Excerpt from Legacy:
(1) The Two Faces of A Gift Horse
Erin studied a tapestry pinned crookedly to the solicitor’s waiting room wall. In gold embroidery on a green background were the words: -
‘You can’t look a gift horse in the mouth,
because gift horses always have two faces.’
The words were assigned the privilege of being described as an Irish Proverb with a coloured leprechaun woven into the side as if to prove its authenticity. She pondered the meaning of the words, without coming to any conclusion by the time she was called for her appointment.
‘Do you like the proverb?’ asked the elderly solicitor who came to escort her along a modern office corridor to his, surprisingly old fashioned office. Rows of old law books lined shelves of heavy dark furniture, in front of a leather topped desk, and worn green leather seats, a laptop, the only nod to modern life. Much better than the ubiquitous fashion for modern cold Scandinavian design, she thought, as the decor made the room feel comfortable and welcoming, with scents of furniture polish, leather and coffee, the latter smell arising from a tall silver pot on the desk. The solicitor poured a mug each without asking whether Erin wanted one. As it turned out she did, and gratefully so.
‘I.. eh yes…the proverb was very thought provoking,’ she replied, even though she didn’t think it was thought provoking at all. She just didn’t know what it meant.
Happily for Erin the solicitor explained its purpose. ‘Much of my career has been spent dealing with disappointed beneficiaries, who are shocked, angry and annoyed that they have to pay taxes, pay out for other beneficiaries, expenses and debts, from an estate they expect to inherit in its entirety. So, I bought that little picture, on one of my many trips to The Emerald Isle, as I felt it served as a good warning for such clients…’ he paused to peek over his half rimmed glasses, ‘…of which you may indeed be one. Unfortunately, you see, Erin, every sliver lining has a cloud.’
Erin repeated the words in her head, whilst wondering what her solicitor meant by them, for she had yet to see, or hear, evidence of either the cloud, or the silver lining to which he referred. Indeed, two minutes ago she had neither silver lining nor cloud, now she seemed to have both, and she felt in equal measure amused, intrigued and unnerved by this advice. Advice she hadn’t asked for, from a solicitor whom she had never before met, dealing with a legacy of which she knew nothing. It should be an interesting meeting, though she hardly expected it to be life changing.
‘Her solicitor?’ That description was, by itself, disingenuous. Erin had been summoned to the offices of Grindley Gibbons Solicitors, Guildford, Surrey, - solicitors normally to the privileged and wealthy - by way of a short letter, referred through adoption agencies, government officials, eventually reaching her adoptive parents in Seattle USA, and finally to her in her flat in Hackney, London E9. Indeed, given the number of parties who had forwarded the letter during the course of its five week long journey, combined with her present personal position, it was a miracle she had actually received it, and even more miraculous that she had acted upon the letter which told her little about.…about what indeed? She had yet to find out.
Erin was, until a week before, due to go traveling with Ned her over confident popular boyfriend, who had dumped her the day before her medical finals, to go traveling somewhere exotic with someone he presumably thought more exciting than her. She was present with this lawyer purely on a whim, a whim which was accepted because of her own bad luck, bad love and bad lust. So, given her current run of bad Ls, she wasn’t confident of any benefit from this visit away from London, outwith a distraction from this trio of ‘bads’.
They sat on the two comfy old leather arm chairs and sipped their coffee.
‘Let me properly introduce myself, I am Stanley Grindley, founder and ex-senior partner of Grindley Gibbons Solicitors, now relegated to the role of consultant. Thank you so much for coming in to see me. It was a bit of a long shot to actually get hold of you, and I am so glad I did, because I have some news for you that I hope will be to your benefit.’ He spoke with an English accent tinted with a hit of Irish, a pleasant soft voice. He had a relaxed manner, in his tweed jacket and slacks, checked shirt and plain woven wool tie. She smiled when she saw that he was wearing leather slippers.
‘Yes, the letter seems to have travelled around the world to get to me, and I was only down the road,’ laughed Erin.
He laughed in reply, then continued. ‘Inheritance, Erin, is a two way thing, it comes with rights and responsibilities. Like everything in life, I guess.’
