Ellie let herself into the big old house and headed for the sitting-room where her aunt - resplendent in a pink jogging suit - peddled furiously on her exercise bike, Coronation Street blaring in the background.
'Hi Darling', Marilyn said breathlessly. 'Just give me a minute and I'll make us some tea. Forty-eight, forty-nine-'
‘No rush.’ Ellie wandered back out to the grandfather clock in the hall, climbed on a chair, corrected the time and started to wind.
'Eighty!' Marilyn came out to join her, mopping her brow with a towel.
'Aren't you supposed to do a hundred?' Ellie winced as a splinter went into her thumb. 'Bloody clock,’ she muttered as she clambered down off the chair.
Marilyn sighed. 'Eighty, a hundred, I doubt if it makes much difference. Oh, thanks for winding Cyril.'
Ellie sucked her thumb as she followed Marilyn into the kitchen. ‘I don't know why you don't get rid of the damn thing.'
'Get rid of it? Oh, I could never do that! Cyril is part of the family! Now let's have that tea.'
Ellie gasped at the array of cream cakes and biscuits set out on the table. 'You know you’d save a fortune on classes, tapes and equipment if you stopped eating this stuff.'
'Yes, dear,' Marilyn said with exaggerated patience. 'But life would be very dull if we always did the right thing.' She filled the large pink teapot and fetched milk and sugar before seating her ample bottom on the chair opposite Ellie. 'So how are things?'
Ellie started to pick the chocolate off her éclair. She would love to be able to answer that question honestly but Ben would murder her if she did.
'I didn't go into business on my own in order for your aunt to rescue me every time things got tough,' he'd stormed the first time she’d told him that Marilyn had offered them a loan.
'Everything's fine.' Ellie said now, flashing Marilyn a reassuring smile.
'That's good,' Marilyn said, not believing her for a minute. 'Ben’s such a hard worker.'
'Tell me about it,' Ellie said miserably. 'I hardly see him these days.'
'I’m afraid that’s the penalty of going into business on your own. My poor Tommy used to put in some very long hours in the early days. Now, you would ask if you needed my help, wouldn’t you Ellie?'
'Of course, now stop worrying.'
Marilyn patted her hand. 'I can't help worrying about you. You're the only one I've got.'
'Me, two brothers and two noisy nephews,' Ellie pointed out.
'Don’t remind me.'
'Marilyn Connor! You should be ashamed of yourself!'
'Sorry. I'm afraid that I'm turning into a cranky old woman.'
'Hah! That's a good one! You've always been cranky and you're no spring chicken either-'
'You can stop right there, young lady!'
Ellie laughed as a tea cloth came flying through the air. 'Sorry, Aunty. Didn't mean it Aunty.'
'That's more like it. I prefer it when you grovel. So if you don't want to talk about Ben's business tell me about the exciting world of law.' Marilyn lit a cigarette and sat back.
Ellie happily complied, supplementing and embellishing to satisfy Marilyn’s love of a good story.
Marilyn gazed affectionately at her niece as she talked. Ellie could really do with putting on a few pounds – way too thin. Still, her mother had been the same. Marilyn sighed as she thought of her beloved sister. Everyone was always amazed when they found out that she and Joanna were twins. She, short, plump and a real chatterbox and Joanna, tall, slim and quiet - they made an unlikely pair. But they were as close as two sisters could be. When Joanna died of breast cancer at the ridiculously young age of forty-eight, Marilyn felt as if her right arm had been torn off. The only thing that kept her going - apart from her darling Tommy of course - was Ellie. Poor Joe had never really recovered from Joanna's death and needed all the help he could get raising a teenager and Marilyn threw herself into the task. Not that it had been difficult. Ellie had made Joanna's death bearable and soon became like the daughter Marilyn and Tommy never had. When Tommy died three years ago it was Ellie who had got Marilyn through that terrible time, bringing them even closer than before.
'You're miles away.' Ellie's voice brought her back to the present. 'What are you thinking about? Or, more to the point, what are you plotting? If it's how to bump off Aunty Brenda I don't want anything to do with it.'
Marilyn glowered at the mention of her sister-in-law. 'Don't even get me started on that one.'
