Tuesday, 16 February 2021
A Little Black Book
The credit card companies had cancelled all his cards. His wife was degenerating rapidly and he couldn’t pay the carers, and the signs of dereliction showing in the house were too many to ignore. The post didn’t bring bills any more. Those had stopped coming and now it was just legal letters, angry letters from relatives and old no-longer friends, letters from the authorities and the courts. He knew he had moved up a level with these. But today there was something different, an anonymous envelope with his name and address printed on it. Neat and even, an open and alien hand beckoned yet he thought he saw something vaguely familiar in the script. It echoed.
“Owen, Owen quickly they’ve come back, they’re here and they want you to talk to them.” The cries of excitement bounced down from her room and he jumped up, hurrying with the post into the kitchen, anxiously chewing at his thumb. He dropped the interesting envelope and the rest onto the kitchen table and rushed upstairs, grabbing the leaning banister to help himself along and taking care not to trip on the threadbare sections of the carpet with their amateur darnmarks and hanging threads. Before he entered her bedroom he took a deep breath, the scents of dry rot and cat were infinitely preferable to the scent of her, his once fragrant and still much loved wife.
“Elsa, I’m here, I’m here” he said as soothingly as he could manage and went to pull back the curtains. His wife shrieked “Nein, Owen daß mus’d nicht tun. Don’t do that, du darfst nicht.” Then “You must talk to them. They’re here” as she sat up in bed wild eyed and agitated, patting her hands on the grimy covers. He moved over to her and put his hand on her head, stroking her hair, holding her frantic gaze, looking as always for someone long gone. It wasn’t working and she wasn’t calming; nor would she ever come back. He knew that, and yet. Excitement was turning into distress and she was beginning to rant. “They’re here, you see them, they’re here, talk to them, tell them, tell them I am well, tell them I can see them and tell them, tell them to stay. Tell them to bring us our grandchildren.”
As the images she thought she saw faded, Elsa started to weep. She slumped back down into her pillows, twisting the duvet cover in her hands and muttering incoherently. She let go to push Owen’s hand away, but didn’t move when he leant to kiss her. His tears rolled slowly down to mingle with her own, soft on her flacid cheek. The episodes with the imagined children were getting worse, more frequent, more violent. But at least they were less destructive than the episodes when Elsa thought she saw old friends, old friends Elsa now classed as enemies. Or when she wanted to clean the kitchen and went into battle with a dishwashing brush and a bottle of bleach. She usually chose a random spot on the floor and scrubbed and scrubbed at it until her hands were raw and bleach burnt spotted and streaking patterns into her clothes and skin. The yearning for the children was probably the preferrable option. The yearning for their early days, before the children would have been better, but those memories seem to have been finally and irrevocably lost some weeks ago. “Liebchen, meine liebchen,” he whispered And she looked up from her tears and smiled at him, before turning away once more.
Elsa had brought him to Heidelberg 35 years ago, to try his luck working there, to see how it would be living near her parents. It wasn’t necessarily a long term thing, but it had worked. Two sons, lots of holidays, a lovely house in the suburbs, affluence and a new car every year. And then Elsa’s mother and father had died, their younger son moved to China and was still there, and the other boy got caught up in his own life, moved to Düsseldorf and forgot about his parents. Depression, denial, emotional stress and the need for Owen’s attention burning ever brighter. He resisted at first, but couldn’t take the constant raging. He gave up photography and Elsa wouldn’t come with him on his long riverside walks any more. She wasn’t interested to see the whirls and swirls of the dark and fast moving current, nor in the barges laden and low, making their way to the Rhine. She didn’t want to tell him stories any more.
He took time away from the business, hoping she’d ease up, trust him more. They travelled further and wider and more often. Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, a short visit to China when the younger son got married to lovely Feng Mian and then back to Heidelberg. In China she had panicked at the wedding and they had to take her back to the hotel. They missed the reception and took an early flight home, drinking steadily all the way. On a skiing holiday in France she got lost on a slope she’d skied since her teenage years. The ski patrol found her leaning against a tree, staring at slow falling snow. In Tokyo she followed Owen onto a metro train but refused to recognise him, slapping him away as he tried to take her arm.
