“Why would I want a portrait of that stupid cow?” the fortyish, hard-as-nails woman in a designer dress snapped at the tiny sweet old lady, who seemed to shrink away in fear. “She might have given birth to me, but unlike her and Dad I managed to get away from this ghastly area, earn some money, make a success of my life! I despise her – you can chuck that painting in the bin for all I care.”
“Ooooh, Jane!” the newly-widowed old lady’s voice trembled as if she was almost in tears. “I met your dad long after your mum died, but by all accounts she sounded like a really nice person.”
“Nice? What’s the point of nice?” Jane Badenough jeered. “What did ‘nice’ ever do for my father, or you for that matter – you’re still slumming it in this awful high-rise dog kennel. Listen, please, and concentrate! I know that Dad left a will, leaving me all the money in his account! I know he did! If you’ve destroyed it you’ll have me to reckon with!”
“How dare you?” Josephine couldn’t hide her fury. “I would never do that! Never! I’ve searched high and low for the damned will –”
“Then search a bit harder and bloody well find it!” Jane snapped. “Or else!”
“Or else what, you ungrateful bitch? How dare you threaten me!”
No one was taking any notice of me while I struggled with trying to fix the lavatory cistern in the bathroom. The younger woman had glared at me in my overalls as she’d come in, clearly assuming that as a worker I was beneath contempt.
Jane was getting redder and redder in the face as she ranted and raved, and I must admit, I found it hard to sympathise with her. She had a harsh, strident voice, and was yelling at her elderly stepmother as if she was a disobedient dog.
Her father, Daniel, and his wife Josephine had been my next-door neighbours and friends in our block of flats for five years now, and his death had upset me deeply, and I knew that poor Jo was absolutely devastated. The couple had been devoted for as long as I’d known them. In their late eighties, I was always pleased to help them out in any way I could, whether it was doing a bit of shopping, taking a lid off a jar or tackling a plumbing problem, as I was today.
After Jane had gone, I came into the living room to tell Jo I’d fixed the lavatory.
“I loathe Jane, I always have,” explained Jo, her hands shaking after the altercation. “Daniel couldn’t stand her either, but she was his only child, and he did say that he thought he ought to leave her something. I married him long after Ellie, Jane’s mother, died. This is her.”
Jo showed me the elaborately framed portrait of a kindly looking lady.
“Daniel specifically told me that if anything happened to him, I was to give Jane her mum’s portrait. But you heard what she said, didn’t you? She didn’t even want it!”
“Yes, I heard her telling you to chuck it in the bin.” I shook my head in condemnation. “What about this will then?”
“Well he did tell me that he’d made a will, leaving her his savings,” she said. “But honestly, I’ve searched everywhere I can think of, and I simply can’t find it.”
“So what happens if you can’t find the will?” I asked her.
“Well, according to the solicitor, failing to find the will means that he died intestate. He told me that in such a case, as his wife, I’d be entitled to most of it, and Jane would get half what was left over a certain amount or something. I won’t lie to you, Peter, I haven’t got a bean myself, and while getting Daniel’s bit of money won’t make me rich, it would set me straight for the rest of my days. What with fixing the funeral and everything I’m practically skint, and I’ve been worried to death. Yesterday I got a gas bill that I can’t pay.”
“And judging by her clothes, am I right in thinking that Jane has got a bob or two?” I asked.
“Oh yes, her husband is some fancy lawyer in the city, he makes a fortune! I tell you, Daniel’s inheritance would just about pay for one of their fancy foreign holidays. Jane and her poncy husband never so much as gave us a thought all these years, but now he’s dead, she’s round here like a shot to get what she can. However.” Josephine shook her head defiantly. “That isn’t the point. After all she is his daughter, and Daniel’s wishes are what really matters. If, as she says, he really did make a will leaving her his money then it’s my duty to find it.”
“Where have you looked?” I asked her.
“Everywhere.” She sat on the sofa in the tiny living room, looking sadly sideways to where Daniel used to sit beside her. “I’ve taken every room apart. You’d think that Daniel would have given a copy to the solicitor, but he didn’t. I just don’t know what to do.”
“Well, it seems to me that you’ve done everything you can. Maybe Daniel meant to make this will, but at the last moment changed his mind and tore it up. Or he never got around to it.”
“I just don’t know, dear, I really don’t know.”
Josephine went out to make us a cup of tea, and I examined the portrait, which really was very good indeed. I got to wondering, what sort of a monster took no interest in their own mother?
As I looked closer, I noticed that it wasn’t hanging perfectly straight, so, while looking into the bright blue kindly eyes of Daniel’s first wife, adjusted the frame slightly. That was when I noticed that it wasn’t hanging properly, something was pushing it away from the wall’s surface.
I unhooked it from the fixing. Turning it over, I saw the A4-sized stack of papers that had been sellotaped to the back of the portrait. The phrase that leapt out at me was Last Will and Testament.
“Do you want any of my home-made biscuits?” Josephine called out from the kitchen, interrupting my reverie.
“Yes please, Jo, lovely.”
Quickly, I pulled the papers from the back of the painting, folded them and put them in my pocket and re-hung the painting.
As Jo came back into the room, frowning and muttering on about how she had to do the right thing regarding finding the will, I wondered what I should do.
“She looks like a lovely lady.” I pointed to the portrait as Josephine came back into the room.
“Oh yes, she was,” she agreed. “Everyone liked Ellie. Hard to credit how she could have given birth to a daughter like that.”
“Yes,” I said, taking a deep breath, realising that I had no choice but to obey the law and do what was right. “Look, Jo, I hope you don’t mind, but I happened to notice that the painting was hanging slightly crooked, so I took it down, and I found something taped to the back of it.”
“Really? What was it?”
As I was reaching for the papers, in the same pocket my fingers touched the pile of ten twenty pound notes I’d taken from the bank this morning. I took them out and handed them over to Jo. “Daniel must have stuck this money up there for a rainy day.”
“Oh what a lovely surprise!” She took the money, smiling to herself. “That was Daniel, always doing little unexpected things like that. Well, what a lovely surprise. That takes care of the gas bill!”
After our natter, I stood up to leave. “Remember, Jo, I’m only next door, you can always ring me if there’s anything you need.”
“I will, dear, thanks so much, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“By the way, don’t worry if you hear a bit of buzzing from next door,” I told her. “I’ve got a whole stack of papers I brought home from work that I’ve got to put through the shredder.”
(Image courtesy of Jonas Svidras, from Pixabay)