Despite the blue sky, the sunlight on the leaves of the plum tree, the birdsong, the music, the photographs of Tessa mounted on a board showing all the decades of her ninety years of life, Liz was all too aware of the vibes emanating from Jeff’s family who looked as if they’d been dragged kicking and screaming to the memorial. Her daughter Serena and Jeff had not only worked hard in the two weeks since Tessa’s death to create this tribute, Liz reflected, they’d also worked hard for the whole of the previous year to help her remain independent. When Jeff’s mother Rachel died eighteen months ago the shock of losing her caused a rapid decline in Tessa’s health. Jeff and Serena took over responsibility for her. They drove her to medical appointments, organised a new hearing aid, glasses, cell phone, a cleaner, Meals on Wheels and a Driving Miss Daisy taxi service after she lost her license over a car crash. They visited her and made daily phone calls, trying to fill the gap that Rachel had left.
“At least the stroke took her quickly,” Jeff said, his voice cracking. “At least she didn’t suffer.” He described the kind of person his Aunt Tessa had been, sharp-tongued, yes, but kind and generous; the adventures her life had taken her on ‒ cook for a gang of shearers in the Australian outback, conductress on a tram in Wellington, training as a milliner and creating beautiful hats. “Dad wanted me to work in his garage with him fixing engines, working with tools and oil cans, but I was happier with Aunt Tessa in her workroom playing with all the gorgeous fabrics,” he said.
Nigel, Jeff’s father, glared at the grass. When Jeff choked up Serena moved to his side and read from his speech until his breathing steadied. Nigel’s scowl sank deeper into his forehead.
Jeff read out tributes from friends and neighbours of Tessa who couldn’t attend the memorial. One of Jeff’s sisters, Bev, who’d flown down from Wellington, spoke about her memories of Aunt Tessa and ended with saying how much she had adored her. The other sister, Val, rolled her eyes.
When the tributes were finished Liz dragged her eyes away from Jeff’s family and spoke to the assembled mourners. “Jeff and Serena wanted the memorial here in our garden because Tessa loved to come here. She joined us for our New Year celebration, just two weeks before she died. We sat here under the plum tree. She told me it made her happy to see Serena and Jeff together. She said the reason she had never married was because she’d never found anyone she wanted to spend her whole life with, although she’d had plenty of offers. So she’d decided at the age of forty to work at two jobs to make enough money to buy a house and become independent. She talked about how much she missed Rachel and how Jeff and Serena made her feel that she still had a family. The last thing she said to me out here in the garden was, ‘Liz, I can hear the birds singing.’ She had a big smile on her face. That is how I’ll remember her.”
Jeff then played Tessa’s favourite song I did it my way. While the song played there was surreptitious mopping of eyes, though not of Val’s eyes, Liz noted, remembering that Tessa had told her Val hadn’t spoken to her since an angry phone call six months ago about an issue on which Val felt Tessa had no right to express an opinion. Something flashed at the side of Liz’s eye. She turned her head to see a glistening spider’s web strung between the branches of the plum tree. She noted the intricate patterns the spider had woven and thought how deceptively delicate the web looked in the sunlight. A fly flew straight into the centre and stuck fast, struggling uselessly. Liz watched until the buzzing grew fainter and stopped. When the song ended there was a collective sigh and everyone stood and moved over to the tables to get some food.
One of Tessa’s neighbours said to Liz, “I lived next door to Tessa for fifty years. I knew her very well. I was dreading this day, but it’s been beautiful, funny and kind, just like Tessa.”
Jeff’s cousin, Tristan, piling food on his plate, told Liz how lucky she and Alan were to live in this place. “Life must be so tranquil here,” he said. “The city’s full of nutters.”
Liz said that rural villages had their share of odd individuals too. She told him about the man who’d threatened to shoot their dog if he chased his cats one more time, and the man who had videoed his young wife with hitchhikers he’d picked up and brought home for the purpose. “We offered her sanctuary at our house for the year we went overseas and we slapped a trespass notice on her husband,” she said. “However, she invalidated the notice after she phoned him to invite him over because she was lonely. She nursed him during his last illness when his family abandoned him and she slept with his corpse for three days until his funeral. She spent a whole night sleeping on his grave in the cemetery. She told us she had hoped to freeze to death there.”
Tristan’s mouth dropped open. “Nooo! You’re making this up!”
“Oh, truth can be stranger than fiction,” Liz said.
Later in the afternoon Tristan went with Liz and Alan to the garden gate to wave goodbye to the departing guests. He was the last one to leave. As he got into his car a cyclist on the opposite side of the road suddenly veered across. He leapt off his bike and hurled it down in front of Tristan’s car and banged on the window yelling at Tristan to wind it down. Tristan asked why he should and the man screamed “You know why!” Tristan reversed and drove off at speed. The man chased him down the street on his bike before throwing himself on the grass verge and beating it with his fists.
“Who on earth …?” Liz said, horrified.
“A tranquil inhabitant,” said Alan.
“Not funny,” said Liz.
As they walked back into the garden they saw Jeff bailed up in a corner by Bev, Val and Nigel demanding to know what was in Tessa’s will. “She made you her executor,” Bev was saying, “so you must know.”