Erin looked blankly at him, as he stared at her over his half rimmed glasses, a glimpse which allowed her to witness for a moment, intensity, bullishness and shrewdness, the trademarks of a good lawyer. Her experience of lawyers was that they were timesheet slaves, their sentence served in six minute intervals eventually represented in pound signs on invoices. Stanley Grindley didn’t appear to be too worried about such constraints, as he chatted to her, relaxed with legs folded, without any hint of time pressure, and she certainly wasn’t in any position to nor did she believe that she was obliged to cover any costs. He must be in his seventies, she thought, a consultant, so maybe he now felt he had time to do things the way he wanted, rather than letting time tell him that he didn’t have the time to do what he wanted.
‘Of course,’ said Stanley, ‘inheritance is the transfer of ownership of property from one person to another as the result of death, either by the law of the state in the result of intestacy…’ he peeked over his glasses to ensure that Erin has understood the concept. She looked blank so he added, ‘…in other words the deceased has left no will, or the estate will be distributed according to the rules of the will in the event that the deceased had bothered to write one.’
Erin sighed, ‘That’s all very well, Mr Grindley….’
‘Stanley, please,’ interrupted Stanley, smiling. ‘I’m an elderly consultant and ‘Mister ‘reminds me of that fact.’
‘Okay, Stanley,’ said Erin. ‘I understand what you are saying, but I don’t understand why you are saying it to me. My family died so long ago I know nothing of them. When I was four years old I am sure that they were everything to me, then suddenly they weren’t there, and no one, outwith the social services, care home and adoption agencies, were alive to pick up the pieces. I was adopted, and my new parents took me to America, Seattle, where I was brought up. I only returned to London to study medicine. I don’t have any natural relatives, or I presume that they would have helped me after my parents died when I was five years old, instead of leaving me to the unpredictable and impersonal forces of welfare. So, I am as clueless as a snake in a shoe shop, as to why I am here. I don’t even know how you tracked me down to contact me about this. I would go as far as to say that I hope I don’t have any relatives, because if there are any, I would very happily give them hell for their negligence and heartlessness.’
Stanley’s mouth formed a perfect O shape, before chucking a bomb into Erin’s previously forgotten family history, ‘You mean to say that you know nothing about your uncle?’ asked Stanley, with marked surprise.
Erin paused in shock before replying. Her reply was much more reserved than her thoughts. ‘No, I know nothing about any uncle. Like I said, I was adopted when aged five, after a few months of care, because nobody came forward to help after my parents died. I was, as you can imagine, devastated.’ Erin paused for a second. ‘In fact I can only guess my state of mind at the time, because I don’t recall anything prior to that. I do know that I was a handful, an aggressive crying bucket full of tears, but shock like that kicks one into survival mode, kicks out the memories and kicks one’s ass into gear. My adoptive parents, settled me, loved me and made me a future. You might say that my background moulded my future as my medical masters at Imperial College was on youth resilience in times of loss, because of that I understand myself more than I ever did. I know nothing about my family whether it be uncles, aunts, cousins or anyone, because there aren’t any. There couldn’t be any relatives, especially a close relative, such as an uncle. I…eh . I mean what sort of uncle would stay silent and hidden when his niece’s family are killed in a traffic accident? When his own brother is killed?’ Erin’s voice had, to her annoyance, become loud and emotional. If there are relatives, she thought, they don’t deserve her distress. She looked up to see Stanley again peering over his half rimmed glasses as if in a call for her to continue. She added quietly, ‘there can be no reasonable reason for abandoning a five year old child in such circumstances, could there?’
‘There is never a surprise to a lawyer at the strange things families do to each other,’ replied Stanley after some thought. ‘There’s nowt as queer as folk.’ However, I do have to admit to having no answer for your question. I am sorry Erin I don’t know why people are hard hearted, nor why they act the way they do, nevertheless people do act in weird ways, and the results are often unpredictable.’ He pulled a file of papers closer to him, one which Erin had played no heed to until then. ‘Given your absence of knowledge,’ he added, ‘I had better backtrack a bit. You see, Erin,’ he paused, ‘I knew your father, I was his lawyer. I know that he had a brother who lived in Ireland. Your uncle,’ he added, needlessly, to reinforce the point.
‘Eh, you did? You knew my father?’
‘I did. Not for long though, just long enough to remember him as a kind fellow. You see, you might be surprised to know that twenty percent of my work was pro bono, I worked for charities, and death row cases in places like Jamaica. At that time I was asked to settled some charity debts for your father anonymously, that sort of altruism sticks in the minds of lawyers, as most donors want to be recognised, their gifts being more for ego than generosity.’
