I see the cottage. An open door. Rough, paint peeling.
There is no one at the entrance to welcome me.
‘Hello! Are you in?’
I step inside. A musty, stale smell. An unmade divan in the far corner. A lamp of dull wattage on a small table beside the bed. An antique desk. A sofa, Indian rugs, threadbare. It is cold. Pulling my coat tight around me I call up the spiral staircase.
‘It’s me, Nina.’
‘Hello! Hello! I’m coming down.’
Relief. She’s here. And at last Dorcas’ slow, deliberate steps bring her onto the small landing. I watch her slow descent down the stairs, steep, winding.
‘Darling Nina! I was having a clear-out and must have dropped off. Have you been here long?’
‘No. I’ve been calling you, but never mind.’
I hug her and she sighs her gentle welcome, clutching me tight.
‘Darling girl! It’s so good that you came.’
Dorcas leads me to a chair and sits me down.
‘You know we need to talk, don’t you sweetheart? But first I must make you tea and our toast. Do you remember our toast forks?’
She clutches my hand. Hers arthritic and old.
I say, ‘I’ve had tea. I stopped at a motorway cafe on the way. We’ll toast our bread on the fire another time.’
‘Alas, as you see there is no fire. But darling girl, we can play at memories: go back to our times together when you used to come and stay. Toast, jam, fairy cakes. Hide and Seek. All of that. Ah yes! I remember.’
‘Yes. But it’s so cold here. No fire? Or do you just neglect to light it?’ I stare at an empty grate the remains of ashes scattering the fender.
‘Too old now, too full of silly pain to go gathering kindle. But there’s the electric. It’ll soon warm up.’ She goes to a small cupboard and produces a two bar electric fire.
‘Pour yourself a stiffener and then we must talk. But let’s get settled first.’
To live in a small wood away from the road, away from the shops, Dorcas, the ever romantic, has exchanged the benefits of suburban life for the harsh realities of primitive dwelling.
After drinks and chat, I wait for her to begin.
‘I have made a will in your favour. But there is Alexis to consider as well.’
‘Of course, Dorcas. Alexis must have priority over me. He’s your son. I’m only a friend.’
‘He is my stepson. That is very different.’
‘Even so, like a son, surely.’
‘Not like a son that I ever wanted, I’m sorry to say. You are like the daughter I wanted. Alexis, no.’
Her voice trails off and I see sorrow govern those fine features that had once borne the beauty of a gracious and wealthy woman.
‘Anyway, I have decided what to do. I have asked you over here to give you your share now before I die, so that there will be no paper trail, if that is the term used.’
I stare aghast.
‘Dorcas, I can’t accept money from you yet. It wouldn’t be right and in any case looking around me, you need every penny you own.’
‘Darling girl. I am old. Very. Not frightfully well.’
I take her hand. ‘Please. I can’t.’
‘Nina. Now, don’t be difficult.’ She slaps my hand playfully, and then fumbling inside the pocket of her baggy blue cardigan pulls out a rumpled envelope.’
‘Take it. Take it and spend it quickly before there's a rumpus. Once it is spent that boy cannot get his hands on the money. Do you understand?’
‘No buts. Please, Nina. Alexis need never know of this meeting or the cheque, so long as you spend the money before the will is read. If you do not spend the money, he will get it. Promise me that you will do this. I want you to have this cheque.’
‘Very well. If you insist. Thank you. I’ll do as you ask.’ But the discomfort, the burden of this knowledge, I know, will be great.
‘Good. I can remake my will now, do you see? Omitting you entirely and naming my stepson as sole heir. That’s what he would want, as my stepson, that’s what he expects and that’s what will happen.’
She squeezes my hand and gives a wink. ‘But you and I know different. Now, let’s not speak of this any-more. We’ll have a nice chat about everything and anything else, but not that.’
I stay the night in a freezing cold bedroom and the next morning, once assured that she has some help by way of a daily to see to her basic needs, say my goodbyes and leave. I do not dare to open the envelope and look at the cheque, will do that later in the privacy of my flat. I know that her gift will be a generous one and I’m frightened. Not used to having a great deal of money, I am unsure how I will spend it. I worry about Alexis fearing that by some means or another he may find out. I live a very modest life: quiet, uneventful. I am unused to subterfuge.