Ellie laughed. 'So what is it then?'
'I want to make a will.'
Ellie's cup clattered into the saucer. 'But why?'
Marilyn looked at her from under raised eyebrows. 'You're the lawyer, dear. You work it out.'
'But you're still young. There's plenty of time.'
Marilyn sighed at the worried look on Ellie’s face. 'Oh, don't worry, I'm not planning to keel over just yet. I just want to make sure that the likes of Brenda Clarke doesn't get her grubby little paws on my money.' Marilyn bit viciously into a cream doughnut. 'Isn't it bad enough that she trapped my poor brother into marriage and made his life a misery ever since?'
‘You don't know he's miserable. Just because we don't like her doesn't mean he feels the same way.'
Marilyn snorted. 'Rubbish! Paul only married her because she said she was pregnant.'
Ellie gaped at her. 'You're kidding! I never knew that.'
'Well your grandparents didn't exactly like to broadcast the fact. They were shocked that their darling son had got a girl into trouble. They couldn't get him up the aisle fast enough!'
'So what happened to the baby?' Ellie looked puzzled. Paul and Brenda didn't have any children. At least none she knew about.
Marilyn scowled. 'Well, she said she had a miscarriage but my mother never believed she was pregnant in the first place. It seemed very convenient that she lost it the moment there was a wedding band on her finger. '
'How come they never had any more?'
'I don’t know. For whatever reason Brenda never got pregnant again. I wouldn't be surprised if she was using contraceptives on the side.'
'Oh, Marilyn, she wouldn't . . . would she?' The skeletons tumbling out of the Clarke closet had Ellie enthralled.
'I wouldn't put anything past Brenda,' Marilyn was saying bitterly. 'She was never interested in children and having a bunch of lively babies to look after would have been too much like hard work to her.'
'And you resented that because you wanted children so much,' Ellie’s eyes were full of sympathy.
Marilyn shook her head impatiently. 'Oh, that's all in the past and it should be left there. Now let’s get back to my will. I know I should have made one when Tommy died. Still, better late than never. How complicated is it?'
Ellie shrugged. 'As complicated as you want to make it.'
'Well, if I leave something to Paul, can I make sure that Brenda can't touch it? And what about poor Karen? Could I leave money to her and not to Robert?'
'But he's your brother.' Ellie protested half-heartedly. She didn't particularly like Uncle Robert. He was a cold man with little or no sense of humour. In fact he was nothing like his three siblings.
‘I don't care,’ Marilyn was saying, her mouth set in a determined line. ‘He wouldn't bother keeping in touch at all if he didn’t think I was worth a few bob. But I would like to leave something to Karen. She deserves a bloody medal for staying with him. And as for those boys of his. Lord, they're only kids and already they treat her like dirt. Talk about chips off the old block.'
'How on earth did Aunt Karen marry him in the first place?' Ellie asked, mystified. ‘They’re so very different.’
‘I suppose she must have loved him. There's no accounting for taste. Mother was thrilled with the match. She thought Karen might be able to soften Robert. Hah! Some hope!’
'Well, it's your money and you can leave it to whomever you want but Robert could still contest the will after . . .'
'After I've kicked the bucket.' Marilyn finished the sentence. 'But he wouldn't win, would he?'
'Maybe not but he could tie up the estate for months, maybe even years.'
'Oh no, I'm not having that!'
'There's not much you can do about it. Of course it will be harder to contest if the will has been drawn up properly and it's proven that you were of sound mind when you signed it.'
'Now that could be a problem! Oh, but seriously, love. I don't want any fighting after I'm gone. That would be terrible.'
Ellie chewed thoughtfully on a ginger nut. ‘You could divide up your estate before-' 'What was that?'
‘I’m not sure but maybe you could divide up your estate before you died instead. That would save on death duties and inheritance tax too.'
'Lord, I'd forgotten all about them. Bloody ridiculous! You try and do something nice for the people you love and you end up costing them money.'
Ellie grinned. 'That's the trouble with being a wealthy woman!'
Marilyn laughed. 'Who'd have thought there'd be so much money in disposable bedpans! My Tommy was way ahead of his time. So what do you think I should do, love?'
