Friday 23rd December

Solo organisation, relatively speaking (5)

It is the eve of Christmas Eve and I have driven north into the eye of Storm Barbara to get “home” to Norton for my uncle’s funeral. The Yaris was shaking like a leaf on the A19 and I feared being blown into the Tees, seven days early. But I make it out of the cloudburst, at the head of the tempest. Embarrassingly, Dad has stayed in Oxford, claiming an unspecified prior engagement in Bracknell. While I know they have never seen eye to eye, this seems to me like a shocking betrayal – how can you be too busy to attend your own brother’s funeral?

Priory Hall, near Stockton, is much as I remember it and yet irremediably diminished without my Uncle Alan. I feel a bit like Pip going back to Satis House, rattling at the rusty gates and noting all the signs of neglect. The hogweeds have got the place surrounded. Give them another twenty years and it will have become impenetrable.  As I gaze out of the conservatory window, a million dead leaves corkscrew round like a cloud of starlings. At least the pathetic fallacy is doing its circus tricks.

The sale of Priory Hall has gone through and we can see the lorries of the developers already parked outside the property. But Uncle Alan seems to have made special arrangements with his solicitors that, in the event of his demise, the old homestead should be allowed to play host to this cheerless send-off. So here we all are, following the obligatory Mummers’ play at a local crematorium, chewing on our ham sandwiches and wondering how many glasses of fizzy white wine we can put away without compromising our ability to drive home for Christmas. There is quite a good turn-out but, apart from Mother and the odd relative, only a few folk that I recognise.

I have just loaded up my tiny plate with a second helping of vol-au-vents and egg sarnies when I am accosted by a vaguely familiar-looking chap of my own age. He has already been pointed out to me as Uncle Alan’s solicitor.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” he says.

“I’m sure I do …” I try in vain to place the man.

“We both had a bit more hair when we were young. John Harrison.”

I picture him with a full head of hair.

“J.K. Harrison! Of course! I’m sorry, John, I …”

“No need to apologise, Alex. I thought I’d see you here. I am … I was your uncle’s solicitor. I know how much you admired him. It’s a sad day indeed.”

John Harrison was my best friend when I was about fourteen, at just about the time when one stopped having best friends any more. I remember him as a bright lad, if a little bit spotty and nerdish. Like me, he was into crosswords at a surprisingly young age and we used to swap clues that we had found inspiring or baffling. I don’t think we ever made a conscious decision to stop being good friends – it was just that we took different options for GCSE or discovered girls instead. Probably not the latter in my case – indeed, I’m not quite sure that I have “discovered” girls even now. Anyway, we drifted apart and John went off to do his A-levels somewhere else and I haven’t seen him since.

“A solicitor, eh?” I say. “Of course I remember you. Still doing the crosswords?”

“You bet. I was down in London a few weeks ago for the Times National Crossword Championships.”

“Did you win?”

“Nah. The top guys are solving three fiendish cryptics in twenty minutes or so. It’s all I can do to get through them in an hour.”

“An hour for three puzzles? Sounds impossible to me.”

“Just a matter of practice. I do a couple every lunchtime, between sandwiches, me against the clock.”

“So, let’s see. You did a law degree and after that …”

“Articles, then joined a local firm of solicitors. Very dull.”

Jarndyce & Jarndyce? Markby, Markby & Markby?”

“Procter & Harrison. At the sign of the hedgehog.”

“The hedgehog? You’ve lost me there.”

Hérissant. French for ‘bristling’. Harrison, hérissant, I should have a family crest done. A rampant hedgehog.”

I contemplate this ghastly proposition for a moment and decide to humour him.

“Me too. Only mine would be the sign of the groundhog.”

“A far mightier hog, I suspect! I’ll hedge my bets while you go to ground!”

We snort with laughter, like the hog(g)s we are. It is a surprise to find myself having quite so much fun. I enquire whether John’s firm has been handling the sale of the property or the will. It turns out to be both.

“We’re good old-fashioned all-purpose lawyers,” he sighs. “A finger in every pie. With planning permission in place, this old ruin has fetched a bob or two, I can tell you.”

“How many bob?”

“I would tell you. But I have just come from a meeting of the executors and an initial reading of the will. I don’t think it would be indiscreet to let you know that you are a beneficiary of the will.”

