Miss Beckett Changes Her Mind: Chapter Four

The scenes at Great Auntie Maud’s flat were every bit as bad as Josephine expected.

After a discussion over breakfast, Roger and she had agreed it would be best if they arrived a few minutes late to give the two older brothers, along with their fearsome wives, time enough to go in and select what they wanted for themselves. Neither Josephine nor Roger wanted to involve themselves in any kind of family dispute, and it was clear to both of them that the older ones expected to take precedence and it was equally clear their wives would demand it.

When Roger and Josephine arrived at ten minutes after ten o’clock and tapped lightly on the front door, Mr Stanton opened the door and appeared very much relieved to see them there. He tried without success to conceal his distaste as he explained, “I’m afraid quite a large number of items have already been—er—spoken for.”

Josephine smiled and said she understood, adding, “And how is Mrs Stanton’s rheumatism during this very damp weather we’re having?”

Mr Stanton was strongly reminded of Maud Wentworth at that moment. He replied with gratitude that she wasn’t too bad, all things considered. And thought how like her dear great aunt Miss Josephine was, so kind and thoughtful, and considerate of others. For a moment an air of calm descended upon Mr Stanton but this was rudely shattered as Barbara emerged just then from Great Auntie Maud’s bedroom, speaking loudly over her shoulder to her husband, “Mostly old tat, but one or two half-decent pieces, though positively Victorian, of course. Frankly, I wouldn’t give it house-room.”

Her husband John hurried after her, notebook and pencil in hand, jotting something down and then he looked up and, like his wife, became aware of the presence of his younger siblings.

“Ah, bit late aren’t you? I believe we agreed on ten o’clock precisely. Well, Stanton, we’ve chosen one or two things we want, and I will arrange to have them collected tomorrow. Not a lot of stuff worth having, I’m afraid. Mostly just the gimcrack stuff these old biddies take a shine to. Well, I think we’ve finished so I’ll just toddle along and say goodbye to old Derek.”

“J—just a minute,” Roger said, hesitant but determined, “what have you decided on? I mean, it might be things we want.”

“Too bad if you do, I’m afraid. Got here late, didn’t you? Anyway, John’s older than you.” Barbara pointed out, clearly certain that would clear the whole matter up.

Roger and Josephine were about to protest, but Mr Stanton intervened smoothly, saying, “If you could just let me have your list, I will make a record so that there is no confusion.”

“Certainly,” John said and handed it over. From the pencil-marks Josephine could see on the page, there were rather more than the one or two items John had admitted to, despite Barbara’s scathing comments.

Mr Stanton scanned the list and immediately said, “I’m sorry sir, you will need to leave out the one or two small items Miss Wentworth specifically bequeathed to Miss Josephine, that is to say, the bog-oak brooch, the gold locket and chain, and the writing desk. Miss Wentworth particularly wanted these items to pass to Miss Josephine, I’m afraid.”

“Well that hardly seems fair,” Barbara chipped in. “When we wrote down ‘jewellery’, we meant all of it, not just a few bits left once the vultures have picked it over.”

Mr Stanton was outraged at hearing Miss Josephine thus described, but managed to contain himself by pretending to carefully read through the rest of the list.

John, unaware of any offense given, turned to Josephine and said, “Come on Josephine, my dear girl, what on earth do you need with a great big desk like that? It would look very well in my study, and if you really insist on having a little desk or somewhere to keep your bits and bobs, I will find you something more suitable. Come on, think about it, there’ll be nowhere to put it at Roger’s little flat.”

Josephine, aware that not only Mr Stanton but also Roger were seething with anger beside her, and having to really force herself to remain calm, simply smiled at her brother. With a feeling of great audacity, telling herself he was only her brother, after all, and not her boss or her father or anything really important, she said sweetly, “No John, Darling, I couldn’t possibly. Great Auntie Maud particularly wanted me to have the desk, and the brooch and locket, and it would be simply horrid of me to not carry out her wishes.” And with that she walked away in the direction of Great Auntie Maud’s bedroom.

“Well really!” Barbara said in shocked tones.

Hiding a smile, Mr Stanton said, “I’m afraid there’s really nothing more we can do. Miss Josephine is quite within her rights.”

“But clearly completely devoid of any proper family feeling. Or any respect for my husband as the head of the family!”

“As you say,” Mr Stanton said. He looked at his list again for several moments then said. “It may be of some consolation to know that the brooch and locket are of relatively little value compared to the other jewellery items. I do believe there is woodworm in the back right-hand leg of the desk. Walnut, as you would no doubt be aware, is very susceptible to woodworm.”

“Humpf,” said a disgruntled Mrs John Beckett. Roger scurried off into the bedroom after his sister.

