Baz came swinging down our street, whistling some last-year’s hit, out of tune. After nine months banged up courtesy of Her Majesty, he was as happy as anyone would be.
I’d been keeping an eye out for him, not that I wanted him to know that. I ducked into the kitchen, where his mum wheezed and snored in the rocker like a broken-down engine, well before he crashed open the front door.
“Tracey, where are you?” Bloody stupid question, like we had a big choice of rooms.
“In the kitchen,” I called out.
He pushed open the door, spread his arms, and I ran into them.
“Good to see you, Trace,” he muttered into my ear.
“And you,” I said.
He dragged me to a chair, sat and pulled me onto his knee, hand up my skirt before you could say Jack Robinson. That stood to reason.
“Yer Mum!” I hissed.
“Dead to the world. Surprised to see her above ground.” He tipped me off his lap. “Hello, Mum,” he bawled.
She woke with a snort. “Barry! Is it?” A note of uncertainty.
“Yeah, it’s me. Done me time and feeling fine.”
“I said, ‘Done me time…’ Oh, forget it. I’ll just go upstairs and sort meself out.”
He grabbed my wrist and hauled me from the room. I knew who was going to get sorted out.
He’d always been a lazy bastard when he was out of work, which was most of the time. I’d get up around nine, see if his Mum needed help with dressing, make a pot of tea – when there was tea and milk and sugar in the house – and take him up a cup. That was the last I’d see of him till midday, unless the dole office wanted him. He could keep appointments like that well enough. If I was working, I’d do the same, two hours earlier.
So when I found the bed empty, I assumed he was in the bog. I waited. And waited. I could hear his Mum blundering about in her room, so I threw on a dressing-gown and went to check up on her. Baz was nowhere around.
He came home around four, sober, with an expression I couldn’t describe on his face – satisfaction, maybe?
“Where you been?” I asked him. “It ain’t like you.”
He rubbed his finger on the side of his nose.
“Okay, stuff you, then. Don’t do nothing I wouldn’t do.”
This went on for a week. With two lots of dole money and his Mum’s disability pension, we could keep our heads above water even if he didn’t do any jobs, so I didn’t care.
On Sunday, he said, “Get yer coat, Trace.”
I followed him to the bus stop. We took an 11 to the Clock Tower, then a 78 that went all out in the wilds, places I’d never been, with trees and cows.
We got off somewhere, cut down a footpath and he helped me over a stile. We came out on a country road. He took my hand, not that I was used to that, and I thought maybe he had a spot of open-air sex in mind. But no.
He pushed me half into a hedge.
“What’s the idea…?”
“Quiet, Trace. See that house through there?”
I pushed leaves and twigs aside so I could get a better look. Brick, three storeys, slate roof: brass door-knocker, fresh paintwork, windows sparkling. A bloody mansion.
“Yeah, some rich shit’s, innit?”
“That’s where you’re wrong. But let’s sit down. I need to tell you something.”
We found a fallen log, and he dusted it off with his hand. We sat, and he turned to me, his expression serious.
“It was something me mate Trevor said, him I was talking to in the pub last Friday week. There’s this old bint, eighty-five if she’s a day, lives there alone. Now, if she can afford a big house like that…”
“…she won’t have spare money lying around. It’ll be in a bank with some tricky bastard watching over it. Or she’s got a vicious dog, or…”
“No, that ain’t it. Trev was round there fixing her gutters last month, and she offered him a cup of tea, and they got chatting, like. She was married, but they never had no kids and her husband’s long dead. Her brother and sister are dead, too. Christ, she didn’t half go on, he said, but he was being paid by the hour so it was all good. And – wait for it – she’s had a big row with the Social Services, accused her social worker of nicking her jewellery.”
“Don’t you see? She ain’t got no family. We could be her family. Mum could be, I don’t know, her niece, and I’m her son and you’re my – partner.”
“You’d never get away with it.” Though even as I said that, I thought, he might.