Dorcas had come from money. Whilst once living modestly in a London flat, she had often regaled tales of her youth: balls, men begging to marry her, mansions and lineage and heaven knows what else. Her eccentricity, her now hermit life-style, so typical of some wealthy people, had at length brought her to a small cottage, and out of the ways of the world.
Her stepson, Alexis, is an unnerving character who lives uncomfortably close to my Maida Vale flat. His jealous nature has distanced my friendship with Dorcas, whom because of this, I now see only occasionally. Widowed when young, she told me that she had fostered, and then adopted him from an early age. Her own wealthy routes had enabled her to give him the best education, first at Eton and then Oxford. But having been sent down from there, he made, and still makes his living by his wits, buying and selling antiques. In order to avoid overheads, he does this from his home, which, as far as I can gather, makes enough to keep him in whiskey and pay his rent. He has never liked me, sensing her favouritism of me over him. As children we played together on occasion at Dorcas’ home in Hampstead. He demonstrated his dislike of me by locking me in the garden shed, twisting my arms, and dousing me in cold water just to name a few of his punishments. I eventually stopped going thus widening the gap of our friendship. But through the years Dorcas and I still kept in touch via letters and ‘phone calls.
Dorcas dies not long after my visit. A sadness to me as I had hoped to at least see her once more. Her sudden ageing and frailty had been apparent on my last visit, and her forgetfulness at having left the front door open whilst upstairs was cause for concern.
With my aunt’s sudden death, I know that now I must open that envelope and look at my cheque. For her sake at least I should honour my promise. Why then can’t I do it? Why? Each time I pass the cupboard, I stop, my heart pounding but then pass by. It's a dread I do not understand. I know that if I don’t cash the cheque, Alexis, as sole heir, will inherit the lot. And soon.
I dread meeting Alexis at the funeral. But he is civil enough and we pass pleasantries and mix with the other mourners without saying anything controversial to each other.
Dorcas had mentioned that she had stated in her will to have her cottage cleared and then put on the market. I said that in the event of her death I would go over and check everything was all right. So soon after the funeral, I drive my car up the short driveway that leads to my friend’s cottage and see another car parked. Once more the front door is standing wide open. It is a reminder of my previous visit. But this time I do not call my friend’s name when I enter. Alexis is there before me. He is closely examining her desk.
‘Oh, it’s you!’ He takes a handkerchief from his pocket and wipes his brow. ‘When I heard the car, I thought it was the auctioneer. He eyes me up and down, his rudeness so pointed, I can only smile in amazement.
‘This is a pretty Davenport desk, wouldn’t you agree? Nice walnut inlay.’ He gives it a smart tap. ‘I think I’ll take it. You don’t want it, do you?’ And before waiting for an answer goes on:
‘My stepmother wanted me to deal with the property. Of course, being her stepson and executor of the will, she left all the details to me.’ He clears his throat. ‘Come to look at the place one last time have you, Nina? Please feel free to choose an item for yourself. But as you can see, quite a dump, wouldn’t you say? But the old girl refused to go into a home. Her mind was going, you know. Left things on the boil, the front door wide open, all that kind of thing.’
‘As you have just done,’ I rejoin, swallowing hard. My fear of him has been replaced with anger. How dare he speak of his stepmother, who had given him a home and every chance in life, in this dismissive and arrogant fashion.
‘Oh did I leave the front door open?’ His manner is derisive. ‘Well not a bad idea to get some fresh air into this fusty, damp place.’ He gives a short cough. ‘She left everything to me, you know. All the effects and a bit of dosh.’ He laughs but his eyes are stony as he fixes on me.
I wonder at his words. Not having cashed my cheque, Alexis must be exaggerating, to put it mildly. He probably doesn’t want me to know the extent of her bequest. But what if Dorcas unwittingly told him about the cheque? I panic and look quickly at the exit. We are very alone here, no-one would hear me scream.
‘That, of course, is your affair. It’s not my business what she left you, Alexis.’
I’m ready to run, but suddenly his shoulders droop, his voice loses its edge and he casts tired drawn eyes over the room.
‘Doubt I’ll get much for this old shack. Typical of the mater. Bloody mean. I bet before she died, she gave half her money to the cat’s home or the church. Well, she certainly didn’t leave me all that massive loot she was always going on about. Hah! Anyway, the place is riddled with damp and needs a fortune spending on it to become habitable.’