Erin’s heart thumped, she had placed any notion of blood family far from her mind, it had taken great will power and twenty years of emotional pain to do so, and she was not in any way ready to hear about them. Cutting open old woulds aways leaves a bigger, more vulnerable scar. Yet, at the same time she yearned to find out more, a conflict which tilted towards discovery, by her father’s description as being a charitable man. Still, she had doubts, starting with; has Grindley got the right girl? So Erin nodded and asked. ‘How are you so sure that any of this is related to me?’
‘Fair question Erin, and so here is the answer. Recently, I was on vacation, on the West Coast of Ireland. I was sitting in O’Dowd’s Bar near Roundstone, enjoying a half pint of Guinness, waiting for my wife to return from her fly fishing lesson, when I happened upon an old copy of the Galway Gazette. It had in fact been left beside the fireplace to be used for kindling. I flicked though it to pass the time, and, as I always do, out of the habit of an old lawyer, I turned immediately to the obituaries and legal notices. Death is a lively source of work.’ He winked at Erin as if in salute to the mischievous ways of the legal trade. ‘One such notice jolted me out of my lethargy and Guinness blur. You see, I wasn’t expecting to recognise any names over there, not in Galway.’ He ruffled in the file which he had pulled to the center of the desk earlier, in order to pick out a paper cutting. He read it aloud.
James O’Boyle, formally of Ballharr House, Ballharr, Island, Clavity, Co Galway
Without known beneficiaries
All Assets and chattels will pass to the local island council as bequeathed in settlement of 1812
Due notice expires on 35/34/34
Beneficiaries contact Seamus O’Driscoll of messers Pocket and Leggett, Galway
He handed Erin the cutting whilst ruffling for another document.
Erin read the notice again to reassure herself that he was correct and that Stanley had been telling the truth, though she had no reason to doubt him. She also wanted to see if he had left anything out, which - apart from Seamus O’Driscoll’s address and telephone number - he hadn’t, and to see if anything in it rang a recollection bell, which it didn’t.
‘I’m sorry Stanley, none of this makes any sense to me, I mean, even the name is wrong. My family name wasn’t O’Boyle,’ said Erin, it was Boyle. I never lived in Ireland, I don’t recall the name Ballharr Island, nor, and more importantly, do I know the name Jimmy O’Boyle or Jimmy, Jim or James Boyle, for that matter.
‘Yes, of course, that did occur to me too, however during the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, probably for longer, it was common practice in order to hide from blatant discrimination, for Irish people to drop the ‘O’ in their names so that they wouldn’t be marked out as Catholic Irish, so O’Brian, O’Reilly, O’Connor, O’Boyle etc all became Brian, Reilly, Connor and Boyle. Likewise, I understand, some Protestants thought it prudent, or advantageous or safer or maybe for political reasons to add an ‘O’ to their name in order to fit in or move up, so to speak in republican areas.’
Erin nodded. She was fascinated and horrified at the idea that people were forced to change their names purely because of reasons of religious bigotry, in order to survive or get on on life. Erin felt herself fortunate enough never to have experienced such things, so she was skeptical and not satisfied that this was likely. She made a mental note to look such things up online when she returned to her flat in Hackney. As it turned out this research wouldn’t be necessary.
‘My interest had been pricked as I guessed from discussions with your father that Jimmy was indeed his brother. I was surprised to see a legal notice claimed there to be no relatives so, I did a bit of digging around. Your parents and sister were as you know killed in Belfast in a road accident, in fact hit on the side by joy riders, you may not have know that they were in fact on their way home from Ballharr Island. He handed Erin some print outs of newspapers and a death certificate. There is mention of you in one of these articles being left an orphan, that’s what prompted me to seek you out, Erin.
Erin stopped listening for a few moments. Sister.
‘Are you okay, Erin?’ he asked.
‘Sorry, I…eh… I had forgotten about, at least forced myself never to think again of my family, it was the only way I thought that I could survive. I blocked out everything. I convinced myself that I was born aged five years old and nothing happened before that.’ Erin struggled to compose herself, anger and resolve helped her struggle against letting loose a tear. ‘I’m sorry, this is all a bit of a shock to me.’