Ellie stood up. 'Nothing. You must think long and hard about all this. It’s a big decision. I’ll talk to my boss and see if he has any ideas. The gift idea probably isn't realistic. You can’t afford to give all your worldly goods away now. You could live for another thirty years.'
Marilyn shuddered. 'God forbid!'
'Look sleep on it and phone me if you've any questions.'
'I will love, thanks. Oh, by the way, I won't be using your firm.'
Marilyn laughed. ‘Don’t look at me like that! Obviously you're going to be one of the beneficiaries and Robert would immediately be suspicious if your firm had handled everything.'
'Of course you're right. Well, I can recommend someone else if you like . . .'
'Okay then. See you on Saturday.' She dropped a kiss on Marilyn's forehead.
'Oh, I'm not sure about Saturday,' Marilyn called after her. ‘The girls are arranging a poker night.'
Ellie shook her head. “The girls” – not one of them under sixty – always seemed to be organising something. Marilyn’s hectic social life made hers seem terribly dull sometimes! ‘Well, if your exciting plans fall through, dinner will be at seven as usual.'
'So the old girl's finally popped her clogs.' Robbie Clarke leaned over his mother's shoulder and helped himself from the joint she was carving.
'Robbie! Have some respect,' Karen admonished, slapping his hand away automatically.
'Oh, come on, Mum. She must have been nearly ninety-'
'Only seventy-eighty,’ she protested.
'Only! That's ancient!'
'She was the funniest, cleverest woman I’ve ever known,’ Karen said with a tremor in her voice. ‘Nothing got past Marilyn.'
'She certainly managed to keep a tight hold of her money.'
Well, she could have helped out with our college tuitions,' Robbie complained. 'And Dad would have been able to retire sooner if she'd slipped him a few bob.'
'Your Dad never wanted to retire.' Karen said wearily, adding Thank God to herself. The thoughts of having her husband at home all day under her feet filled her with dread. But he would be sixty-five in August and that day was fast approaching. Don't think about that now. 'Go and get your suit, Robbie. I'll have it dry-cleaned for the funeral.'
'Oh, do I have to go? Aidan isn't.'
'Aidan is in France,' Karen said sharply, 'and yes, you most definitely have to go.'
'Dad?' Robbie appealed to his father who was sitting at the table reading the paper.
'Of course you must go,' Robert said abruptly. 'Anyway, don't you want to know what's in the will?’
Robbie scowled. ‘I already do. You can bet that my darling cousin Ellie will get the lot.'
'She deserves every penny,’ Karen said angrily. ‘She's been like a daughter to Marilyn.’ She slammed down the carving knife and ran out of the room. When she was in the privacy of the bathroom she let the tears flow. Tears for Marilyn and tears for herself. She was going to miss the old woman. She had liked all the Clarke women but Marilyn had become a dear and close friend over the last few years. Probably her only friend, Karen realised and the tears bubbled up again. She splashed some water in her face and blew her nose. ‘You’re being a silly old woman,’ she muttered, brushing back the iron-grey hair from her tired, worn face. ‘Yes, you’re an old woman and it’s time you stopped dreaming. This is as good as it gets. You’re healthy and your family is healthy. You’ve a lot to be grateful for.’ And after taking a few deep, if shaky, breaths she went back downstairs and finished making dinner for her family.
‘Are you okay, Mum?’
Ellie looked up to see her daughter looking down at her, big brown eyes full of concern. Christened Joanna after her grandmother, her three-year-old brother, Billy hadn’t been able to manage such a big word and had called her Jo. And Jo she’d remained ever since. It had always amused Ellie and Ben that the child they had named after the quiet twin had turned out to be a miniature version of her great aunt – much to Marilyn’s delight.
Ellie smiled. ‘I’m fine. Do I look okay?’
Jo looked doubtfully at the charcoal grey suit and the sensible, low-heeled black shoes. ‘Honestly, Mum? No. You’d look great in that outfit if you were about sixty.’ She studied her mother for a moment. ‘Wait there a sec.’ She disappeared into her own room and appeared moments later with a fluorescent orange chiffon scarf. ‘Try this.’
Ellie stared. ‘Oh, I don’t know.’
Jo rolled her eyes. ‘Mum!’
