I just can’t believe, Jessica thought to herself, that this is really happening to me.
Jessica Mallow was a little over two hours into the flight from Perth to London. It was the first opportunity she had had to gather her thoughts since she’d got the news of her uncle’s death three days before. His solicitor had telephoned her from Dorchester and told her that he had died in the nursing home where he had lived for the past six months. As his only surviving relative and the single beneficiary in his will, they had agreed that she should make the journey to the UK as soon as could be arranged in order to see to the various matters for which she, as executor, would be responsible. As it happened, it proved fairly straightforward to put off a couple of social arrangements. It suddenly occurred to her to ask how her uncle had died. Did she detect a slight hesitation in the solicitor’s voice? And when he suggested that it was a matter best not divulged until they met, she did not pursue it. At least Uncle Jim has timed his departure conveniently: Jessica was a teacher, and the school holiday has just begun.
It was just about the only thing he had done that was in any way convenient for Jessica. She had not known him that well, but what she did know of him led her to conclude that he was stubborn, cantankerous and possessed of a sense of humour that could only be described as cynical, even cruel. As a child in
on the rare occasions when he had come to see her mother, who was his sister, he
and her father had argued bitterly. “Jim’s barmy,” her father would say, “plain
barmy. And he hasn’t a good word to say about anyone or anything. Except for
those bloody cats of his.” England
Her mother was more charitable in her view, although Jessica knew that she was often perplexed by him. “I think you’re being a bit hard on him, David. Spending so much time on his own has made him a bit, well, odd. But I wouldn’t say it’s anything more than oddness. He’s eccentric – that’s it, eccentric.”
Eccentric Uncle Jim certainly was. And yes, any propensity for affection that lurked within his psyche was focussed entirely and solely upon his two Burmese cats which were admittedly beautiful, but spoiled rotten.
And then there was his Will. When last she had returned to
some five years previously he had asked her to pay him a visit, or rather, had
summonsed her to his presence. England
“So, girl, tell me – do you have any idea how much I’m worth?” He had glowered at her from beneath his shaggy eyebrows as he sat in a dilapidated armchair, one Burmese cat on his lap.
“I never gave it much thought, Uncle,” she’d replied. But looking about her, she thought not very much given the mean state of the room where he had taken to living for most of the time. But Jim had something of a reputation of being a miser, at least so far as her father had been concerned.
He had picked up her furtive scan of the shabby living room. “Don’t be deceived by appearances. I need little enough these days. I don’t live like this for want of means, you know.”
It had not occurred to Jessica that he had called her to discuss any sort of inheritance that might come in her direction. Since the death of her parents, within a year of each other, she had a fair idea that she was his only remaining flesh and blood. She had communicated with him rarely over the years that she had been in
because, well because she really didn’t like him. She’d guessed he must know
this. So why on earth would he want to leave anything to her? Australia
“No matter,” he’d continued, “the fact is that everything I have is coming to you when I die. Who the hell else would I leave it to? There is no-one else.” Observing to look of confusion on his niece’s face he chuckled briefly, “I’m not the sort of fool who’d leave it all to a cats’ home, you know. Too many damned cats ...”
“Uncle, I’ve never thought, never expected ...”
“Oh, I know that. I’m not a fool. I know you. The decision wasn’t automatic, you know. I’ve been watching you.” She had wondered how on earth she could have been watching her when she was on the other side of the world, but she didn’t challenge him. “I don’t have much of an opinion of people in general.” For a moment he had seemed to struggle. “But you ... I think you are … well, you have a level head on your shoulders at least. Probably make less of a pig’s ear of it than most.” He had actually, with great effort, paid her a compliment. She was taken aback.
He reached over to a shelf, the cat jumping off his lap with a growl of objection, and grasped a parchment envelope. “But there are conditions,” he’d continued. He fixed her with a hard gaze.
“This is my Will. Essentially it leaves everything, virtually everything, to you. I won’t tell you how much, but it’s not to be sniffed at. One of the conditions is that you do not open it until after I am dead. If you do, it will become invalidated. The details are contained in it –what is to happen if you were to disobey me in this respect. The other is that certain things, very straightforward things, are to be done when I die. These instructions are to be carried out. If they are not, then again, it will be rendered invalid and the estate goes elsewhere.”
For a few moments Jessica had remained speechless. She felt confused. He had seen, probably expected this, and waited in silence while she took it in. “Do you understand?” he’d said at last.
She nodded. “Yes. Oh, I’m sorry, Uncle, to sit here like an idiot. I’d really not expected ... it’s terribly good of you ...”
He had shaken his head. “Well, best wait until I kick the bucket. You may be in for a bit of a ... a surprise.” Had there been a touch of malevolence in the faint smile that has crossed his face? It was that that had remained fixed in her memory of him, and troubled her from time to time over the years. She never saw him again.
Back home, Jessica had put the sealed envelope away in a secure box file where she kept other important documents: her birth certificate, marriage certificate and the paperwork relating to her divorce. She gave it little thought, and it never occurred to her to break her undertaking to Uncle Jim.