“It’d need planning, I’ll give you that. Get thinking, Trace, two heads’re better than one. But we could live rent-free, and if we made up some hard-luck story, she’d lend us money. And it’d be natural for her to leave us the house when she kicks the bucket. Look, we’ll talk some more when you’ve had time to think. But we need to move quick before the Social gets its act together.”
I gave Baz credit for hard work and common sense. What might he have done if he’d paid attention at school and not arsed about all the time? Luckily, the old girl called Trevor back for another job, and he took Baz along as his mate. She opened up to Baz, and he got the whole bloody family tree.
The important bit was, her brother’s only son emigrated to Australia and was killed in a car crash. Then his widow – also known as Baz’s mum – came back to England when her health packed up, along with her loving son and his charming de facto, ha, ha. If she noticed we didn’t have Australian accents, we’d been to good schools. They must have them out there. We’d only just found out that our Aunt Enid was still alive, and we really wanted to get together again.
We went over and over it, each of us in turn playing suspicious copper or social worker, trying to shake the story. It stood every test. As long as we could bluff her once, the first time…
Baz had smartened himself up so she wouldn’t recognize the oik who helped unblock her drains two weeks ago. He rang the bell, and we waited. And waited. I felt sick. Finally, she appeared, leaning heavily on a stick.
“Yes? I’m sorry, I don’t buy anything at the door.”
“Aunt Enid, I’m Edward, Roger’s son, and this is my wife, Melanie. We’re back from Australia and we only just found out where you live, so naturally…”
Her jaw dropped. “Well! I’d never have thought… Roger used to send Christmas cards when he was alive, but since… Of course, I’ve never seen his children. I’m so sorry about your father, such a tragic death. Won’t you come in?”
And it went like clockwork. Baz’s plum-in-the-mouth accent would have fooled smarter people than me. I never realized I had such a talented boyfriend. And we must be kosher, who else would turn up on her doorstep knowing who was who in the family? I was starting to enjoy this.
Melanie. Melanie. Not Tracey. I’d better remember who I bloody well was. The wedding band on my finger was hot, as was the zircon-and-sapphire engagement ring. It always helped to have criminal associates. I wouldn’t have minded the ceremony as well.
She set out to make us tea, and I went to help. A massive kitchen, frighteningly tidy.
“I’m afraid I have no cake, but there are biscuits in that tin. Perhaps you’d lay some out on one of those plates? You’re a pretty girl. Roger had an eye for a pretty face, too.”
That might be a problem when we passed Baz’s Mum off as Roger’s widow. Enid didn’t seem to remember her name, so Sharon could be Sharon. It’d be hopeless trying to get her to memorize a cover story.
We sipped the tea, lemony and scented, nibbled on biscuits.
“After Dad died, Mum’s health got worse, and she wanted to come back to England,” Baz assured Enid. “She was English-born, you see.”
“That’s funny, I was sure she was Australian. I know Roger married her out there.”
Oh, shit, stick to the story! Or you’ll drop us both in it.
He covered well. “Her parents emigrated when she was eight.”
“So she’s more Australian than English?”
“Er, I guess.”
“I never met her, of course. What’s her name?”
“Sharon,” we said together.
“Rose of Sharon, so pretty. You say her health is bad?”
“Yes, we’re very worried about her. She might…”
“Oh, don’t say that! English medicine is the best in the world. I’m sure she’ll recover.”
It was dark by the time we left. While we waited – nearly an hour – for the bus, we held a post-mortem.
“That went bloody well, hey, Trace? Sorry, Mel. I should’ve been an actor.”
“Actors have to stick to the script. You made a right berk of yourself about Sharon. How the fuck are we going to pass her off as an Australian?”
“No worries. She don’t make no sense in either language. Enid’s a nice old biddy, isn’t she? Friendly-like. And trusting.”
We called on Aunt Enid – that was how we’d started to think of her – every other weekend. One time, she baked us a cake, stiff with dried fruit and brandy, smothered in marzipan and icing.