Derek and his wife walked from the direction of the kitchen, and noting Roger’s retreating form, said to Mr Stanton, “So they’ve finally turned up then. Honestly what are the youngsters coming to these days? Sleeping in all day. Wait till they’ve got families, then they’ll know all about it.”

Mr Stanton forebore to remind Mr Derek Beckett that his brother Roger was only three years his junior, not thirty, and that Josephine was only four years behind Roger. Neither did he bother to point out that they had only arrived six minutes after the not-very-prompt Derek Becketts. He received Derek’s list. It seemed very long, equally as lengthy as his older brother’s.

“Not a lot on there, I’m afraid,” Derek’s wife said. “An old woman’s things are always rather worn and out-of-date, but we could take a few things for sentimental reasons.”

In the bedroom that had belonged to their great aunt, Josephine gazed out of the window and tried not to cry. From the drawing room, she could hear her second brother’s wife saying in what Josephine privately termed her wheedling voice, “Dear Mr Stanton, how long do you think it would take to sell this place?”

The solicitor said, in the crisply polite voice that Josephine knew he reserved for people he disliked, “Well, erm, Mrs—er—that really rather depends on a number of factors, including what one may term market forces.”

Josephine chose to ignore the rest. Roger came over to stand beside her. He patted her shoulder a trifle awkwardly.

“All right, Jo? I thought you handled old John and Barbie splendidly back there.”

She sighed. “It’s so awful, fighting over who gets what. Barbara was right, we are like vultures. I hate it.”

“We’re not vultures, Jo. We’re not going around seeing what we can get, taking the most valuable stuff for ourselves. The only things we want are the things Great Auntie Maud wanted us to have, and a few inexpensive items that really remind us of her. God knows, I’d rather have Auntie Maudie here, than her damned books.”

She leaned against him. “I would too. You know, Roger, I hate the thought of someone else living here. Remember all those afternoons when we came here, when Emma made us crumpets and cakes and hot chocolate. I feel like I’m not just losing Great Auntie Maud, but half my childhood.”

Behind them there was the sound of a solicitor clearing his throat. They turned and saw Mr Stanton standing in the doorway.

“You may be interested to know that the John Becketts and the Derek Becketts have now left, so you now have the place to yourselves. Apart from my presence, that is.”

“Thank you, Mr Stanton, you’ve been so kind.” Josephine and Roger returned to the drawing room. It looked completely unchanged. At any moment their great aunt might appear and offer them refreshments and ask them how they were getting on at school or at work.

“We were just saying what a lot of our memories are centred around this flat, Mr Stanton. It makes us very sad to think of not being able to come here anymore,” Roger said.

The solicitor regarded them for a moment and then asked, “Have you thought about what you will do with the money once you receive your inheritances?”

They shook their heads. Roger said, ‘Invest it, perhaps.”

Mr Stanton nodded. “Very wise. But if I may be permitted to say so, property is an excellent investment. Even if property prices drop, they always recover. And at least one can live in property at a pinch whereas, for example, gold is rather more abstract.”

Josephine did not understand Mr Stanton’s point, but Roger was looking very interested.

“That’s very true,” Roger said.

The solicitor continued, “You have been sadly bereaved three times in the last nine months or so. But each time, you have inherited a sum of money, most of which you have already, very wisely, invested for your future and to provide yourselves with an income. I merely point out that you are both already quite comfortably off, and that this new inheritance might be of use to you in other ways.”

Josephine was on the point of asking Mr Stanton what he meant, but Roger said, “I wonder, how much would a flat like this be valued at? I believe this is an area which is becoming very popular.”

Now Josephine understood. “We could buy this flat? Oh yes!”

Roger was looking at her. He seemed to be thinking it over, he seemed a little afraid of the great leap. He needed, as always, a little push. “We’re all right in my flat, though, aren’t we? I mean, do we really need to buy a flat? Do we really want to live in London? The Midlands is much cheaper.”

“Yes, Roger, we do,” Josephine said firmly. “To begin with it will be, as Mr Stanton says, an excellent investment. Then on top of that, you need to be in London for your studies, then once you’ve taken the Bar, you’ll probably be working in London anyway. And your current flat is rented, and it’s a dark, pokey little place. This is much, much nicer.”

“True, but…”

“And we will have a lot more room here, it’s comfortable, it’s cosy, and then there are the memories, Roger. We’ve been coming here since we were tiny, and to think of not ever being able to come here again… To think of someone else living here and having rows with one another right there in Auntie Maud’s sitting room where we used to eat scones and listen to her telling us stories.”

She paused, and then seeing that he was almost convinced, added, “We could buy half each, it will be a marvellous start for both of us, then if ever we want to move out, to get married or something, we can sell our half back to the other, and move on. It’ll be perfect. And we’ll have a bedroom each instead of you sleeping on the settee in your study.”

