Friday, October 26, 2018

That Sort by Eamonn Murphy

Eamonn Murphy tells the story of self-possessed Chloe Bennett who has returned to her home town in the Cotswolds to see her dying father.

"I found this on top of the chest of drawers, Mrs Bennett." The stout little woman held out four twenty-pound notes. "Your father is always leaving piles of cash everywhere, though I keep telling him it's not safe. I'm glad you're home now to take care of him."

Chloe Bennett nodded and took the proffered money, wondering how much there had been originally. Her father-in-law told had her about that sort, the servant class who usually stole about ten percent of anything, or as much as they thought they could get away with. He was 'old money' and had childhood memories of those bygone days.

Of course, Mrs Jones wasn't a servant. They had gone the way of the dodo. She was a self-employed carer who had been looking after Chloe's father for the past few years, loosely supervised by Aunt Matilda, his younger sister.

Dear old Matilda! Chloe saw a photo of her on the sideboard that brought back happy memories. As a child she had been very close to her eccentric aunt, and they had spent many happy hours gardening, chasing butterflies or fishing for tiddlers in the local stream. Matilda was one of those women who seemed able to maintain a childlike innocence forever.

Chloe had grown up and lived in the real world.

Now that Chloe was back in the country, at least for a while, Matilda had gone off to the south coast for a much needed break. Chloe had been in Saudi with her husband - an oil company executive - and had been unable to take care of the old man herself. Her father had understood that. Now she would make sure his final days were comfortable. She didn't doubt that people had been ripping him off for years. Matilda had been around, keeping an eye on things but she was old herself and rather too trusting.

"Thank you," she said. "Is he in bed now? Everything sorted?"

Mrs Jones nodded but her chubby face wore a sad expression. "John's as comfortable as can be expected. I don't think he's got long now, dear. He's very weak."

"Well, thank you for all your help." Chloe was brusque. She didn't like the hired help calling her father by his first name. Mister Brewer to you, she wanted to say. Instead she mumbled, "See you in the morning."

"Goodnight." The carer left and Chloe went into her father's bedroom. It was a bit of a jumble with old newspapers piled at the side of the bed, shop receipts on the table and various household bills stacked up on the desk. He had always been untidy. Dear Papa was flat on his back, head just showing above the blanket, a peaceful expression on his face. Chloe looked at him fondly. He had been a good father. Too soft for his own good really and needed mother to keep him on the straight and narrow but kind and generous.

She glanced down at the bedside table and saw a scribbled note. Picking it up, she scanned it and pursed her lips. It was badly written in his shaky hand but quite legible.

From my estate I would like to leave the following.
Janet Jones - £5000
Megan Warner - £2000

"Oh, dad," she said. They had been ripping him off for years and now he wanted to leave them money. Mrs Jones was the main carer but Megan Warner covered weekend mornings and a couple of shifts midweek.

Chloe glared at the offensive document then crumpled it up and stuffed it into her pocket. Clearly an unsigned scrap of paper was not legally binding and it had been tucked under a pile anyway. She was sure Mrs Jones hadn't seen it for she would have been waving it triumphantly and showing it to everyone if she had. £5000 was a lot of money for that sort.

Well she wasn't going to get it. Chloe didn't want her father to pass on but when the estate was settled, there were plenty of uses for the money. There were school fees for a few more years and then Brett and Jeremy had to be put through Oxford. Husband Roger had his eye on that new Bentley and they were considering a second home in Marbella. Chloe was dabbling in the art world and had plans to open a gallery cum coffee shop nearby, an exclusive sort of place where the nice people of the Cotswolds could shop for decent paintings while enjoying a sophisticated lunch. Now that she was back she could catch up with her old circle - Gwen, Charlotte, Chantelle. Her art gallery was just the sort of place they would visit.

She kissed her father on the forehead and left him.



That evening she went out for a meal with her old friends. Chloe had attended an exclusive school in her late teens and the well-to-do ladies who graduated from it had all married successful men - the kind of successful men who didn't want their wives to work.

Gwen, Charlotte and Chantelle were at the restaurant before her, sipping aperitifs and studying the menu. After exchanging air kisses with them she took her seat.

"Are you back for long?" asked Gwen. Her blonde hair was curled to give her a carefree, tousled look and she gave a little smile as the waiter cast a sidelong look at her elegant legs. Gwen was infamous for her affairs.

"I'm hoping to stay," said Chloe. "Roger has to be in Saudi a lot for business but I've had enough of it."