“Rather a special-occasion cake, but finding long-lost relatives is a special occasion, don’t you agree? I made a real nuisance of myself at the shop, asking for them to get in those ingredients. Have another slice, Melanie. I’m sure you don’t need to watch your weight.”
On our fifth visit Baz tackled the ticklish question. He did it smoothly, like the pathological liar he was.
“We might not be able to visit you as often in future, Aunt Enid. Mum’s getting worse, and the place we’re staying doesn’t have the facilities for her. We may have to move away.”
“Have you looked at buying a home that’s suitable for Sharon? I’m sure Roger would have left you well-provided-for.”
“Oh, yes, he did. But Mum isn’t good with money, and she put most of it into a scheme that collapsed, and lost it. The promoters got sent to jail, but that didn’t bring the money back. We’re getting by, but – no, we can’t afford to buy a house in England.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. We have frauds like that here, too. Ponzi schemes, they call them. The first few people make money, and the rest lose it. More tea? Or, it’s six o’clock, would you like a glass of sherry? I often have one about this time.”
Baz invented a history for himself – he sold insurance – and built up a persona with brushstrokes so fine I could hardly see what he was doing. I mostly kept my mouth shut. When Enid dropped hints about when we were going to start our family, he calmly told her we were waiting till I turned twenty-five. As if I hadn’t totally fucked up my body with the stuff I used to take, and two abortions on top.
“Ah, I don’t know quite how to put this to you, but I rattle around in this big old house like a pea in a drum. If you wouldn’t find keeping an old woman company too boring, there are masses of spare bedrooms. We could convert one for Sharon if she needs anything special. I’m looking forward to meeting her, it’s such a shame she’s so ill.”
And that was it. Baz was becomingly modest: ‘Are you sure, Aunt Enid? That’s a wonderful offer.’ But he allowed himself to be talked round.
Waiting for the bus, he lifted me by the waist and whirled me around like I was a five-year-old.
“Don’t! I’ll spew up, after all Enid’s tea.”
“We done it – er, Mel. Nothing can go wrong now.”
And nothing did. We signed an agreement with Sharon’s landlord to pay the arrears of rent, not worth the paper it was written on, loaded her and our stuff into a taxi, and set out for our new home.
I could see Sharon was a disappointment to Enid, thirty years younger than her and a complete physical and mental wreck. That was what came of partying and drink and drugs and six kids, and she couldn’t have been strong to start with. Enid persevered with shouted conversations until she realized nothing was getting through.
“Such a pity your mother isn’t more compos mentis, Edward. I was reading about something called early-onset Alzheimer’s, do you think she has that?”
“The doctors aren’t sure, Aunt Enid. It could be.”
It was Enid who suggested hiring a carer/nurse for Sharon. “If you’re short of cash, I’ll willingly pay for it. Maybe she hasn’t long to go, poor soul, and I’d like her last days to be comfortable. She’s family, after all.” So the nurse called, changed the bed, organized the laundry, found the TV remote when Sharon mislaid it.
It was she who suggested Sharon should go into end-of-life care.
“Thank you, nurse, but that’s going to be expensive,” said Baz, pulling a long face.
I didn’t know how it happened, but Enid got wind of it and offered to pay her nursing-home fees, too.
Enid’s eyesight wasn’t great, and she’d get Baz to read documents out to her, fill out forms to her dictation, even write cheques for her – she hadn’t got the hang of phone banking, let alone computers. That gave me an idea.
“You must know how much she’s got,” I said.
“Yeah, I looked through her stuff. A real dog’s breakfast, bits in this bank and that bond and Christ-knows-what. About a hundred and twenty thou all up.”
“What!? And she lets you write cheques! I seen her signature, it’d be dead easy to forge. You copy it upside down.” Where did I learn that? I don’t know any forgers. “Then we’re away.”
Not for the first time, Baz surprised me. “C’mon, Trace, how long will that keep us? And the bank’d call in the Filth, and we’d be on the run for the rest of our lives. No, sooner or later the penny’ll drop and she’ll leave us the house in her will, and the money.”