‘I’m sorry too, Erin, I didn’t mean to …I …’
‘It’s fine, don’t worry, thank you for going to so much trouble. Her name was Jane, my sister’s name was Jane.’ Erin looked at Stanley feeling tears boiling behind her eyes, tears which she forced away as she had done so many times in the past.
Stanley removed some further slips off paper. ‘I also came upon several articles on James O’Boyle’s death.’ He smiled at her as if he knew what she was thinking. ‘Your uncle, for I am convinced that he was indeed your father’s brother, seemed to have been a bit of an adventurer, because he died whilst attempting to paddle across a notorious whirlpool called the Routen Wheel, when he capsized and drowned. It sounds like a foolhardy thing to do to me, I have seen The Routen Wheel, it is a mesmerizing beast, but anyway, each to their own,’ he said whilst handing Erin printouts of the articles, each of which she read in turn.
He continued, ‘at first I thought that I could have been wrong - I do hate to admit that I am not always correct.’ He laughed at his own expense. ‘However a long career in law is a perfect way to grow a good gut for feelings, and my long suffering gut instinct told me that the James O’Boyle, recently deceased in a kayak accident was your uncle.’
Erin said nothing.
‘This confirmed it for me,’ he said handing over another newspaper article telling the the story of her uncle’s misadventure at the Routen Wheel. ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I wanted to be certain that I had the correct person, I also checked your own passport against the records with the adoption agency,’ he added as Erin studied the cutting. The article began with the words, ‘The kayak belonging to Jimmy O’Boyle, formally James Boyle, was found on the shores of Ballharr Island. the body has yet to be recovered, and it is presumed that Mr O’Boyle drowned.’
Erin nodded to Stanley as if to say, ok you have a point then read the whole article.
‘Our source in The Garda said that investigations are ongoing although without further evidence, due to the perilous nature of what he was attempting - namely a crossing of The notorious Routen Wheel whirlpool in a plastic kayak - a presumption of death by misadventure will be made in respect of Mr O’Boyle’s death. It is considered unlikely that his body will be recovered due to strong currents in the area, and the police have presumed that it has either been washed out to sea, or become trapped under rocks due to the force of Routen Wheel. The deceased was well known in the area for his regular kayak and canoeing expeditions, both locally and abroad. Fergus Flanagan, a local to the island, explained the foolhardiness of Mr O’Boyle’s quest, ‘Jimmy was a fecken eijit, he would paddle down your granny’s toilet if his plastic boat would fit in it. I’m no surprised he met his death down that sump. I’ll tell this for free, The Routen Wheel has taken its share of lives, you know what I mean, like? It’s a right bastard.’
This Fergus Flanagan sounds a colorful character,’ said Erin as she returned the cutting.
Her reading finished, Stanley continued. ‘Now in these circumstances, i.e., where there are no known beneficiaries, all property normally reverts to the state, however in this case, due to a clause in the original settlement, it would fall to the local island council to administer on behalf of the residents. That is, Erin, if you were not alive. As you clearly are alive, all property of the late Jimmy O’Boyle/Boyle goes to you.’ She looked blankly at Stanley who added for clarification. ‘You are Jimmy’s next of kin, so will inherit the whole estate.’
‘Really?’ Erin looked uncertain, then grinned, then felt guilty at grinning over the death of a relative, even though she never knew him, and even though he never came forward during her hour of desperate need.
‘Well yes, though I have no idea of the size of the estate nor of its debts, hence why I bought that strange tapestry warning about horses heads,’ he said rather cryptically, ‘Gift horses have two faces.’
Erin didn’t react, the thought of a potential unexpected inheritance was of course exciting, it was still only a potential one, which means that it could just as likely lead to disappointment.
‘Now back to that cloud, as I mentioned at the start, there are duties and downsides with inheritances, which come in the form of debts and disappointments of others. It could be that the estate is insolvent,’ he handed her a legal document with numerous names beside the word ‘Plaintiff’. ‘This is an Originating Summons against Jimmy O’Boyle for various sums. You can see this list of people, fifty four names, who have a claim upon the estate, probably bills and debts owning for work done or whatever. So these will be settled first before anything else. There could be taxes and it could also be that the…’ he waved the legal notice at Erin ‘…local island council will be upset at your arrival, or as I said earlier the estate could be insolvent.’
