“Now, there’s just one more thing to clear up.”
My eyes wandered to the clock ticking softly on the wall. Outside, a family and dog strolled past the bay window and the sun shone. Inside, it smelled like furniture polish and instant coffee.
“Which other thing?” I tried to yawn without opening my mouth, which was only half successful. The air seemed thick with dust, and my nose itched.
The owlish old man shifted in his chair, making the leather creak.
“There’s one more item in her will. It’s listed here under ‘antiques’. It seems Ms Coleridge had quite a collection in her attic all this time.”
“Oh, right. I never knew about that.” I suppressed the urge to chew a thumbnail.
“Well, do you want the boxes? I could organise a delivery. If not, it can all go when the house is cleared. It’s up to you.” The solicitor bent over the paperwork. In response, his thick glasses slid a centimetre or two down his long nose. I started counting the liver spots on his bald skull. There might be something worth keeping in there. There might be something I could auction. Who knows.
“Yeah, okay. Why not?”
“Wonderful. We have your address. They should be there by the weekend.” The liver-spotted skull bobbed back up and he closed the folder with a flourish, and I briefly lost track of the clock’s steady heartbeat. He proffered me a soft, wrinkled hand and I took it. It was five to one. I hadn’t eaten anything apart from a banana in the car that morning. My stomach rumbled under my dress. I smiled, said goodbye, trotted gladly back out onto the street, and breathed a sigh of relief. I put my hands on my hips and did a weird bow to try to stretch out my stiff back. It really was stifling in there. I almost skipped back down the street, vowing to sniff out a bakery before I went back to the car.
I had barely known my aunt, yet here I was in her hometown, talking through her will with her solicitor. She had been missing for almost ten years now. She had had no children; she had not owned her home. My brother and I were her closest living relatives. Last year, he had started applying for her to be declared legally dead. A bit of closure, he said. Let’s turn the page. I hadn’t resisted. I wasn’t invested enough, hadn’t known her well enough. A life reduced to a few bonds and boxes, handed over to a near stranger. What an inheritance.
An hour later, I pulled up our driveway a few towns over, the gravel crunching beneath the wheels of my car. Except it still didn’t really feel like ‘our’ driveway yet. I stared at the front windows of the house a while, lost in my thoughts. They stared back. My aunt was never a particularly likeable woman, judging by the way my mother had spoken about her, but now I wished I had known more about her, made an effort. It must have been lonely after her husband had died. All alone in that house. And then to just disappear off the face of the Earth, no more Christmas cards, no more of her sad, stooped figure at family gatherings. My dog’s face appeared in the living room window, a couple of minutes too late. She was getting on in years, so I had probably caught her napping. As mum had always told me, it’s impossible to think sad thoughts when you’re looking at a dog. Even the thought of attempting to wipe her eager nose juice off the windowpane later couldn’t suppress the wave of affection I still felt every time I came home.
When I got in the door, I knew Freya was home. I could see her schoolbag dumped on the stairs. Sometimes I still forgot which days she stayed for netball club. I tried to remember if she still went because she hadn’t mentioned any matches recently. I fended off Mabel’s amorous greeting and hung my coat on the stair rail. Despite my best efforts her breath was still reminiscent of old herring. It was warm for autumn, and I was sweating under my layers.
“How was school today?” I yelled down the hallway, half-expecting her to be installed in front of the TV.
A few seconds later, a white-socked pair of feet appeared at the top of the stairs. One of her toes was sticking out through a frayed hole.
“It was fine, I guess. I had maths with Mr Harcourt though. He stinks.” Freya was fourteen and already very eloquent. “Where were you? I thought you’d be in your office. I had to walk Mabel before it gets dark.” Freya was pouting. Mabel was busy sniffing my boots.
“Thanks for your willing contributions to this household,” I said with mock grandeur, “but I was out. You know your Great Aunt Isabel has been declared legally dead. Well, it turns out everything now goes to me and your Uncle.” My scarf slid off the stair rail. I repositioned it, this time more central. It stayed put.
“Oh, yeah. Should I feel sad? I tried to feel sad, but I don’t.” Her socked feet wriggled uncomfortably on the step. “What did she leave you anyway?”