And my ears burned for being a mercenary, short-sighted bitch.
Sharon was shipped off to a home, and she didn’t take to it because she was dead in a month. Enid was the most elegant mourner at the funeral, black suit and shoes and tights and hat and veil, dainty lace handkerchief. I looked like something or nothing, but I was used to that. Baz, in black tie, spoke the eulogy, breaking down convincingly in the middle.
Sharon didn’t even leave enough to pay her debts. We made a bonfire of her clothes in the back garden.
One thought led to another. My reviving conscience smarted at how we were ripping off this kind, generous old lady. I started helping her with the cleaning and the shopping. Not the cooking, microwaved ready-meals being my limit. Baz helped as well when he wasn’t out pretending to sell insurance, fixing things she’d had to call Trevor in to do, even gardening under Enid’s strict supervision.
In time, I became almost – not quite – her personal maid. She never demanded, but it was a pleasure to help her with little things.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you two,” she told us.
The doorbell rang, and I answered it to save Enid’s legs. Tall, spiky short hair, stud in her right nostril, no makeup.
“Good morning, I’d like to speak to Mrs Enid Blackburn. Social Work Department.”
I felt like hiding under the carpet. They’d out us, sure as fate. Bloody government departments, always nosing around, knowing more about you than you did yourself…
“Er… Ah… I’ll get her.”
I fled to the back living-room, where Enid was reading the Deaths in the Times. She liked to know who she’d outlived.
“Hello, Melanie. You look hot and bothered, dear.”
“There’s a social worker outside!” It came out like, ‘There’s a ferocious dragon outside!’
Enid hauled herself to her feet. “Is that all? Hand me my walking-stick, please. Thank you. Oh, you’re shaking! I’d go and lie down if I were you.”
She went out. I tiptoed to the door and listened.
“Good morning, Mrs Blackburn. Phoebe Carruthers, Social Services. I’m aware of the little, er, difficulty you had with my colleague, and I’d like to make a fresh start.”
“Most kind of you, but I don’t need your services at present. My great-nephew and niece have come back from Australia, and they’re doing a sterling job of looking after me. I invited them to live with me since they didn’t have a home in England. Edward, and Melanie whom you just met, a delightful couple. So thank you for your concern, but shouldn’t you be helping single mothers and battered wives, instead of people well able to look after themselves?”
A long silence before Phoebe spoke. “Oh… Well… I wasn’t aware of that. I’ll need to refer to my office.”
“Yes, do that. Thank you again, and good day to you.” The door closed, firmly.
Enid hobbled back into view, a broad smile on her face. “There.”
Then Enid gave Baz an Enduring Power of Attorney. “You know I can’t get to the bank, and they’re so difficult about sending a clerk to take my instructions. Mr Mayhew, the old manager, was the soul of courtesy, but these new business-school graduates, it’s just money, money, money, like that silly song.” She sang a phrase. “I’m not so far behind the times, you see. I feel I know you so well, now. I’m sure my money’s safe in your hands.”
When you were given a mark of trust like that, no way could you betray it. After that, we could no more have stolen from Enid than flown.
“I reckon it might be time to start our family,” was the next thing Baz pitched at me.
“Are you fucking serious? What do I want with a brat?”
“C’mon, Trace, all women want kids, and we can give it a decent home now. And Enid’ll be over the moon. She’s never had a grandchild to spoil.” He winked.
“Well, I don’t know…” But even as I raised objections, the thought put out tendrils of something not far off longing, the maternal instinct I didn’t know I had. Maybe it was meant to happen.
“Okay, I’ll go off the Pill and see.”
I fell into his arms and he cradled me, and I felt soft, and weak, and loved.
“Edward, I’d like to have a serious discussion with you, this evening, perhaps. And Melanie, too, if you don’t mind.”