With the passing of years her memories of the old man dulled. She settled into the routine of her work and occupied herself with friends and her various interests. She engaged in a brief affair with a married man, which she herself ended when she sensed that she was being used and she could see no future in it for her. Contact with her uncle was occasional and brief, confined almost entirely to and exchange of cards at Christmas. He gave her no news of himself, although she wondered latterly if his health was failing. His few words seemed to be written by a trembling hand. The Christmas immediately before his death brought no card at all.
The telephone call from the solicitor, while not entirely a surprise, provoked a spasm of guilt. She had never really taken in that she was probably going to benefit, and quite substantially, when he died. Should she have done more for him in his last years? But he had never once asked her for anything, and had never said nor written anything that suggested that he had the least interest in her.
When the news of his death had sunk in, she recalled his insistence that she should not read his will before the event. She wondered, had she done so, how she might be found to have been in breach of his directive. And his making very clear the consequences of failing to carry out his instructions stipulated in the will itself had made her wonder just what it was that he had wanted done after his death. So when she retrieved the envelope and slipped the paper knife under the flap, she had felt a sense of trepidation.
Now, staring down at the shifting cloudscape below her she remembered the sense of horror and disgust that had nearly overwhelmed her when she had read and re-read her uncle’s will. Yes, he had indeed left all his very considerable wealth to her. But the condition he had set had provoked a flood of nausea, which returned to her in waves when she thought about it. Could she go through with it? Would she be allowed to go through with it? Really, she wondered, would any amount of money in the world compensate for having to arrange something so utterly gross?
When she had convinced herself that she had not misunderstood anything – it was certainly clear enough – she had slipped the document back in its envelope. At this moment it was in a pocket in the large case that had been stowed in the hold of the aircraft. But she could recall the condition that Uncle Jim had set word for word:
On the matter of the disposal of my bodily remains I give the following instruction and make the leaving of my estate to my niece Jessica Mallow conditional upon this being carried out: that my body be dismembered, rendered and processed in such a way that it may be sealed and preserved in cans, and used to feed my two cats until all the processed remains have been so disposed in this way. There had been more, but even the briefest reflection on it turned her stomach.
Just what the hell did he imagine I was going to do? She pondered, telephone the local Kittymeat factory and ask them to do a special job for me? There’s surely got to be some law against such … such depravity.
She shook her head. No. I don’t think I could go through with this. For any money.
She spent the rest of the flight and the twelve hour stop over in Hong Kong restless and troubled. She pondered over what Uncle Jim’s solicitor would have to say about it. Might he be able to find a way out of this? Could the will be deemed invalid on the grounds of … of insanity?
It was not until she booked into the hotel in London that she was at last able to rest. She slept for almost twelve hours.
On the afternoon of the day after her arrival she made her way to her uncle’s solicitor’s office in a suburb of west London. After a brief wait she was ushered in to his office by the receptionist. He greeted her with a smile and a handshake, enquired after her journey, and motioned her to a chair. He introduced himself as David Tilley.
“Well, firstly, Miss Mallow, may I offer you my condolences on the loss of your uncle. I imagine it was something of a shock to you.”
She shrugged. “Well, I didn’t know him that well. We were only in touch once or twice a year. And, please, call me Jessica. The ‘Miss Mallow’ thing … well …’
‘Of course – Jessica. So – now I expect that you are anxious to discuss the content of your uncle’s Will. My understanding is that he stipulated that you should not know the content of it until after his death?’
The young woman nodded.
‘And – may I ask, have you read it?’
‘I have. And I am – I am …’
David Tilley raised his right hand, in a gesture clearly intended to preclude any elaboration she may have intended. ‘Forgive my interrupting,’ he said, ‘but I think it best that we leave the, er, detail of the directives contained in it. There is something I need to talk to you about first. You did ask me, when we spoke before you flew over here, about how your uncle died …’
‘Yes. And you told me that you thought it best that …’
‘Quite. Well, I can tell you now …’ he looked down at his hands and seemed momentarily agitated, ‘I am sorry to have to give you this news Miss Mallow – Jesicca – but your uncle died in a fire in his room at the nursing home where he was a resident.’
‘Oh my God …’
‘As you may know, the home is a converted manor house. It seems that he was trying to burn some of his papers in the hearth. He had fairly advanced Parkinsons disease, you know. It’s not difficult to see how the … accident … may have happened’.
‘The poor man. How dreadful’.
‘Yes. Dreadful indeed. Fortunately the fire services attended very quickly. Although everything in his room was destroyed, there was little damage outside it. And thankfully, no-one else was injured.’
Jessica remained silent, absorbing the impact of what she had been told. After some moments, a question began to form on her lips. Once more the solicitor interrupted her. ‘I understand that the heat was very, very intense. There was hardly anything left – nothing recognisable’.
The young woman looked across at him. And an understanding seemed to pass between them.
‘Perhaps I need to reassure you,’ David Tilley continued, ‘that there is no reason than I can see why this regrettable event in any way affects his leaving of his estate to you. Some – other - things may be best put aside, if you follow me.’
‘But I just wonder …’
‘His cats … what happened …?’
‘Oh, his Burmese cats. No, they weren’t there. They were very old in any event. Just two weeks before he died the matron called in the vet. Because of his illness your uncle Jim wasn’t able to care for them any more. Naturally he was very upset. But it was for the best.’
‘Yes of course. For the best’. And she rose to take her leave.