Our Distant Cousin (Part I)

I remember that morning with unusual clarity. It is now vivid by the nature of its ordinariness. I took a tepid bath, while Alexander was still asleep. At eight o’clock I woke him, and as he bathed in the leftover water I prepared breakfast on the gas stove, for Alexander does not do well around flames. We ate together at the half-broken table on the verandah; one egg each and one slice of toast between us. The air was filled with a fog that was just on the verge of giving way to sunshine.

After breakfast, Alexander set up his daily game of Solitaire on the table, while I went to pluck the newspaper out of the letter-box. While he played, I sat next to him and read. As usual, I read every article, so that I could cut out any stories that might disturb him. I remember the sound of the brook in the distance, and the smell of the May Day day slowly warming up.

I am sure we had lived in that comfortable way for many years, at the ramshackle old house that was once known as Castend Farm. We were sent there when Alexander was three and I was four. It was ramshackle even then – a smallholding that our guardians steadily ran into the ground, and themselves with it. As imperial orphans, handled by the state, we were sent to Castend when a fire at the family plantation took our parents. We were never told why, or how – but it was this trauma that seemed to exacerbate Alexander’s condition, so that even in our thirties I was bound to taking care of him.

I remember that I glanced up at my brother, who was gazing down at the longest line of cards, unsure what to do next. I leaned over, about to show him that he already had a knave ready, when a pair of letters fell out of the newspaper and onto my feet. One was addressed to Alexander, and one to me. I checked to see if he was still absorbed in his game, which he was, and stooped to pick them up. I felt, as I often did when unexpected post arrived, a tense feeling, as if somehow I had finally been caught. As ever, I opened Alexander’s first.

*

A few days later, we arrived at Bryntham & Co., a solicitors’ firm in town. It was noon, and the heat had risen to the mid-twenties. We sat in the waiting room, the secretary’s typewriter punctuating our silence. I had explained the situation to Alexander as best I could, to the best of his understanding, and had asked him to be good. After a few minutes, the secretary stopped and looked up at us. She smiled, and offered us a cigarette while we waited. Alexander became animated, so I grasped his shoulder and politely declined. The secretary nodded slowly, her eyes darting between us, and then resumed her work.

Eventually, a young clerk came out of the office, and greeted us without a handshake. He bid us enter, and introduced us to the solicitor. A distant cousin had died without heir, and Bryntham & Co. had been scouring the country, nay, the world, to find us.

It’s been quite a feat,’ said Mr Bryntham, raising his eyebrows in a manner that suggested we ought to feel guilty. I opened my mouth to explain, but he said – ‘I understand your situation, Mr Warrener. We’ve found out quite a bit about your history while we tracked you down.’ He paused, clicked his tongue against his teeth and said, matter-of-factly – I’m sorry for your loss.’

It occurred to me then that this was perhaps the first time anyone had said those words to us – “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Mr Bryntham continued – ‘You are Miss…’ he riffled some papers – ‘Emmeline Unthank’s closest living relative, so her estate has been entrusted to you.’

Alexander sniggered. ‘What a funny name.’ I nudged him, and Mr Bryntham’s eyebrows seemed thoroughly unamused.

I tugged at my shirt, hoping the billow would bring fresh relief. It didn’t. The office was stuffy and dark, yet the solicitor and his clerk seemed unfazed by the weather. Alexander looked at me, cool as water, and said – ‘You’d never think he’d grown up in Burma, would you?’ Alexander always tried to get those in authority on his side. Mr Bryntham gave a withering smile and peered down at his papers.

There’s a house, but I’m led to believe it’s rather dilapidated.’ He glanced up at us – ‘as I say it’s taken quite some time to find you – giving the house plenty of time to go to ruin.’

The clerk added – ‘There was a dog, and a car, but both have long since been destroyed.’

How awful.’ I said.

And we can have no responsibility for whatever state you shall find the place in when you go.’

When we go?’ I said.

Given that it’s been four years since Miss Unthank died, I would advise that you visit the property before you decide what to do with it.’ Mr Bryntham sucked in his lips, and gave a solemn nod.

What breed is the dog?’ Alexander asked. I sighed.

The clerk flicked a sheet of paper over, and said – ‘A whippet, Mr Warrener.’

What’s that?’

A poor man’s greyhound, as they say.’

Alexander giggled. ‘And what of Miss Unthank? Sounds as if she was a poor man’s woman.’

I grasped his shoulder, and apologised to the two men behind the desk.

The solicitor reached for his glass of water, which I eyed enviously, before he said – ‘Miss Unthank, I’m afraid, wasn’t any man’s woman. She was a spinster; a governess I think.’

A spectral memory slid from my brain and through my spine.

Alexander became animated again; his eyes lit up. ‘Governess?’ he asked, almost as a gasp.

Yes,’ Mr Bryntham said, and placed a paperweight on top of the papers, I suspect to stop his clerk from revealing any more.

Alexander, who was mostly slow but sometimes given to odd bursts of perception, looked urgently at the two men and me in turn. ‘What is it? Do tell us, tell us!’ He leaned forward in his seat, eyes agog.

Mr Bryntham raised his eyebrows at me, and I felt a pang of shame. I gently shook my head. He pushed a document across the desk, and rolled with it a pen. He looked me in the eye and said – ‘I’ll make copies of our documents, Mr Warrener, and send them to you in due course. If you have any further questions, then perhaps we could save those for another, less suffocating day.’ I saw then the beads of sweat at his hairline, clinging to this widow’s peak like abseilers on cliffs.

I agreed, and wiped my brow with my handkerchief. It took a few moments to calm Alexander down enough to get him to sign the document. Then, at last, we were given the address of and keys to the property – and we shook hands with one another, all clammy palms and officious farewells. I left with a sinking sensation, steering my brother out of the office by his shoulder. “We’ve found out quite a bit about your family history.” I half wanted to know, half didn’t. I would await the next letter with grim curiosity.

We came out into gleaming sunlight, and were quickly submerged by tourists streaming down Ferristers Cross on their way to the cathedral. We were caught in somebody’s photograph, and I grabbed Alexander’s arm and pushed us against the throng. I told him – ‘Say nothing until we get home.’

We caught the bus back in silence, the stench of hot dust rising from the seats.

Read Part II

Beren Reid | March 2017/January 2018

Photo by 2 Bro’s Media on Unsplash

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