“I knew they’d pull something like this as soon as they got him on his own,” Liz said, moving towards the group, “Where’s Serena?”
Alan put a restraining hand on her arm. “It’s Jeff’s family,” he said. “Let him deal with them.”
Bev’s voice, shrill with annoyance, drowned out the birdsong. “Aunt Tessa said she was going to leave her house to you, but no matter what the will states you need to share everything with us. Val and I are leaving our partners so we need the money.”
Nigel added, “We all knew she had stashes of cash hidden around the house. That needs to go into the pot.”
Jeff told them this was not the time or place to discuss these things as Aunt Tessa had been dead only two weeks and they all needed time to grieve.
“She was a spiteful old bitch,” Val shot back. “I’ll bet she’s left all her money to the Cats Protection League.”
The following week the sisters got their copies of the will from Tessa’s lawyer. The contents of the house and the money in Tessa’s bank account had been left to them and the house had been left to Jeff. The fact they’d inherited a large sum of money should have kept them happy, Jeff told Serena. But it didn’t. Their fury was incendiary. Jeff repeated that they needed to abide by the terms of the will as these were Tessa’s wishes. A stream of angry emails from Bev followed and several visits from Nigel. Each time Serena spotted him coming up their drive she was glad they’d taken the precaution of keeping the blinds closed and that their front door had mirror glass in the panels.
Jeff emailed his sisters to ask them to let him know when they wanted to look through the house to claim any of the contents, after which he would donate the remaining items to the Salvation Army. Bev emailed that Jeff was not to be allowed in the house while she and Val checked the contents. She supposed, she added, that he’d taken the stashes of cash for himself. Jeff’s response was to put a padlock on the garden gate of Aunt Tessa’s house and he changed the locks on the front and back doors. He and Serena sorted through all the drawers and cupboards and threw out shelves of mouldy and expired food and donated hundred of tins of food to the Salvation Army. Tessa had been a hoarder, but then often forgot what she’d hoarded. They donated her clothes to the Cats Protection League and weeded and watered the garden.
Tessa’s neighbour phoned Jeff one afternoon to say that Nigel and Val were at the gate of the house and were trying to break the padlock. The neighbours had warned them off, but Nigel told them to mind their own business. He left a message on Jeff’s phone to say if Jeff didn’t appear at the house with the key that afternoon he would break the padlock.
That night Serena dreamed of an old house where each of the rooms she entered burst into flames. The cause, in her dream, was the ancient heater Tessa had used to warm up her cold rooms. Jeff wrote to the lawyer asking him to remind his father and sisters that breaking in was illegal.
On Sunday Tessa’s neighbour rang Jeff to say Nigel and Val were back at Tessa’s house again and had taken the gate off its hinges. They were trying out keys at the front door. The neighbours called the police. When they arrived on the scene Val lied that it was her property and that she’d forgotten her key. The neighbour took the police inside her own house and informed them of the truth. They said it was a civil matter, not a police matter and advised her to tell Jeff and Serena to take out a trespass notice.
Liz and Alan told their neighbours about the man on the bike who’d threatened Tristan after the memorial. One of them said it was probably Marty who lived at the edge of the village and whose neighbours had placed a restraining order on him. “Nice guy when he’s on his meds,” he said. A week later their water tanks ran dry. Alan found the water valve at the top of their drive had been turned off. A call to the Council assured him they hadn’t done it. Alan told Liz there was no proof it was Marty, so they’d better let the matter drop for now. That night Liz dreamt that their house was on fire with no water available to extinguish the flames.
Val and Bev sent a letter to Jeff via their lawyer demanding entry to the house, but prohibiting Jeff from being present.
The man next door to Serena and Jeff’s house threw a bag of human faeces over the fence into their garden with a note: Have a happy life.They rang the police who went to see Mr Poo and warned him to behave. Serena did some sums and calculated that with the sale of their house and Tessa’s they could afford to move out of this neighbourhood. She filled out a trespass notice against Jeff’s sisters.
Next morning the lawyer told Serena and Jeff that Probate had been granted. He advised caution, given the sisters’ hostility, until it was determined whether or not they wanted to challenge the will.
On their way home Jeff said. “I don’t have a family anymore, do I?”
Serena thought of all the birthday and Christmas celebrations in Jeff’s family home when his mother had been alive.
That night she dreamed of a clock with its mechanism exposed. When all the cogs were revolving in the same direction it was easy to predict how the circle would keep turning, but when one cog shifted from its axis it was no longer possible to determine the new trajectory. Next day she rang Liz to tell her about the dream. After the phone call with Serena, Liz took her cup of tea out onto the verandah. She sipped it slowly, watching the sun sink behind the mountains. The sky turned pink, the clouds tinged with gold, and the birds returned to their nests. A hawk began its slow circuit over the fields, gliding and dipping. Liz watched its sudden dive to the ground. It disappeared from view for a second and then made its swift upward trajectory. It held fast to whatever was in its claws.
Sandra Arnold lives in Canterbury, New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia and is the author of five books including three novels, a non-fiction work and a collection of flash fiction. Her work has been widely published internationally, placed and short-listed in various competitions and nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfictions and The Best Small Fictions. www.sandraarnold.co.nz