‘Oh, all right then. Give it here. And get my suede shoes out of the wardrobe. I may as well go the whole hog.’
‘Nice one!’ Jo said approvingly and ran to fetch the stilettos.
Ellie tied the scarf around her neck, put on the shoes and did a twirl. ‘Well?’
‘Excellent! You look amazing, Mum.’
‘Well, thank you, darling. Now what are you going to wear?’
‘How about my purple mini dress and my knee-high black boots?’
‘Perfect. Marilyn always loved purple.’
Jo giggled. ‘Aunty Brenda will have a seizure!’
‘All the more reason to wear it,’ her mother said dryly. ‘Now, hurry up, love. We don’t want to be late.’
‘Should I wear the navy suit or my black coat?’ Brenda held up the two for Paul’s inspection.
Paul didn’t look up. ‘Whatever you like.’
‘The navy suit looks better but I suppose black is more suitable.’
Paul’s lips twitched. ‘Marilyn would probably prefer red.’
Brenda sighed impatiently. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Paul. That would be very disrespectful.’
Paul raised an eyebrow. Brenda had never shown Marilyn any respect when she was alive, why start now? But of course he knew the answer. Brenda believed in keeping up appearances. She would talk to the priest and the neighbours. Tell everyone what a wonderful woman Marilyn was. And all the time she’d be wondering how long it would be before the will was read and how much Marilyn had left them. Lord, she was in for a shock. Paul smiled. At least some good would come of this sad day. Brenda would get her comeuppance.
It was nearly twenty years since Marilyn had told him her plan.
‘Good idea, love,’ he’d told her. ‘Go for it.’
‘You don’t mind then?’ Marilyn had asked anxiously.
‘Of course I don’t bloody mind. As if you need to ask.’
‘Brenda may not agree,’ she’d said tentatively.
Paul had thrown back his head and laughed. ‘Since when did you worry what Brenda thinks?’
Marilyn gave him a lop-sided grin. ‘Sorry.’
‘Don’t be. She's never been very nice to you. She hasn’t been very nice to me either, now that I come to think about it.’
Marilyn's eyes had filled up. ‘Oh, Paul, are you very miserable?’
He’d patted her hand. ‘Of course not, silly, you know me. Once I’ve got my golf I’m happy.’
And that had been that. They’d never discussed the matter again. Paul watched as his wife struggled with the zip of her skirt. Yes, the best part about today would be seeing the look on her face when the will was read out. It was a pity Marilyn wouldn’t be there to enjoy it.
Brenda stood outside the church, counting the attendees and checking to see if she’d missed greeting anyone important.
‘Hello, Brenda,’ Ellie joined her aunt after thanking the priest for a lovely ceremony. It had actually been quite boring but she couldn’t say that, although she knew that Marilyn would have loved her too!
‘Oh, hello, Ellie.’ Brenda frowned at Ellie’s scarf fluttering in the breeze. ‘You look very . . . colourful.’
Ellie sighed. The woman just couldn’t resist a dig. ‘Thank you, Brenda, you look very nice too. Oh, Hello, Paul.’ Ellie smiled as her uncle joined them. ‘How are you?’
Paul bent to kiss her cheek. ‘I’m find, my dear. You?’
‘Oh, you know.’ Ellie shrugged.
‘Poor you. Losing your Mum so young, then your Dad last year and now Marilyn.’
‘Oh, I don’t know, Paul. I think it’s a minor miracle that Marilyn lasted this long. Between the cakes, cigarettes and her nights out with “the girls” I expected her to croak years ago!’
‘That’s not a very nice thing to say at the woman’s funeral Ellie,’ Brenda said piously.
Paul chuckled. ‘It’s true though. And I can’t believe that she just slipped away in her sleep. Not her style at all.'
Brenda was about to remonstrate with her husband for his equally disrespectful comments when she caught sight of Jo coming out of the church. ‘Oh, My goodness what on earth is Jo wearing?’
‘Doesn’t she look lovely?’ Paul said smoothly and took his wife firmly by the arm. ‘Come along dear. We should be going. See you back at the house Ellie.'
