seeing her disappear down an alley.
We ran after her, but she was nowhere in sight.
As we were walking back, puzzled and distraught, we came across a nun, who was looking in both directions, frantically.
“Did you see a lady here just now?” she asked us.
“Yes, we were looking for her,” I answered, “she’s an old friend.”
“I can’t understand it,” she told us. “We run the hostel for the homeless people here.” She gestured to the building behind her. “And this lady just came I and gave us a very heavy parcel. It seems to be full of gold coins, and I can’t quite believe she meant us to have them.”
“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “We know her, and she is certainly a bit eccentric. But I promise you she did want you to have the krugerrands, I’m quite certain of that.”
“Krugerrands?” The nun frowned. “Is that what they are? How do you know?”
“Look there she is!” I told the nun as we saw Bella for the last time at the end of the road, giving us that million-dollar smile before she vanished once again.
And do you know what happened just before she disappeared?
(Image by Jo-B from Pixabay)
(sound effects and music obtained from www.zapsplat.com)