The decline had been slow and steady, a gradual erosion of Elsa. And then one Christmas she wouldn’t get out of bed because she said the children had said they would be there with her. Some weeks later she refused to see several of her translation clients on the basis that they needed more practise, though she never specified at what. Nor would she go to the little school in Neckargemünd to help children with their homework. For a while she wouldn’t even talk to Owen and instead hurled abuse in hysterical German whenever he came near. He moved out of their room, worked with the local hospital to get a diagnosis and slowly turned away from his own life, to preserve hers. He told their friends they were cutting their social circle right down, “Just so difficult to keep up with people.” “We’re focusing on our own travels now.” “Now that the children are gone, we’ve more time for each other.” Most people went with it, especially the more recent acquaintances who had never quite understood their own uneasiness around Elsa, or Owen’s tension. His business, previously thriving, went into decline and he was forced to sell it on at submarket value.
Elsa was calm again, singing in the shadowy room, calling out to the river to take her home. This was one of her happier places. As he watched his wife losing herself, he wondered how long it would take to sell the house. And then there was this curious envelope. What new horrors would it hold for them?
Owen returned to the grubby kitchen to ignore all of the post except the one he knew wasn’t from a solicitor or a court representative.
It was a large envelope and it contained a handful of black and white prints and a little black book. There was also a copy of someone’s will, a someone Owen recognised from the list of people with whom he and Elsa would have no contact. A name and a memory. The images he recognised as photos he had taken and developed many years ago, pictures of him and a young man holding hands. Owen allowed himself a wistful smile. The little black book he did not recognise. And the will he was afraid to open. The little black book though, this was intriguing and he started to read. There were stories there, stories of his life as a young man, and a crush he had once had. There were stories of Elsa from when she first moved to London, stories of how they met, walking in Richmond Park and helping a horse rider who had taken a tumble. The pub lunch in Chiswick, the night train from Victoria and the romantic weekend in Paris, it was all there in the little black book. And at the back of the little black book was a list, with three and four letter codes, dates and numbers. And Owen’s name. And the words “For past sins” followed by XXX.
Then Owen looked at the will. It was dated a few years earlier and most of it had been redacted, including the name of the deceased. Thick black lines covered most of someone else’s end of life wishes, most but not all. There was a reference at the end to Owen Clayton and an instruction that Owen contact Thredwell, Snelling and Fastless, solicitors. How on earth did this find me? Owen whispered half under his breath, turning the will, the photos, the envelope and the little black book over and over in his hands before reaching for the phone. He didn’t have any idea what to expect, but surely he could cope with yet one more horror.
The conversation with the solicitors was almost on a par with conversations with Elsa. Owen introduced himself and there was a long pause, so long he almost hung up. Then with a brief apology, the receptionist put him through to Theresa Snelling herself. Ms Snelling’s voice was warm, but cautious. ”Yes Mr Clayton, I am very glad to hear from you. I understand you live abroad now. Would you mind answering a few questions for me, before we start. I need to be sure I am talking to the right person.” She spoke quickly, and Owen pictured an unsmiling face, a face familiar with delivering fresh shocks to the newly vulnerable.
