Carrie’s hand shook as she read the letter. It wasn’t the first she’d had on the subject, but this one was different, it looked official and final. Biting her lip she picked up the phone. Anger rose in her chest with every breath.
She gave her name and explained what she wanted. The receptionist took an age to find someone to take her call. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Mr Wolfe Senior, who’s handled your business in the past, is no longer with us. I’ll put you through to young Mr Wolfe.”
When Carrie told him about the letters he promised to call on her personally to see for himself. Carrie couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen her solicitor. Of course it was Mr Wolfe Senior then. It must have been her mother’s funeral. The solicitors had made all the arrangements. She vaguely remembered a silver-haired gentleman in his late sixties. That was, what, ten years ago?
Carrie made herself a pot of tea and sat reading the letter again. She couldn’t believe what it said. The council were ordering her to lop her beloved trees¸ the trees her father planted a lifetime ago when they first moved into the rambling old house. A lasting legacy he called them: their barricade against a cruel world. Whatever happened on the outside they would be safe on the inside surrounded by tall trees to keep the goodness in and the badness out. Carrie sighed. Of course her father was long gone, the trees hadn’t protected them from that great loss. Still, she couldn’t understand how someone else could decide they should be cut down.
Two days later Mr Dennis Wolfe called as promised. Young Mr Wolfe wasn’t exactly young, she decided. Mid-fifties at least, about the same age as Carrie in fact. Portly and balding, he wore a navy suit and carried a briefcase. His cheeks were florid but his eyes sparkled clear and blue. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected but he looked every inch as she imagined a solicitor would look.
“Dennis Wolfe,” he said, and handed her his card. “What a lovely house, in a beautiful setting if I may say so.”
“Thank you,” she said. “You may.”
She showed him into the living room. Situated at the back of the house it overlooked the garden. “Can I get you some tea?”
“That would be lovely.” He smiled and the flush on his face deepened.
Carrie bustled around the kitchen making the tea. She’d already set out her best china and a plate of Jammie Dodgers. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a visitor and she wanted to make a good impression. When she carried the tray into the living room Mr Wolfe was standing near the window by her father’s old radiogram, studying his record collection.
“Wow,” he said. “Victor Sylvester, Edmundo Ross, Eddie Calvert, I haven’t seen anything like this in years. Do you dance?”
Carrie’s head jerked up. “No, no I don’t,” she said dropping the tray on the table more quickly than she’d intended. That was a lie of course. She did dance but only by herself in the privacy of her living room with an imaginary partner. “They’re my father’s records. He used to dance with Mother here in this room.” As she spoke, memories crowded her mind: childhood memories of staring in wonder as her parents glided around the room in each others’ arms, two people in perfect harmony. “They were so in love,” she blurted out, then smiled to cover her embarrassment.
Mr Wolfe appeared far less intimidating once he’d settled on the faded velour sofa with a cup of tea in his hand. The seat sagged beneath him and he leaned forward to compensate. Carrie noticed a small egg stain on his shirt to the left of his Oxford blue and white striped tie. It cheered her considerably.
She showed him the letters. “Can they really do this?” she asked. “Can they really make me lop my trees?”
Mr Wolfe nodded his head. “Leylandi,” he said. “Public enemy number one these days and yours must be…” he shrugged and glanced at the window, “um, at least thirty feet tall? Have you never thought about cutting them yourself? It would give you much more light. There’s a whole world outside that window and you can’t even see it.”
Carrie glared at him. “My father planted those trees,” she said. “They’re his lasting legacy. I’ll never chop them down.”
He tapped the letters in his hand. “The council have received complaints, they have no option but to act. They can insist the trees are cut to no more than six feet. That’s the most they can do.” He sipped his tea and took a Jammie Dodger.
Carrie sighed. She’d had high hopes of Mr Wolfe but these were fading fast.
“So there’s nothing we can do?”
“Not a lot.”
“Can’t we get a preservation order or an injunction? Something of that sort?”
He grimaced. “No one cares about preservation these days, it’s all construction, and new builds. This is a Court Order, you have to comply.”
“What if I don’t?”
Mr Wolfe’s eyes widened. He swallowed his biscuit. “As your solicitor I can only advice you to obey,” he said. “If you refuse they will prosecute. The results could be disastrous: contempt of Court, fines, even imprisonment and the trees will still be lopped. It’s the law I’m afraid.” He picked up another Jammie Dodger. “Please don’t worry. I’ll get on to the Court and sort it out. I’ll try to make it as painless as possible. At least I can arrange for a convenient time…”
Carrie stood and walked to the window. She gazed out at her beloved trees trying to image them lopped to six feet. She shuddered. “What about the cost…” She glanced at him. “You know my financial situation.”