‘My name is Charles Gray, of Gray, Reilly, O’ Mahoney and associates,’ the solicitor began. 'Firstly I would like to offer my condolences to you all. Mrs. Connor was quite a character.’
‘Get on with it,’ Robbie muttered and received a sharp nudge from his mother.
‘This won’t take long,’ Mr. Gray continued looking at the papers in front of him. ‘Mrs Connor left very clear instructions and while her will was drawn up in 1981, she met with me every year since to re-evaluate the situation. This is addressed to you all in Mrs Connor's own words.
‘To my dear friends in the ladies club, I leave one thousand pounds. Have a few drinks on me girls.’
Ellie smiled. She’d no doubt that despite arthritic hips, enlarged livers and dodgy kidneys ‘the girls’ would comply quite happily with Marilyn’s wishes.
‘To my great-niece and nephew, Joanna and William Summers, I leave the sum of five thousand pounds each.’
Jo and Billy gaped at each other in delight. Ben smiled at his wife. ‘Trust Marilyn to think of the kids.’
‘And to my nephews Aidan and Robert Clarke, I leave the sum of ten thousand pounds each.’
Robbie scowled. ‘Is that all?’
‘Shut up Robbie,’ Karen said through gritted teeth.
‘To my niece, Elizabeth Summers, I leave the sum of ten thousand pounds along with my beloved grandfather clock. You always looked after it for me over the years, Ellie, so it seems only fair that you should have it now.’
Ellie sighed and bent her head. Marilyn had always had a sick sense of humour.
Robbie smirked over at her. Well, that was a turn up for the books! Dear cousin Ellie only getting ten grand and that battered old clock. It almost made up for his own disappointment.
‘To my sister-in-law, Brenda Clarke-’
Brenda sat up straight in her chair. She hadn’t expected an individual bequest. Still, she’d been a good sister-in-law to Marilyn-
‘- I leave all of my gym equipment. I know you will appreciate it, Brenda and use it to good effect.’
Brenda’s mouth fell open.
Jo and Billy sniggered as they eyed the large round frame of their great aunt. ‘She’ll have a heart attack if she climbs up on that bike!’ Billy whispered.
‘Shush,’ Ben admonished his children, trying to keep a straight face.
‘And to my other dear sister-in-law, Karen Clarke, I leave my car-’
Karen gasped. 'Oh my!’
‘But she can’t even drive!’ Robbie protested. He’d had his eye on Marilyn’s good-as-new BMW for a while now.
Mr Gray stared coldly at him over his glasses. ‘- I’ve already organised and paid for driving lessons. Please use them, Karen, it would mean so much to me. You know, it's never too late.’
Robert calculated that was forty-five thousand at least. Together with his portion of the house-
‘To my dearest brother Paul: I know you don’t need or want my money and if I left you anything it would just end up sitting in a bank . . .so instead-’
'What on earth . . .' Brenda started but Paul stopped her with a look.
‘- I have organised life membership of your golf club and a new set of clubs. Play a few rounds for me, brother.’ Mr. Gray looked over his glasses at Paul and smiled. 'Such a thoughtful lady. I have already organised the membership, Mr. Clarke, and your new clubs will be delivered next week.’
Paul beamed at him, though his eyes were bright tears.
'To my brother, Robert,’ Mr. Gray continued, ‘I leave twenty thousand pounds. I’m sorry, it’s not more imaginative, Robert, but I couldn’t think of anything you would prefer to money.’
Robert permitted himself a small smile. Between the sale of the car, his twenty thousand pounds and his cut from the sale of the house-
‘And finally you are all welcome to look around the house and help yourself to any keepsakes. I hope they will give you as much pleasure as they did me. God bless you all.’
Robbie looked scornfully around the room cluttered with ornaments and furniture. ‘Load of junk,’ he muttered to his father but Robert wasn’t listening.
‘But what about the house?’ he exploded. ‘You haven’t said anything about the house.’
‘Ah, yes, the house . . .’ Mr Gray shifted uneasily and looked at Paul.
‘It’s already sold, Robert.’ Paul’s voice was clear and calm.
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Robert said angrily. Paul was even more senile than he thought.