Theresa Snelling’s voice grew slowly less busy and as Owen answered the bizarre collection of questions, fascination gradually replaced anxiety. By the time they got to “Your friend in the polo club, why was he expelled?” Owen burst out laughing, something he hadn’t done for a very long time. “Ha, ha, ha, they said it was for behaviour prejudicial to the club’s reputation, but it was because he was caught with the Chairman’s son. It was behind the bar very early on a Sunday morning. They’d been inadvertently locked in. The cleaners found them.” Memories of that wild night bounced around in Owen’s head and he knew that these questions could only have come from Robert Jenson, his long forgotten dalliance and one of his rejected friends. The man had tried very hard to make up for so many little sins over the years, but Owen resolutely ignored him. Borrowing money and never paying it back. Not showing up when he said he would. Teasing Elsa with just a tad too much sarcasm. And when they were young, leaving the pub without getting a round in. Those yearning eyes. Telling so many lies. Drinking too much and offending Elsa. Pushing her in the river and screaming at the top of his lungs that “Owen loves me you fucking cunt, so fuck off and drown in the Neckar why don’t you” was easily the worst. Elsa, then still relatively sane had taken it in stride, clambering up the bank some few meters downriver before calling to Owen to deal with “your very drunk friend” before turning back for the house and dry clothes. Looking back it was all quite funny, but their threeway friendship never really recovered. Perhaps it was always that fragile, once the dalliance had been recognised as just that and nothing more. Theresa Snelling was speaking again, asking about the little black book. “Yes I have it. It’s just a collection of reminiscences from years ago.” “Please look at the last two pages, at the list. Have you found it?” Owen looked again at the mysterious codes. “Yes I see it. What about it? It’s just random numbers.”
At the other end of the line Theresa Snelling allowed herself a small smile. “Mr Clayton, please keep that little book safe until you receive further instructions, after which you can take action. I will be sending a colleague to formally confirm your identity and deliver my letter.” Owen Clayton began to think it was all a stupid hoax and waited for Theresa Snelling to tell him that he needed to cough up €1000 or some such amount before her letter would be handed over. But she didn’t and Owen decided it was all too much, all too complicated and why were they scamming him in the first place. Perhaps they didn’t know his money was all gone.
Some days later while Owen and Elsa were sitting in the garden discussing rabbits, a car drew up and a serious-looking man in dark gloomy clothes approached their front-door. Leading Elsa by the hand, Owen came around to the front of the house and waited. With a slight bow the man introduced himself in flawless English and proceeded to explain that he represented a co-respondent firm of lawyers in Frankfurt and was here to deliver a letter, subject to proof of identity.
The legal summons and court requests piled up in the kitchen were an adequate start. Owen’s passport, birth certificate and residency documents were handy too, as were documents relating to the sale of his company. Owen was careful to keep track of everything, vaguely anxious that this hoax might in fact be a theft. He waited patiently as Elsa clutched his hand and occasionally gasped when the man glanced at her and smiled, and nodded sympathetically at Owen. He waited and waited, and eventually their visitor looked up with a smile and a nod. “Everything is in order. Quite satisfactory,” he said, stacking the documents into a neat pile and pushing them to one side. “Here we go,” thought Owen as the man pulled a letter out of his bag.
Owen waited for the line, wondering how much they would be asked to stump up for this probably worthless letter. But the letter was pushed towards him as the visitor rose and extended his right hand. He checked his watch and with a slight nod said “Thank you for your time and your assistance.” With a gesture towards the documents he added: “My job has been made so much easier. And things I hope will improve for you soon Mr Clayton”.
Together Owen and Elsa, still clutching very tight to her husband’s hand, saw their guest out and then Elsa wanted to go and lie down. It was some time before Owen could return to the kitchen table and the mysterious letter. As promised it was from Theresa Snelling, who explained that the strange envelope he had received some days ago was prepared by his friend Robert Jenson many years ago shortly after the Claytons had moved to Heidelberg. It further explained that Robert Jenson had died some weeks previously and was now buried in the Flushing Cemetery in Queens, a borough of New York City. Mr Jenson had been living in New York for many years, and the letter said that the property on 64th Street in the Upper East Side was to be left to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, along with all other assets. There was one exception, the assets listed in the little black book now in Owen Clayton’s possession. Theresa Snelling explained that the list is of shares Robert Jenson wanted Owen and Elsa Clayton to have. Owen looked at the strange codes with new eyes: GOOGL 100 @ $85 ’04 ’14 ’15; MSFT 100 @ $21 ’86 x 9; AAPL 100 @$22 ’80 x 5; FB 100 @$38 ’12. Shares with their purchase prices and dates, and their splits. Owen’s hands shook and the world was spinning and the letter said Robert hoped that one day they might visit him in Flushing, forgive his past misdemeanours and say sorry for having so long ignored him.