“You don’t have to feel sad, honey. You only met her once or twice and you were so young. Do you even remember her? She left me a few premium bonds and some antiques from her attic. Lord knows what’s in those boxes. Chris got her savings.”
“No, I can’t picture her face. Uncle Chris got a better deal, then” Freya said matter-of-factly. What a cynic. She should be a lawyer herself.
“That’s a harsh way of looking at it, but you might be right. The solicitors said it was divvied up equally, but I can’t see how they’re right. I have a feeling Chris just got there first.” there was a bitter edge to my voice. Chris had always been a charmer, in the right place at the right time. I was under no illusions about why he had wanted her declared legally dead. “And you need new socks again. Do you have razor blades for toes or something?”
It was Saturday morning. James was out at work already, doing the extra cash-in-hand jobs which helped to pay for the food shop. I luxuriated in bed a little, spreading my arms and legs out to form a starfish. The house was still, so Freya was probably sleeping in too. It often seemed too quiet here. This was supposed to be our dream house, our big move. I kept telling myself I would get used to it, that it would get better for our family in the countryside, but sometimes I was still terrified we’d made the wrong decision. I padded downstairs and turned on the coffee machine. I put enough water in for two cups. Freya liked to think she already had very grown-up tastes.
Mabel slunk out of her bed to greet me, giving me a long stare in the process. She could sleep for most of the day, but that didn’t stop her from judging me when I had a lay-in. Less attention for her.
After I’d finished my second cup and a slightly stale bagel, I was considering why anyone had invented a type of bread which was inedible unless toasted, when the doorbell rang. By the time I’d slipped on a dressing gown (I didn’t like to wear a bra in bed, and I also didn’t like the thought of delivery men ogling me in my pyjama vest) and slapped over to the front door in my slip-on slippers, they’d already driven off. Or vanished, more like. There were three large cardboard boxes on my front porch, emitting a musty odour. I was beginning to regret ever saying I would take them.
I hoped they weren’t heavy, but I had no such luck. Lifting with my knees, I managed to heave them, one at a time, into the living room. Working from home had done nothing for my muscle definition. Just when I was finished, Freya showed up, bobbing her blonde head over the stair rail in that nosy way of hers.
“You timed that well,” I said, arching an eyebrow.
“Are those from Aunt Isabel? I can smell coffee.” She took the last steps two at a time and half-jogged into the kitchen. Very good at evading a subject too, I thought. Definite lawyer or politician.
By noon, we had gone through the contents of every musty box and sorted into three piles: keep, chuck and sell. A cloying smell of mould, decay and lavender mothballs had settled over the living room. I opened a window. It was much colder today but it was the lesser of two evils. The ‘keep’ pile was small – just a fruit bowl, a candelabra and a mirror. They may have all been from some kind of famous manufacturer, but I didn’t care. I didn’t usually go for really old things, on account of them giving me the creeps, but these had their own charms. The blue floral patterns on the fruit bowl would go nicely with the colour scheme in the dining room, the candelabra would be a good reason to finally start using all the nice smelly candles I got for Christmas and then promptly forgot about, and the mirror was practically begging me to keep it. I needed a new one to fix my hair in the hallway anyway. This was the kind of town where you didn’t even look scruffy going to fetch bread, eggs and milk.
“What do you think, Freya?” I sat back on my knees.
“Well it’s all ugly, so I wouldn’t keep anything else,” she mumbled, barely looking up from scrolling.
Carefully, I pushed myself to my feet. I had recently turned forty and all of a sudden I felt every year.
Freya begrudgingly helped me clear the unwanted things back into their respective boxes. I scrawled CHUCK or SELL in thick black letters on each one. My ‘late’ Aunt Isabel seemed even more of a tragic figure than ever. There were some old, yellowed papers in the box, covered in a faded scrawl of tiny black letters, but there was no way I could read it. The letters were just too small and close. I had no idea just how old they could really be. I had decided in the end to put them in the SELL box. Maybe there would be an expert I could ask when I sold the other things. There were probably regular auctions populated by shuffling retirees with a paperweight addiction around here. There were probably also pretty little antique shops with twee names full of twee things nobody ever needed. I had never been to either. I bet they smelled bad too.