"Property prices are simply mad in the Cotswolds," said Charlotte. "But a good investment, too." She moved with swift, birdlike movements, full of nervous energy. Chloe noticed that she had finished her apéritif and was looking eagerly at the wine list. She had heard rumours that Charlotte was developing a deep affection for the bottle, a risk with that lifestyle.

"It'll be nice to have you back on the scene," said Chantelle. Then she leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. "Did you hear the latest about Emily?" Chloe shook her head. Emily was an acquaintance from the old school - rumour had always been that her finances were not secure. Chantelle spent her days lunching and her nights at every party she could get invited to, and lived for gossip. She could always be relied on to dish the dirt on anyone.

Chloe shook her head. "No. Tell me."

She wasn't really interested but it would pass the time.



"He's gone, love."

Chloe had slept in the room next door to her father but the carer was in early, while she was still dressing, and bought her the news as she came out of her bedroom door. She didn't doubt that they were crocodile tears in Mrs Jones' watery blue eyes. She brushed past the woman and entered her dad's bedroom. He was as she had left him the night before - peaceful. She sensed the carer come in behind her.

"He seems to have passed quietly in the night." Mrs Jones sniffed noisily. "It's a mercy really. He was very frustrated at being so helpless."

"Yes, yes. Thank you, Mrs Jones. You can go now. I'll take care of things."

Her first job was to tell Aunt Matilda the bad news.



There was a two week wait for cremation, which was ridiculous. She made sure the carers got their wages on Friday as usual and let them know that their services were no longer needed. There was a lot of paperwork. Aunt Matilda had wept on hearing of her brother's passing but decided to stay in Devon for a couple of weeks with her friend and come back for the funeral.

Chloe was left with the bureaucracy. A week or so later she had to go to an office in town and let them know that her father was no longer claiming attendance allowance. She parked in the supermarket and walked across the shopping precinct to get to the office. Next to a charity shop she saw a food bank and pursed her lips. She had heard of them. The people who were too lazy to work got free food so they could spend all their money on beer and fags. Yet another sign that the country was going to the dogs.

Then she saw Mrs Jones in the queue. She tried to hurry past but the woman saw her first. They had to speak. Chloe didn't want to see her and Mrs Jones didn't seem to want to be seen - not there - but it had happened.

"Hullo, Mrs Bennett."

"Hullo, Mrs Jones." Chloe managed a ghost of a smile. "I suppose you'll be looking for another client to replace my father."

The stout woman nodded. "He was my only job for the last five years. Of course, there's plenty of care work about but it's hard to get someone lined up straight away."

Chloe didn't know much about it. "Couldn't you get work with one of those agencies?"

"I could but I'd rather not. They give you too many clients and you end up rushing from one to the other and not doing any of them properly. Poor old folk pay a lot of money for a service and don't really get it." Mrs Jones wriggled her shoulders huffily. "I like to care for people properly."

"I suppose things are a little tight then?" Chloe glanced meaningfully at the sign over the food bank.

Mrs Jones blushed. "I was referred here by social services. I've managed to pay the rent and the bills this week but that left me nothing. And I've still got two hungry teenage boys to feed." Then she looked defiant. "It's only a one off. I've got another client lined up for the week after next."

"Good. Good. Well, I must go." Chloe hurried away. Obviously whatever cash the woman had managed to bamboozle out of her father had been frittered away. Typical of that sort.



Matilda came back a couple of days before the funeral. Chloe picked her up from the station and was delighted to see her. Matilda somehow made her feel like a little girl again and the cares of the world dropped away. The dear wore an old green coat and had a scarf wrapped around her neck. She had always been a bit of a hippie. As they walked back to the car Chloe felt a little embarrassed at how scruffy her aunt looked and hoped nobody she knew saw them together. Chloe had quickly fallen back in with her old circle and she could imagine the barbed comments over coffee.

"Did I see you with some sort of bag lady yesterday, dear? Charity work, was it?" She could imagine the snide comment from Gwen or the waspish Charlotte. Chantelle, of course, would spread the word about Chloe's dotty aunt at every luncheon and party in the county.

Like her friends, Chloe was always immaculately turned out in the latest fashion. It was important to maintain standards when one reached a certain station in life.

Hastily she bundled Matilda into the car and took her back home. Her aunt had been living with her father for the last ten years. That made things awkward.

Chloe got her settled with a nice cup of tea and cake before she broke the news. She even let her Matilda ramble on for a while about the good old times they had together way back when.

Chloe decided to bite the bullet. "Where are you going to live now, Aunt Matilda?"