‘What on earth do you mean, Alexis?’
He regards me with interest.
‘You look like a hare caught in the headlights, Nina. Well, let me explain. Dear old Dorcas never forgave me for liking the old sauce. And of course she will have told you, many times, no doubt, that I drank. You Alcoholic! That’s what she used to call me. But the drink drugged the pain you see. And you can take that smirk off your face, dear.’
Ignoring this last comment I ask him what pain.
‘Oh, didn’t she tell you?’ His laugh is dry, bitter. ‘No, I daresay she didn’t. Always preferred you, didn’t she? Wanted to shield you, I expect.’
‘Shield me? Shield me from what?’
‘Oh, it doesn’t matter.’
‘Yes, it does. Shield me from what?’
Alexis drops his great bulk onto the nearest chair.
‘From her lies. My stepmother, your dear friend Dorcas, was a pathological liar. Fed everyone false information about herself, about me. Can’t think why, unless it made her feel better than she was. And she was good at it too. She had most people convinced about her background, her lineage, her wealth, her adored stepson whom she actually grew to loathe. Yeh, I grew up surrounded by a tissue of lies. So much so that I began to believe them. You see once she spoke an untruth I had to uphold it. Go along with her stories told so convincingly, and with so much heart, who would disbelieve her? She stole money too and then, bless her, she would give that stolen money to the church. She chose me as her confessor swearing me to secrecy. Ashamed? Oh yes. But I would never have given her away. It would have marked me, you see. In any case I grew to accept her threats. And that's doubtless why I’m such a bloody mixed up creep today.’
He meets my eyes and I sense a distress, a sadness.
‘Have you tried living with a liar, Nina?’
‘No. I thought not. She even convinced you, didn’t she. ‘It was all a front, an act based on ideas of grandeur, and no-one knew except me.’
‘But she sent you to Eton.’
‘Eton? Tosh. I think you were the only one told that. You lived far enough away to be protected from the truth. She sent me to the local secondary modern. As for Oxford, never been there. The local tech college was more my style. I was frequently ordered not to breathe a word, to anyone, especially you. She drew me into her net. Shame shut my mouth. I was drawn, brain washed into her shadowy fantasy world. And as I said, you lived miles away from my stepmother, so how were you to know truth from fiction. When you stayed with her she could afford to shower you with her fantasies. Sorry, Nina, to shatter your illusions.’
Alexis heaves himself to his feet, shrugs his shoulders and storms into the kitchen slamming the door behind him.
For some moments I try to take in what he has said. If he is to be believed, my whole friendship with Dorcas had been based on a lie.
I leave the cottage closing that front door for what I believe to be the last time.
On reaching my flat, I walk straight to the cupboard, open the envelope take out the cheque, tear it to pieces and throw it into the bin.
All that was years back. I’m an old woman now. Sometimes as I sit in her cottage, yes, I decided to buy it from Alexis, I wonder about that cheque. I shall never know how much, or how little she really meant me to have. Or even whether she was in her right mind when she presented it to me. It puzzles me. Still. You see, I’ve recently discovered hidden away behind that fireplace whose fire she never lit, a diamond necklace. Quite lovely too. Its value, I’ve been told, is around fifteen thousand pounds. So where did that come from? Stolen, bought or inherited? And why should I trust Alexis’s word anyway? I wonder whether I should tell him of my find. He was her sole heir after all. Is the necklace rightfully his? I spend evenings wrestling with my conscience. Looking back I did feel let down, you see, by Dorcas. Those lies she purportedly told me. It seemed that I had thought her one thing and all the time she was another. But was she? That necklace leaves a question mark. Perhaps I was meant to find it. But aside from that I like to think now that I knew her for what I saw her to be: a kind, caring friend who showed me affection and warmth. You can’t lie about those qualities, can you? So, I prefer to think of her now as a lovable eccentric who thrived on fantasy. After all, don't we all like a little of that?
You know, this cottage could do with a good face lift. There’s a nasty damp spot in the corner and the roof needs re-thatching. No. I don’t think that I’ll tell Alexis about the necklace. Not yet.
Fiction C: Jane Lockyer Willis 2020