We sat in the front room among all the antiques and curios sent back by Great Uncle Ben who helped build the Empire in India. The sherry decanter and three glasses sat on the table.
Baz placed three chairs, helped Enid to hers – where did he learn all these manners? – and we started.
“I should probably have tackled this with you before, but one’s latter end isn’t a subject one likes to dwell on,” she opened. “Now, I made a solemn promise to Geoffrey – my late husband – that since we had no children this house should be bequeathed for some eleemosynary object. I mean charitable, for the welfare of mankind,” she explained.
Baz nodded wisely.
“Having you kind young people to look after me in my old age has been a Godsend. My idea is this. This house has ten bedrooms. If two of them were converted to bathrooms, that would leave eight. The house would then operate as a private home for solitary, healthy, elderly people, who would pay lower fees than nursing homes charge. A doctor and nurse would be on-call. I think this is what’s called Sheltered Living, and I gather it’s become fashionable.”
She paused. My heart sank, seeing our hopes wrecked. Kicked out into the street, our future turned into a bloody old people’s home! I was ready to weep.
But Enid hadn’t finished. “The home would need a legal structure, and I saw you as trustees, along with a lawyer and an accountant. But more important, I’d very much like you to manage the home. In return, I’d leave you a substantial legacy in cash and negotiable securities.”
I’d never been happy with business jargon, but I got the gist. When Enid popped off, Baz and I would be in charge of a nursing home – sort-of – with a hundred thousand nicker! I gripped the sides of my chair, feeling faint.
Baz’s voice came from far away. “Aunt Enid, that’s just – well, an unbelievable offer. But I never had any proper business training.”
“You sell insurance, don’t you? You could take a business course, you’re young enough to learn new tricks. And Melanie, you might like to qualify for a carer’s certificate.”
She looked at us both. “Well? I think that’s settled. I’ll instruct my lawyers tomorrow.” She raised her sherry glass. “Chin-chin, as dear old Ben used to say.”
Nothing changed except our expectations. We set about completing the education that comprehensive school hadn’t given us, preferring to turn out comprehensive failures. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be, and when I passed the final exam, I felt like turning cartwheels.
Two years went by, Enid growing weaker and frailer. Then she too was moved into care. We rattled around our domain like two peas – soon to be three, I was finally expecting. I hoped Enid would see the baby before she died.
But then she was taken to a hospice, and we knew what that meant. One or both of us visited her daily. “Real children wouldn’t be half so dutiful,” she told us.
It was a Sunday, and we were there together. Enid was dozing when we arrived, but perked up when the aide offered her a cup of tea. “A little milk, no sugar, please. But you know that, don’t you, dear?”
She took a sip, smiled at us. “Now I’m on my last lap – I hate the expression ‘last legs’, don’t you? – I feel there’s something we need to tidy up. Wait till the girl’s gone.”
Baz pushed the door shut and took his seat again.
“I don’t want to go out of life living a lie, I want to speak the truth. Edward, I know you’re not Roger’s son. Your name may not even be Edward.” She cocked her head questioningly.
“It’s Barry,” he muttered.
“Tracey,” I got out through numb lips.
“Well, Barry and Tracey, you were pretty convincing. But you had local accents, not Australian, and there were other clues. Then when you kept coming back, it struck me that you’d been sent for a purpose. I dreaded living on alone in that house – I might have died in agony, and no one would have known – and dreaded even more being shut up in an old people’s home. So it suited me to pretend you were my family just as much as it suited you to pretend I was your aunt. And my plan worked like a charm. I’ve so enjoyed having your company, I’m sure it’s kept me younger.”
She stretched out an arm to me and I squeezed her hand, fighting back tears.
“So we’ve deceived each other for years,” she went on. “Perhaps that’s a sin, but I’d like to think honours are even. Come here, children, give me a hug and a kiss.”
Chris Morey was born at Cowes, Isle of Wight, England and educated at University College London. He has done a wide range of jobs – many in the IT industry – and community projects. He had widely-traveled, and enjoy performance art and reading.