Me?”

“Yes. Is that so surprising? You’re aware that your Uncle Alan had no children. He had to leave his money to someone.”

“I can’t deny that a couple of thousand would help me stave off the most persistent of my creditors.”

“It will be rather more than a couple of thousand, I think. I should be able to give you a ballpark figure in a few days, although it will probably take some months to value all the assets, pay off the taxman, etc.”

“So, I shouldn’t expect to see any actual cash before, say, December 30th?”

John Harrison looks at me as if I am completely barking.

“December 30th? But we’re into the Christmas holidays now. Even if I was working on the case all day every day and Mr Taxman was doing likewise, then there would be no possibility of sorting it out within that sort of timescale. These things take months, years even. What’s so significant about December 30th, anyway?”

“Oh, it’s nothing, really. It’s just that I might not be around after December 30th.”

“You’re thinking of emigrating? That wouldn’t affect a legacy …”

“No, it’s just … it’s just that it would be nice to have some serious cash in my pocket so that I could enjoy the Christmas season in some style. Live like there’s no tomorrow …”

“Yes, but why December 30th, specifically?”

“Let’s just say that I have reason to believe that I may suffer a certain misfortune on that day.”

My old schoolfriend gives me the funniest of looks. Perhaps he even understands what I am saying. I wonder whether he would consider trading the answer to his question for some specific information about the size of my legacy. But before I can broker any sort of deal, we are interrupted by my mother who seems to have drunk rather more of the lukewarm Asti Spumante than is strictly wise at her advanced age.

“Ah, friends reunited?” she suggests, a little too loudly.

“You remember John, do you, Mum?”

“I remember all your friends, Alex. I always knew John would go far. He had that extra spark, that determination.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that, Mrs Hogg,” John blushes.

“Unlike me, you mean?” I enquire. My mother laughs it off.

“Well, let’s just say that he has found himself a nice solid job where he can charge people £200 an hour for his services …”

Two hundred quid?” I gulp. How can anyone earn that much, I wonder? John soon puts her straight.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Mrs Hogg, but it’s actually nearer three hundred pounds an hour these days.”

“I suppose the divorce was a little while ago now.”

“Yes, inflation is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? But I shouldn’t stand round here chatting when I could be off fleecing the poor and luring the unwary into pointless litigation. I must do some networking!”

“Thanks, Mum,” I grumble, as John edges politely away. “We were having quite a nice little conversation till you came along. It sounds like I’m going to inherit a few quid in Uncle Alan’s will.”

“But the old buffer couldn’t stand any of us, could he?”

“I used to get on rather well with him, actually. He was someone who took a real interest in my intellectual development.”

“I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, I suppose. Not until the coffin has been firmly nailed down anyway! But Alan turned out even more pedantic than your father. If that’s possible …” She reaches for another glass from a passing tray.

“That stuff is stronger than it looks, you know …”

“Oh, give us a break, Alex. It’s a funeral! There aren’t many pleasures left in life! Things could be worse, I guess – I could still be married to your dad. Thank God he’s not here. What’s the old fool up to these days?”

I tell her all about Gwen and the random precision of his new love-life, as well as my imminent ejection from Hogg Towers on Osney Island.

“Well, you’re a big boy now, Alex. Or you should be. It isn’t healthy to be living with Dad at your age.”

I am tempted to respond in kind but, like Donald Trump, I reflect that Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course.

“It’s all a bit Steptoe-ish,” Mum continues.

“Indeed. Let’s just say that, if I had been earning three hundred pounds an hour, I might have found alternative lodgings by now. The fact is, I wasn’t. And now I’m earning sweet FA …”

My mother considers my predicament for a moment …

“Well, I suppose you could always come back to the frozen North …”

“What, to your place?”

“I haven’t got room, of course, but ….”

“It’s a kind offer, Mum, but … well, let’s just get through Christmas first, shall we?”

Storm Barbara permitting, I have agreed to sleep on the sofa and enjoy at least part of the Yuletide snoreathon with the old bat. It is not a prospect I’m relishing, if truth be told. It’s no way to spend my last days.  If it proves even more ghastly than expected, I can always claim that I have to return to Oxford to fulfil my responsibilities as MC on Phil’s stag night.

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