The old lady looked baffled. "What? I'll continue to live here, won't I?"

Chloe squirmed in her chair but pressed on. "I'm afraid the estate passes to me as the only child. My husband has plans. We're in no rush, of course, but he wants to sell up fairly soon. We want to buy a nice house in the area but we don't want to live here."

"Oh." Matilda looked distressed. "Well, I hadn't really thought about it. I sold my house long ago when I came here to look after your father after Arthur passed on. I suppose I can buy somewhere else. Or rent." She looked a bit dubious. Matilda had never been very au fait with the ways of the world and her late husband had taken care of mundane matters.

"Maybe some sort of retirement home. You're no spring chicken yourself anymore." Chloe chuckled to pass it off as a joke but was keen to get things moving as soon as possible. Roger had been on the phone last night stressing the urgency. The property market was hot at the moment and they could get a really good price for the old place.

Matilda glared at her. "I've lived in this village all my life. I've lived in the Cotswolds all my life and now you want to pack me off to some urban hellhole to get me out of the way."

Chloe flushed. "Oh, don't be silly. It's not like that at all!"

She wilted under her aunt's penetrating gaze. "You've changed, Chloe. You've changed a lot since you went to that posh school and joined the so-called smart set. And not for the better."



After that it wasn't too comfortable sharing the same house, but they hardly saw each other next day. Matilda rose early and by the time Chloe was up her aunt had gone somewhere in her little Suzuki. Chloe had her own chores. She had to finish sorting out her father's goods. Briefly, she'd considered getting a house clearance company in but decided there might be some valuable items in amongst the clutter. She would keep the nice furniture, some good pictures and ornaments and the decent silverware. He had quite a few clothes and that morning she decided the best place for these was the charity shop. There were several in the high street.

Parking was difficult but an animal charity shop had spaces at the rear for unloading so she chose that by default. The clothes were all neatly folded in cardboard boxes and packed into the back of her estate car. She rang the bell on the back door and her eyes widened in surprise when it opened.

"Aunt Matilda!"

"Chloe." Her aunt seemed almost as surprised as she was then, looking past her, saw the boxes in the car. "Ah, I suppose this is John's old stuff."

"What are you doing here?"

Her aunt was already hoisting one of the boxes. "I work here, as a volunteer."

Chloe picked up a box herself and followed Matilda into the cluttered back room. It was a chaos of books, DVDs, jigsaw puzzles, ornaments, small electrical devices and clothes.

They made a few trips back and forth until all the boxes were in. Matilda was not talkative and Chloe guessed that her decision to sell the house and evict her auntie still rankled, which was understandable. Even so, she had to ask the question.

"Why work here? I mean, what's the point? A volunteer, you said, so it doesn't even pay."

Matilda turned and confronted her. "What's the point? Well, the charity does good work. I have time on my hands and keeping occupied is good for me. I meet people - good people - and I feel I'm doing something worthwhile."

"I don't see..."

"The point?" Chloe took a step backward as she met her aunt's gaze and saw contempt. "What's the point of endless coffee mornings and lunches and parties and gossip? What's so important about keeping up with the latest fashions and knowing who's sleeping with whom among the chattering classes? I might ask what's the point of your life, Chloe?"

Chloe felt like she'd been kicked in the stomach. "Honestly, Matilda. I... I..."

She couldn't think what to say.

"Oh, and I'll be moving out soon. One of my fellow volunteers has a small flat with a spare bedroom quite near here. I'll be moving in with her."

"Oh, good. I mean, good that you've found somewhere suitable. Of course, there's no rush."

"That wasn't my impression."

Chloe just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. "I have to go, aunt. See you soon." She fled to a lunch with Charlotte and Chantelle though she wouldn't have told her auntie that for all the smartphones in Japan.



Next day was the funeral. Chloe had not slept well, her mind restless, disturbed by Matilda's harsh words. At about three in the morning, which some call the hour of the wolf, she rose from her bed and looked out the window at the garden. The long lawn stretched down a gentle slope and there was a small stream at the bottom where she and Matilda had once fished for tiddlers. Her father's property ended there but a stile beyond led into the woods where she and Matilda had picked bluebells and sometimes found a quiet hollow, hunkered down and watched the wildlife come and go. Birds of all sorts, rabbits, foxes, even the occasional deer. Matilda, steeped in country lore, had told the little girl all their habits. On cold winter evenings Chloe used to read the tales of Beatrix Potter and enjoy nature romanticized.

She sighed at the memories. Innocent days, but gone. A person had to grow up, after all, and live in the real world.