Roger turned and smiled at Mr Stanton and said, “Well it seems we’ve made up our minds. Perhaps you could take it from here? And if there is any furniture that our brothers or our cousins don’t want, perhaps you would be good enough to make them an offer. My current flat is rented with furniture, so almost none of the stuff is mine.”

Mr Stanton looked really pleased, and promised to make a start on the formalities that very afternoon. He said, “As the flat is being purchased by family members, I do not see any reason why I should not give you both a set of keys immediately, and I am certain it would be quite in order for you to begin to move in your personal possessions, and indeed, your persons.” From his pocket he drew out three small bunches of keys. He gave one bunch to Roger, one bunch to Josephine and kept the spare set for himself.

Excited, Roger and Josephine went for another tour round the flat, this time looking more closely at what the flat offered and what was lacking. Josephine made some notes in her little diary. Ten minutes later they were thanking Mr Stanton and shaking his hand. He smiled with real pleasure at the outcome, and the smile completely changed his appearance, taking almost fifteen years off the age Josephine had mentally put him at. Until he had smiled she had not thought of him as anything other than a solicitor, but now she saw him as a human being. She wondered about his hopes and dreams as a young man. She wondered how he had met his wife and if they had fallen madly in love, and if they had any children.

As they stood together on the street outside, about to take their leave and go their various ways, Mr Stanton said, “May I say how very glad I am that Miss Wentworth’s delightful flat will remain in the family. I do hope you will both be very happy there.”

 

It took a fortnight for Roger and Josephine to move their few belongings from Roger’s dark flat into what they still termed Great Auntie Maud’s flat. Their brothers had removed the few items they had selected and had also been paid for the few other items they suddenly, on their wives’ urging, realised they had also wanted but now were happy to sell back to Roger and Josephine.

The legalities were still in motion, but there were no concerns there, and after the initial surprise of John and Derek, having assured their brothers that they did indeed know what they were doing and that, yes, their minds were quite, quite made up, thank you, Roger and Josephine moved in completely and began to settle into their new surroundings. Josephine had been half-afraid that one of the others would suddenly develop a desire to purchase the flat too, but it hadn’t happened. The monies from the estate were eagerly awaited and no more hitches were anticipated.

Josephine invited Frank Andrews round to tea at the flat the first weekend they were in residence.

For Andrews, stepping though the front door, there was a sense of familiarity mingled with the unfamiliar. It was his beloved Maud Wentworth’s flat, but with new pictures, some new furnishings, a few notable changes. The desk was still there. The photos were out of their frames and the frames were in a large box ready to be sold. The photos themselves were strewn across the faded green leather of the desk-top. Josephine was in the process of pasting them into photo albums, carefully copying Miss Wentworth’s small neat writing from the back of each one in her own sprawling script.

“I couldn’t simply throw them all away,” she explained, “but we didn’t want them all out on every surface as they had been. So I’ve got three albums, and I’ve sorted the photos into alphabetical order.”

She seemed to be asking for his approval and he gave it unstintingly. He accepted her offer of tea and took a seat by the fireplace. Whilst she was gone, he sat and looked about him.

How many times had he sat here discussing police cases with Maud Wentworth? How many times had she produced the vital piece of evidence that had allowed him, and others, to close an investigation and ensure justice prevailed? How many confidences had been poured out by frightened men and women in Miss Wentworth’s soothing presence, and how many of those photographs were of men and women who would never have met, never have married and had their families, who would never have ever lived, had it not been for the inimitable Miss Wentworth?

Andrews fought against a childish desire to shout and stamp and weep at the unfairness of nature’s demand that we grow old and die. How many people would not now be saved because there was no Maud Wentworth to save them? The fire had died down and he busied himself with poking new life into it, glad of something to do with his hands.

Josephine reappeared, carrying a large and heavy tray which he quickly took from her and placed on a table she positioned to receive it. As Josephine bent over the teapot he remembered from long acquaintance, and poured his tea, offered him sugar and milk and passed him a plate for his scones and sandwiches and cakes, he was struck by how she looked. Admittedly she was barely out of her teens, and Miss Wentworth had been well into her eighties, but there was definitely something, some small, elusive likeness that was gone before he could grasp it.

Almost immediately it was Josephine herself who provided the answer. Having seen him supplied with tea, she went to the desk, picked up a little heap of things and came back to the fireside. She held a photo out to him.

“I found these,” she said, “amongst Auntie’s things.”

He glanced down at the photo. And his gaze was immediately drawn by the young woman shown standing between four others. The woman was wearing clothes from a much earlier style, but the Alexandra fringe was the giveaway. He turned the photo over and saw the date written in Miss Wentworth’s small, neat hand: “July1904. My coming-of-age party, with Mamma, Papa, Alfred and Edward.”