Mr Gray nodded. ‘Mr. Clarke is correct, Mr. Clarke. Mrs. Connor made an arrangement with a financial institution in 1982. She sold them the house on the understanding that she could continue to reside here until she died.’
Robert paled. ‘But what did she do with the money? This place must have been worth a couple of hundred grand.’
‘Not in those days, Mr Clarke. The property market wasn’t quite as buoyant as it is today. As to what she did with the proceeds, I can only assume she spent it.’
‘In Barbados, and that month in Africa and the summer in Canada,’ Brenda muttered bitterly. She’d assumed when Marilyn was going on all her lavish holidays that there must be plenty of money in the bank. How could she have been so selfish spending it all on herself? What about her family?
Paul glared at his wife. ‘It was her money why shouldn’t she spend it? She was bloody right. And she’s right about me too. I leave my money sitting in a bank account – well not anymore. I’m going to take a leaf out of my sister’s book and start to enjoy life.’
Ellie smiled brightly around the room. ‘Right then, shall I make some tea? Good. Okay. Won’t be a minute.’ She escaped to the kitchen and was filling the kettle when Paul appeared by her side. ‘Well, well, well, that was quite a speech Uncle!’
Paul looked shame-faced. ‘A bit over the top, eh?’
‘Not at all. Marilyn would have been proud of you.’
He took her hand and kissed it. ‘You know she was very proud of you too, don’t you? She was always talking about the way you used to climb up and wind that old clock. From the time you were a child, you’d be huffing and puffing with the effort. It gave her a great laugh.’
Ellie smiled but her eyes were full of tears. ‘I think it was very mean of her to leave me Cyril. She knew how much I hated the bloody thing. And where am I going to put it in my little house?’
Paul looked slightly shocked. ‘But you’re not going to keep it, surely?’
‘What else can I do? Who’d want to buy that monstrosity?’
Paul smiled enigmatically, led her out to the hall and stopped in front of the clock. ‘Quite a lot of people actually. You see, Ellie, “that monstrosity” is an antique and worth more than the rest of Marilyn’s estate put together. You can’t really believe you were only getting ten thousand?’
Ellie looked away, embarrassed. She had been a little disappointed in her inheritance. Ben’s business was doing much better these days but what with Jo’s school fees and Billy starting college . . . She stared up at the clock that had stood in this hallway for as long as she could remember. ‘I don’t believe it.’
Paul smiled. ‘It’s true. You see Tommy wasn’t very keen on tying his money up in bonds and shares. He didn’t trust them. So instead he bought Cyril. And he told Marilyn: “Whatever happens, love. Hold on to Cyril. He’ll look after you.”’
'But why didn't she ever tell anyone?'
Paul nodded towards the living room. 'She thought life might be a lot easier for you if that lot thought you'd only been left a keepsake. She was adamant there were to be no arguments over her estate.’
Ellie’s mind flashed back to that day sitting at the kitchen table all those years ago.
‘Ellie? There you are!' Karen rushed out to hug her. 'Are you alright?’
‘Fine, Karen. Just admiring my . . . inheritance.'
Karen looked doubtfully at the clock. 'Well, as long as your happy, love, that’s all that matters. Can you believe Marilyn left me her beautiful car? I can't wait to learn to drive it.'
Robert appeared at her side. 'Don’t be ridiculous, woman. We'll be selling the car.'
Karen glared at him. ‘Let’s get one thing straight, Robert. Marilyn left her car to me, not us and I have absolutely no intention of selling it. She winked at Paul and Ellie and stalked off leaving Robert with his mouth open.
'She'll see sense,' he said nervously. 'It's just the shock. She’ll come around.' And he hurried after her. ‘Karen? Darling?’
Paul and Ellie looked at each other and burst out laughing.
‘What’s the joke?’ Ben asked curiously as he and the kids joined them.
Ellie slipped into his arms and hugged him. ‘I’ll tell you later.’
Jo frowned up at the clock. ‘I don’t know why Marilyn left you that ugly old thing, Mum. I think maybe it was a joke. Are you going to dump it?’
‘Dump it?’ Ellie looked at her daughter in horror but there was a twinkle in her eye as she leaned across and kissed the clock affectionately. ‘Oh, I could never do that, love! Cyril is part of the family!’
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