He pulled a thick file out of his briefcase. “Yes,” he said. “I do have some papers. My father dealt with the trust your father set up. I’ve been looking into it.” The thick file laded with a thump on the table. “There are some things here I don’t understand. Perhaps you can help. It’s about the trust…”
“Oh. It’s quite simple,” Carrie said. “When Father died in eighty two he left everything in trust for my mother and me. I don’t know much about it, my father didn’t want to worry us and Mother would never talk about it. She went to pieces when Father died. Everything spiralled out of control, so Mr Wolfe Senior, the Trustee, dealt with it all. I believe he was a great friend of Father’s. I send him all the bills and he sorts out payments, or rather he did. I’m not sure what happens now. But it’ll be all right won’t it? If there is a cost the trust will pay?”
A puzzled frown creased his face. “Do you have the deeds to the house, your father’s Last Will and Testament or any paperwork I could look at?”
Carrie shook her head. “No. Mr Wolfe, your father, took care of everything. He must have had them.”
Young Mr Wolfe sighed. “I need to check at the office,” he said, shuffling the paperwork in front of him. “Please don’t worry. I’m sure everything will be fine.”
Carrie relaxed. “Would you like more tea?”
The rest of the afternoon passed pleasantly enough. Mr Wolfe was good company and Carrie hung on to his words. It was so long since she’d had company she was reluctant to let go of this new experience. By the time he left Carrie was sorry to see him go, but he promised to return with details of her father’s trust in a few days time when he’d sorted it out.
The next time Mr Wolfe called Carrie was dismayed to see his serious demeanour. She showed him into the living room and hurried into the kitchen to make the tea. Butterflies jitterbugged in her stomach and her hand trembled as she poured water into the Crown Derby teapot.
When she returned to the lounge, Mr Wolfe was sitting on the settee sorting through his papers, some balanced on his lap and some in a pile on the seat beside him. Frown lines creased his forehead and his usually cheery face looked pinched and grey. The gloom of the day outside descended over the room.
Once he’d arranged his papers to his satisfaction he picked up his tea and sipped it. A reassuring smile flitted across his face, then he began to speak.
“First the trees,” he said. “I’ve been to the council and the Court and persuaded them to take no further action for the time being. I’ve given an undertaking to hire private contractors to lop the trees. This needs to be done by Christmas.”
Carrie nodded. She wasn’t happy about it but trusted Mr Wolfe to do best he could for her.
“Good. Now, your financial situation.” His face became troubled again. He placed a hand on the pile of papers next to him. “These are papers pertaining to your Mother’s estate. They are in order. Death certificate, Will, details of the disposal of her estate.” He glanced at Carrie. “She left all her personal belonging to you, there are no problems there. It’s quite straightforward.”
He took a breath.
But, Carrie thought. There’s a big BUT coming and he’s struggling to get it out. She picked up the plate of cakes and offered them to him. He shook his head. Carrie’s heart sank. What could be so terribly wrong that not even her French Fancies could tempt him? “Is there a problem?”she asked.
His sigh was like a balloon deflating; an expulsion of air so huge it flooded the room with foreboding. Another blow the trees can’t protect me from, Carrie thought. She waited for him to gather himself enough to speak.
“It’s your father’s papers,” he said. “Important documentation is missing. I can’t understand it. My father was always so meticulous and yet…” He flicked through the papers on his lap. “Letters, bills, receipts; the paper trail of a man’s life and yet…” He shrugged, “nothing of any substance. I wondered whether you might perhaps have something, anything…Death certificate, details of his funeral?” Bewilderment clouded his eyes.
“Is that all? That’s easily explained,” she said, relieved that it was only missing paperwork. Not surprising really, after all it had been nearly thirty years.
“It was the beginning of the Falkland’s War, chaos everywhere. My father served in the Navy. His ship went down and he was lost at sea.” She put her cup and saucer on the table and picked up an elaborate silver-framed photo of a man in naval uniform and passed it to Mr Wolfe.
He stared at it. “A handsome man,” he said and handed it back to her.
“My mother thought so.” Carrie set the frame back on the sideboard. “She was so proud.” She picked up her tea and sipped it. “I was away, nursing in Nuneaton when he died. Mother was devastated. She never recovered her health. I came home to nurse her.” Carrie paused, lost in memory. “Such rages she had…mood swings like you’d never believe. One minute dancing on clouds, the next so far down only the devil could reach her.” Carrie’s eyes shone with unshed tears. “One day I found her in here, in this very room. She smashed that picture and all the others. I had to call the doctor to sedate her. Other days she’d lie in her bed lost in grief.” She shook her head. “So sad,” she said and reached out to pick up another photo, similarly framed.
“This is Mother.” She passed him the picture of a striking woman exuding an air of ethereal tranquillity.
“Extraordinary,” he said. “She’s quite lovely.”
He smiled at Carrie. “You’ve inherited the best of both of them,” he said.