Erin sighed, ‘it could be a lot of pain for nothing.’
‘It certainly could be, on the other hand you could be in for a reasonable windfall, the address Ballharr House sounds as if it may have some potential, and a young medic at the start of her career could use such a thing, I am sure,’ he gave her a reassuring smile.
Erin smiled in reply, ‘My parent’s house in Seattle was called Seattle Manor, a name my Dad thought amusing, given that it was a three bed semi, so I don’t feel confident about a building called, ‘house’.’
He smiled. ‘As a first step I suggest that I write to this Seamus O’Driscoll, at Pockett and Leggett? to make them away of your entitlement and arrange an appointment for you?’
She didn’t answer for a while. ‘No it’s fine, I’ll do that when I make up my mind what to do. This is all rather …eh.. a shock.’
‘I am sure it….’
‘You have no idea, Stanley, no idea at all, what I went through to forget, and I am just not yet sure, potential inheritance or not, whether I wish to know any more. I worry it will be …well… you know, painful.’
Stanley didn’t reply.
‘The other thing is Stanley, I don’t know whether or not I want anything from an uncle who left me, a grieving five year old girl, to the lottery of welfare.’
‘All money is tainted, Erin, matters not a jot where it comes from.’
She nodded then gathered her bag and Jacket to leave.
‘Don’t leave it too long, you only have a few weeks before the island council can apply to the court to distribute whatever assets there are,’ he said handing her an envelope. ‘I have copied all the documents for you, and have included a copy of the original settlement and any other legal material.’
They bade their goodbyes, and thank-yous, and Erin made for the exit. Just as she was about to leave Stanley came after her.
‘Oh wait, Erin.’ he shouted along the corridor. ‘I have something for you. I nearly forgot, how could I have forgotten to give you this?’
They returned to his office, Stanley shaking his head at his own forgetfulness in the face of important gifts. He disappeared into a store cupboard in the back of the office leaving Erin standing at the desk. He reappeared a minute later holding an A4 cardboard box, which he placed upon the desk before Erin. He nodded. ‘Open it.’
Erin slowly lifted the lid as bade, she was intrigued as to what on earth could be in the package, what could this elderly solicitor have for her that was connected to her family - she presumed it is connected otherwise why would he be giving it to her? Her family is the only connection between the two of them, and a slim connection at that - a mere chance reading of a newspaper in Galway and a few charitable deeds for her father hardly made them close enough for little surprise gifts? She peeked into the box and stared in stunned silence, then gasped. Had she known what was the box contained she would have refused to go near it, and would have walked out immediately.
‘Are you alright Erin?’ asked Stanley, concerned about the effect that the object was having on Erin. She didn’t immediately answer, prompting him to leave the office to return with a glass of water.
When she took it from him he noticed that her hands were shaking.
She looked him in the eyes, ‘That’s my father’s book? The one he wrote?’
‘He used to read this to me every evening, I loved it as it is both frightening and moving. I hadn’t thought of it for years, everything about him, my mother my life I have forgotten. I forgot it to survive, I couldn’t live whilst thinking they were ever here. Do you understand?’
Stanley nodded. ‘I do apologise, Erin, I had no idea of the effect that it would have upon you. You see, your father knew that my family were Irish, we talked a bit about Galway and the West Coast, I love it there and when he heard that, he brought this book to me. It was really for my grandson, wee Finbar, look here he is a few years ago, six feet tall and playing basket ball.’ He lifted a photograph from behind him and looked at it proudly. ‘When I met your dad Finn was only a little boy, and I read this book to him, and I thought well, Finn won’t need it anymore, and that you should have it. To tell you the truth, he found it a bit frightening, he wasn’t a big fan of ghost and vampire stories.’
‘I can understand see why,’ Erin smiled. ‘Though it’s really a story about trust.’
Stanley nodded as Erin stood to leave. ‘I’d better go, I wanted to catch the next London train.’
Stanley repackaged the book and handed it to Erin as she left. ‘Don’t leave it two long, Erin, I wouldn’t want to see you lose out any more.’
Erin thought about his advice as she made the short walk to Guildford train station, to catch the London Waterloo express. The words that stuck with her weren’t what she would lose by not following up on his advice, but what the other face this horse is likely to show.