With Gwen and her men, Charlotte and her drinks, Chantelle and her gossip.

Eventually the dawn came. She rode with Matilda in the hired car that picked them up but they didn't speak. The uncomfortable silence continued as they sat together on the front pew. The church was reasonably well attended but many of her father's friends had already departed this world so it was mostly relatives from the next generation who felt a sense of duty, some acquaintances from his ordinary life and a few others from the parish. Chloe's father had continued to attend services regularly until he was bedridden and Matilda was well known in the parish, it seemed. At least, plenty of people greeted her by name. Chloe saw Janet Jones secreted away discreetly at the back of the church and assumed that the slim, silver-haired lady with her was Megan Warner, the other carer named in the note.

The service was not too long. Matilda spoke a few words about John Brewer's life from his boyhood to the RAF to his career as a well-liked local GP. There were a few tears shed but Chloe was stoical. It wouldn't do to make a show of oneself. When it was all over the crowd drifted out. An invited few were going to the crematorium for another brief service. Most would be seen slightly later at the wake for which a small hall had been hired. Chloe had a quiet word with the vicar, and when she walked out into the daylight saw Matilda chatting to Janet Jones and Megan Warner. They were stood by the gateway of the church.

She had to stop and talk. "Thank you both for coming," she said to the carers.

"Very glad to, my dear," said Mrs Warner. "Your father was a real gentleman and it was a pleasure to look after him."

"These two were marvellous," said Matilda. "They used to take your dad shopping in their own time when he was still on his feet and do his shopping in their own time when he became bedridden. They would go to the pharmacist to get his prescriptions, come round at all hours if he was distressed... oh they went above and beyond the call of duty. I hope they're still around to take care of me when I need it. You hear such terrible stories about carers nowadays; rifling through the drawers and stealing. These two were always bringing me odd bits of cash your father left lying around. You know how he was. Thank God there are still some honest people left in the world!"

"Thank God," said Chloe quietly.

She wept at the crematorium, mostly for her father.



It was about a month later when Gwen and Charlotte came to the animal charity shop. They were dropping off some old party dresses. Matilda took the goods.

"Have a look around. You might see something you like."

Gwen smiled thinly. "Oh, we don't really buy second hand... Chloe!"

Chloe had been out the back sorting things and her entrance through the curtained doorway to the shop proper had elicited the shocked cry.

Charlotte cocked her head to one side. "Are you dropping some things off, too? We haven't seen you for a while."

Gwen stared at her. "What on Earth are you wearing?"

Chloe smiled. She was wearing a rugby shirt she had bought at the shop. It was practical and warm. Jeans covered her legs and she was shod with trainers. Her hair was tied back in an untidy pony tail and she had only a trace of make-up. For the likes of Gwen and Charlotte, she looked like a bag lady.

"Hullo, girls," she said. "Thanks for the clothes. No, I'm not dropping anything off. I work here two days a week."

"Was it Roger's idea?" Charlotte was clearly groping for some sort of rational explanation and stared at Chloe as if she had grown two heads.

"No." Roger didn't know yet. Nor did he know that Chloe intended to keep her father's house and let Matilda continue living there. Nor did he know that she had written cheques to Mrs Jones and Mrs Warner for £5,000 and £2,000 respectively, as per her father's wishes. He didn't have a say. It was her inheritance, after all. She was confident he would come round to her way of thinking though, for he was basically a good man.

"We have to go," said Gwen. "We're meeting Chantelle for lunch." Her friends turned and fled with some alacrity, no doubt to spread the word among their 'set' that Chloe had apparently gone crazy.

As the door closed behind them Chloe turned and saw Matilda watching her.

"Sorry you're not going with them?"

Chloe took three steps forward and kissed her aunt on the forehead. "Very glad I'm not, auntie. I'm all done with that sort."

5 comments:

  1. Interesting, entertaining and with some interesting insights as to how obsession with status and money can make us less sensitive to the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves. Keep writing!
    Beryl.

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  2. A good change-of-character story with a variety of well-drawn characters. I wonder what the future holds for Chloe and Roger?

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  3. Yes, it's important to believe that people can change for the better. Thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  4. A tiny ray of hope in a world of self indulgence and greed. I found myself pulled into the story, so nicely done and well played out. As with Dave, I found myself wondering what will happen when Roger finds this new Chloe...

    Thanks
    Jim

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  5. Very enjoyable read, and well paced. I particularly like the sentence: "She wept at the crematorium, mostly for her father." Short in length--long in meaning. Very good.
    Thanks
    Rick

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