Carrie’s heartbeat changed from a slow waltz to a frenzied samba.
“Can I get you some more tea?” she said.
While they drank Mr Wolfe showed Carrie the papers relating to her father’s estate. He was still concerned about the missing documentation. “It should be here,” he said. “Even in the case of the death of a serving officer, there should be paperwork. Are you sure you have nothing?”
Carrie confirmed she had no papers at all, she’d simply relied on Mr Wolfe Senior to deal with everything. “Is it important? Surely everyone loses stuff over time.” She offered the French Fancies again.
“I suppose I can get copies,” he said, taking a pink one. “The Ministry of Defence, Somerset House, the Probate Office, the papers must have been registered somewhere. Leave it to me. I’ll sort it out.”
Carrie felt sure he would.
When he had gone Carrie put her father’s favourite record on the radiogram. The haunting notes of Eddie’s golden trumpet playing Oh Mien Papa filled the room. Carrie closed her eyes and spun around in the arms of her new imaginary partner. When the music stopped her heart kept on dancing.
On the day of his third visit, November mist swirled in the air, shrouding the trees. Carrie lit a fire in the lounge, did what she could to tame her auburn hair and put on her best frock. She left a couple of more recently purchased albums on the radiogram, hoping he might notice. She hadn’t enquired about his taste in music but knew in her heart it would be the same as hers.
Mr Wolfe made his way through to the lounge and Carrie went to the kitchen where the tea tray was already prepared. When she carried it in she was surprised to see him on the settee with his briefcase open at his feet, but with no papers taken out.
She set the tray on the table, poured, passed him his tea and waited.
He raised the cup to his lips and sipped. “I’ve arranged for contractors to call next Thursday to lop the trees. I hope that’s not inconvenient,” he said.
Carrie glanced towards the window and sighed. “Que Sera Sera,” she said.
“Good. Now your father’s estate…” He took another sip of tea. “The thing is…” He swallowed. “The thing is…” He dipped his hand into his briefcase and pulled out a batch of papers. “The thing is…” His eyes scanned the papers as though looking for an escape. He glanced up at her. “You’ve never married have you?”
“Married? Me? No never.” A terrible fear gripped her. “Are you married Mr Wolfe?” she whispered as dread squeezed her throat.
“Who me?” he said, taken aback. “I’m divorced: eight years now. Two surly teenage drains on my resources but I hardly ever see them.”
Carrie’s heart, which had suspended its beat, pattered faster than a tap dancer’s double tap. “Oh,” she said and offered him a Viennese Whirl.
He shook his head. “There’s no easy way to say this,” he said, “but your father wasn’t lost at sea in 1982. He divorced your mother that year and the following year he married a young lady named,…” he checked his papers, “Heather Barrington. Six months later they had a daughter – Tanya. Your father died of lung cancer in 1998.”
The blood drained from Carrie’s face. His words flew around her head like a thousand angry bees. She struggled to absorb what he was saying. Heather Barrington? Heather Barrington! She’d gone to school with Heather Barrington.
“Your mother must have known. She should have said…”
Carrie’s jaw clenched. The room began to sway.
Mr Wolfe took a half bottle of brandy out of his briefcase, leapt to her side and held a capful to her lips. She sipped and then gulped. He poured another capful into her cup, topped it up with tea, added a splash of milk and handed it to her. “This’ll make you feel better.”
Carrie tried to drink but bile rose from her stomach. “Excuse me,” she said. She stood as elegantly as she could and tottered to the kitchen. She splashed her face and gripped the side of the sink until the nausea abated. Gracious, she thought, what will Mr Wolfe think of me? She patted her face with a towel and turned to see him standing in the doorway, looking deeply concerned.
She flapped her hands and bustled past him back to her seat in the lounge.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Please,” she said, waving her hand. “I’m fine – just a little shocked.”
He sank onto the settee opposite her. “The thing is…” he said.
Oh God she thought.
“The other thing is…his Will and your trust fund.” He took a breath. “According to the terms of the Will and the Deed of Trust, this house is yours to live in for your lifetime. In the event of your marriage the house and your trust fund become yours as a gift. However, if you die unwed and without issue the property is to be sold and the proceeds, together with the residue of your trust, a substantial amount I might add, go to his sole beneficiary Tanya, your half-sister.”
Thoughts raced like wild hares through Carrie’s brain. She took a breath, rose, walked to the window and stared out. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked the minutes away.
“Next Thursday,” she said at last, “when the contractors come, have them remove the trees completely. Raze them to the ground.”
She moved away from the window, tipped both the silver-framed photos face down and went to the radiogram. She picked out an Abba album selected the track The Winner Takes it All and set it to play.
“Now, tell me Mr Wolfe,” she said. “Do you dance?”
If you’ve enjoyed this story there are many more in my short story collections here.