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A Dickens of a Job

March 16, 2009, 7:44 am


A passage from my Marion Grace novel, The Godmother, as yet unedited and unrevised. The world is on the cusp of the new millennium.


This was the warning stamped upon the moonfaced clock in Mr Adrian Goodman’s office. Its second hand jerked, puppet-fashion, between Roman numerals, reminding the client that digression would be charged to his account at the same rate as the professional wisdom dispensed.

Fortified by an unflinching air of purpose, Sibyl had made the journey, immune to the harsh weather and her own aches and pains. A home visit would have meant inflated fees and she had braved icy pavements and germ-ridden buses to attend his place of work in Begley. From his somewhat epicurean bearing, she could see that tea and digestive biscuits from an economy pack would have been hard put to satisfy the upstart junior.

Goodman was tall and rather portly for his age. He came out into the foyer to greet Sibyl and conduct her to a seat in front of his desk. It wrong-footed her to feel smaller than she was at the side of him. She dare not look into his face for fear the crick in her neck might lock at too painful an angle. As she lowered herself into the chair, perching on the edge like a child, his expression was one of horrified fascination. This was going to be a consultation for which he was ill-prepared.

“Delighted to meet you at last, Mrs Ritchie. I understand your late husband used to be a respected member of our team?”

“Yes,” said Sibyl, “in the good old days when talk was cheap!”

“Ah yes, would that be before the Crash?”

“Before Flower Power and Free Love,” Sibyl averred, “that’s when things started to go to pot.”

The lawyer levered his frame into a protesting swivel seat and shuffled the files on his desk in a disconcerted manner. “Now I understand this interview concerns some adjustment to your Last Will and Testament?”

“His salary was nothing to write home about. We had to go short, for all it was a white collar job.” Sibyl kept a tight fist around the handkerchief screwed up into a little ball inside her pocket. She felt compelled to impress upon this whiz kid how disabled her generation had been by lack of material advantage, even if it was costing the earth! Her actual business was going to be snappy enough. The young had no idea of values. It had taken two World Wars to give them a fighting chance in life and grant such as the legal fraternity license to get away with highway robbery.

“The eighties distinctly raised our sights.”

“Only if you were one of Thatcher’s Fat Cats. We hadn’t got it even then.”

“Regrettably, Mrs Ritchie, what does remain certain is that time and tide wait for no man. Perhaps you’d care to outline the changes you propose.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t be keeping you from your local. It’s quite simple: I’m leaving all I’ve got to Africa!”

The lawyer’s fancy promptly ran upon headlines announcing the abolition of Third World debt at a stroke. “I’m...er...not sure I follow...”

“...everything I own to the Lazarus Mission out in Mozambique. I’ve got the address here,” said Sibyl helpfully, unzipping her shopper crammed with blood oranges from Pickwell’s fruit and vegetable stall.

Goodman opened the folded letterhead with barely an eyelid’s flicker. He was well adapted to the behavioural codes of his field of expertise.

“It’s what Edwin would have wanted,” Sibyl stressed. “He wouldn’t have approved of this lazy fair at all. I had to give up smoking when he came on the scene!”

“And what of other beneficiaries...your daughter...family?”

“Family? I’ve forgotten I ever had one.”

Sibyl’s adviser sighed heavily and pulled off his spectacles, grazing the ends in a mood of contained frustration. “I am here to take your instructions, Mrs Ritchie, and feel perfectly sure you’ve thought this through, but let me get things straight: you mean to leave your entire estate to a leprosy charity in the swamps of Africa?”

“I do,” stated Sibyl in a connubial tone. “It’ll set matters to right.”

“You do realise this will cancel any previous Will dictated by your late husband and subsequently modified by you? This will mean a clean slate.”

“You’ve got it,” said Sibyl. Sensation began to flow back into her fingertips which had been plagued with pins and needles in the last few days. “I shall be able to sleep in my bed at night knowing that black babies will have enough food in their bowls and lotion for their sores. They’ll live long enough to produce children of their own and the nation, the whole Continent, will take its proper place in God’s plan. The African will no longer be downtrodden. He will rise up and conquer.” The client’s visage had warmed to a cherry hue. Her umber eyes were dartingly clear. She was temporarily awash with power and nothing could daunt her. This was what she ought to have been, a guiding light in realms of darkness. A prophetess to bring the country to heel.

Goodman was eager now to curtail his dealings with the tiresome biddy and was not disposed to point out that revisions made late in the day were likely to be contested. “Right! Your wishes are manifestly clear. I’ll get Anthea to type out a new document and you can tell us when you’re available to sign it.”

“You think I’m ninepence to the shilling, don’t you?”

“Mrs Ritchie, I’m persuaded you were never saner.” Goodman hastily jotted down some notes.

“I’ve still got all my facilities, though I’m old enough to be your great granny! When you’re my age you’ll find out how cruel nature can be. Just when you want to rest your head, life piles the world’s cares on your shoulders.”

“Still, you have your health...”

Sibyl, having fastened her bag, had taken her bunions off the crosspiece under the chair and had risen to her feet. “I keep my troubles to myself, I do,” she said, tugging on her sheepskin gauntlets. “I don’t believe in washing dirty linen in public. Besides, nobody wants to listen. Nobody’s got time.”

Adrian Goodman made to follow her out. “The pace of life!”

As she was about to leave, Sibyl turned: “You want to sack your cleaning woman, you do. There’s cobwebs hanging off your ceiling like something out of Dickens. Miss Havisham’s not in it.”

“Ah, Great Expectations,” Goodman said. “Mustn’t arouse too many of those, eh, Mrs Ritchie!” Mrs Jellaby from Bleak House might be more to the point, he thought! “Have a pleasant day now!”

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