“I’ve never seen this before,” Andrews said, and he was conscious of a betrayal of emotion. Josephine intuited this and her own eyes grew a little misty.

“No, neither have I. I never knew much about her brothers? Alfred was the eldest, and named after their father, and he was my grandfather. Then there was Edward, and then Auntie Maud was the youngest. And now you know as much as I do about them. Oh, apart from the fact that Grandfather was killed during the First World War, and left my grandmother to bring up her three children on her own. I believe Uncle Edward was a bit of a bad lot, from what I remember my mother saying when I was a child. I know he left his wife to bring up my other cousins, Letty and Milly, on her own. But he wasn’t killed in the war, I think he just ran off with someone. Whatever happened, no one ever heard of him again.”

Frank was still gazing at the photo. He glanced up to find Josephine handing him a few more photographs, happier memories this time, and much more recent. And now it struck him again, but this time he recognised it.

“You look so like her,” he said, holding up the original photo. “Her hair was a little darker than yours, and you are at least three or four inches taller, but other than that, there is quite a striking resemblance. I’ve only just realised what had been nagging me.”

She smiled at him again, through happy tears. They busied themselves with tea and food for a few minutes and then when she felt a bit more sure of her voice, Josephine crossed back to the desk and said, “Look, Auntie’s old case notes! I could hardly believe it when I opened that drawer. There are dozens of these old exercise books, all filled with her notes on the enquiries she was involved in. And in this top drawer, half a dozen new books, unused. John and Derek were all for throwing them all away, but I couldn’t do it. So last night I sat down and started reading through them, they’re wonderful!”

She held out a couple to Andrews who opened one to see Miss Wentworth’s writing covering the pages. A phrase leapt out at him, and he read aloud what she had written. “‘Sergeant Frank Andrews is certainly an impudent young man, taking great delight in vexing Inspector Lilley, but Frank is a very able officer and will only increase in experience and ability. I am sure he will quickly rise in the ranks of the police force, and I do not just think this because he is as dear to me as any of my nephews.’”

It was fortunate that Roger came bounding through the door at this moment, saving Frank from a further embarrassing display of emotion, and soon the mood was light again and they enjoyed more general conversation.

 

Just a week later, Josephine was consigned to bed with bronchitis. After a really nasty bout of the illness it was almost another month before she felt anything like her old self again, and her doctor advised her to go away for a while, preferably to the coast, so that she could recover properly before resuming her studies in the autumn. With the recent bereavements still grieving her, and the hectic house move and so on, the doctor told her he was not at all surprised that bronchitis had laid her so low.

“Now you just need to get away and recuperate,” he said. “I would suggest a full month. If you have no need to find a job for the summer, you should make the most of the break from your studies and find a nice little cottage or a guest house in some quiet coastal spot and put your feet up for a while. You will need to be in top form for your finals next summer, won’t you? There’s only so much strain a person can take before a complete breakdown in health. So, get yourself off and come back in a month—or even two—fully refreshed and ready to get on with your studies.”

All very well for her doctor to talk about getting away to the coast, but to where?

She asked Frank Andrews if he, with his legendary range of cousins (mostly female it seemed) and his wide acquaintance, knew of a nice little cottage in a seaside town or village, nothing too expensive, and nothing too busy.

He immediately came up with a shortlist of three. Josephine showed this list to Roger, and a choice was made. Roger made the arrangements and even took a few days’ holiday himself to accompany Josephine down there and see her settled in. She was glad of his company as the long train journey left her exhausted and wondering if it was worth the effort.

Just three miles from Looe, the village of Porthlea had grown up around a large country manor on the banks of the little inlet that had formed where the River Looe ran down into the sea. Originally the village had consisted of a manor house, two tenanted farms, a smithy and a public house. It had not, Josephine reflected as they looked around the place the next morning, grown very much bigger in the last hundred and fifty years. A few cottages, a tearoom on the edge of the tiny cove, a church in the early Victorian style, and a post office with general store, a couple of other shops and that appeared to be the entirety of the place.

In 1919, the owner of the manor house had returned from the war in Europe to discover the family estate was ailing, and out of a need to bring in some much-needed cash, had set up a warehouse to import wines from the continent to sell to hotels and restaurants all over England. Whilst on His Majesty’s service, he had made a number of contacts in France and Italy: owners of small vineyards largely unknown outside their own regions. After almost fifty years, the firm was thriving, and now in the hands of the owner’s grandson. Many local people were employed in some capacity or other in the warehouse.

Bit by bit Josephine found out all about the village, its history, and all about its founding fathers. Roger enjoyed his few days by the sea and returned to work refreshed, and his mind relieved knowing his younger sister was comfortable and in pleasant and safe surroundings. Josephine got on with the business of recuperating.

***