The Deed BoxPamela Kelt / Humor
The Deed Box
by Pamela Kelt
Copyright Pamela Kelt, July 2013
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The Deed Box
by Pamela Kelt
I never liked my father’s mother.
Even when we were little, my sister Shelby and I always kept our distance. Grandad helped by taking us out in his new car. It smelt of posh leather and polished wood. “Tuck in,” he’d bellow as we rummaged in the glove box for lemon sherberts and toffees. We all ignored the scowling figure in the doorway who stood, arms folded. Not waving.
One night there was a phone call to say Grandad had died. His wife quickly recovered from the loss. He left her an ample allowance, but she always complained. The only contact we had then was the dreaded ritual of writing polite thank-you letters on flowery notepaper for the measly cheques she sent us at birthdays and Christmases. She never went out to buy us a present—not for as long as she lived. Not a lady of good deeds was our elderly relative.
My dislike turned to loathing when Mum and Dad were killed in a car crash a few years later. One moment we were all planning a holiday to France. The next Shelby and I were orphans. There was a police car parked outside and a nice social worker called Deirdre inside trying to be kind. I was 16. Shelby was 15.
My father’s mother turned up on the doorstep and dismissed the social worker. “Fancy leaving you two alone,” she sniffed at our absent parents, and moved in. She had always envied us our big house. She assumed control of the master bedroom, blitzkrieging in faster than the Nazis hit Poland.
At first, Shelby and I tried to ignore her, but she found ways to impose her presence—and discipline—upon us. Keeping our pocket money down was her most effective tactic. We were too ashamed to admit this to our friends, so we were tied to the house … and her. A typical Saturday night for us would be spent in front of the box, two teenagers and an old lady who noisily stuffed down chocolate gingers (which we hated), watching predictable murder mystery TV movies, while our friends dressed up and went out to indulge in unimaginable pleasures at the rugby club disco.
Not that we had anything to wear. How we longed to wear short skirts and sparkly tops, with our hair all backcombed and trendy. When we decided to find Saturday jobs, she vetoed anything in the least well paid, but at least consented to us doing an afternoon at a “naice” cream tea shoppe. Well, she thought it was nice. She should have seen the scummy kitchen out the back.
Some evenings, after we’d finished our homework, Shelby and I would slip off to the spare bedroom and do some sewing. It was the only way we managed to have any clothes other than our hideous bottle green school uniform. We listened to Radio One on Dad’s old tranny while planning how to bump off Granny.
Our intended victim soon got jealous of our whispered gigglings and realised that “divide and conquer” was her next move. She began to drive a wedge between us, with the skill of one with a doctorate in emotional blackmail.
My father’s mother positively glowed with her new vocation. She sparked fresh rivalries between us, by niggling Shelby over her exam marks compared to mine. She would embarrass me by commenting on how untidy (read “unattractive”) I always looked compared to Shelby. I did, actually, but that’s not the point.
We sought different escape routes. Shelby pursued men. I pursued knowledge (safer, and it didn’t have acne). She had as many boyfriends as I had textbooks. But there still scenes where Shelby and I were both reduced to tears: horrible, carping, upsetting, unnecessary scenes. The old woman stomped about, feeding off the emotions like a crow off road carrion. It never occurred to us to remind her that Dad had left the house to us.
A decade later, I had two degrees, a good teaching job, no friends, a distant sister, an estate agent brother-in-law who wore slip-on shoes and an ageing relative who grew more peevish daily. She still had the master bedroom. On good days, I decided she wasn’t evil, just selfish. I supposed that was why she chose to live for so long.
Until I killed her, of course. I could hardly throw her out. I don’t think Dad or Grandad would have approved.
It all happened one weekend. Shelby and Oily Phil had invited themselves round and obliged me to pull out of a geography field trip. This was no normal school excursion. It was with a neighbouring boys’ school and several male teachers would be there. Real live men. Hairy wrists, big boots, sweat. I quivered in anticipation and had my waxed jacket cleaned and my clean legs waxed.
It was my turn for hormones. Shelby had had her fun, while I’d had all the guilt. Twenty-nine is a much more dangerous age than 16. I was furious, but didn’t protest. I suppose I’d started to give up.
Come the Saturday morning: “Want anything?” I heard myself calling upstairs to the old woman in residence. “Helen. Come up,” came The Voice.
Please, I added in my head, as always, and obeyed, stumping up the stairs like an overgrown adolescent.
“Here’s a list. Don’t forget the potatoes. Three pounds.” The lips pursed as she scrutinised my clothes. “Are you going out like that?”
I pretended not to hear.
“Go to that new supermarket. So much nicer than that other place you go.” She turned up the radio, although her hearing was sharp enough. I was dismissed.
I cycled into town. Perhaps I could forget something off her list. What would she miss most? Potatoes. She liked potatoes. To think of it, there wasn’t much else she did like. Well, perhaps her jewels, gifts from Grandad. She coveted them so much she never wore the damned things, but kept them locked in her deed box. When we were naughty (in her book), she used to threaten to cut us out of her will. “I’m calling what’s his name the lawyer in the morning,” she’d say. Shelby cried. I couldn’t have cared less.
I tried to remember who was in favour that month. Shelby hadn’t visited the old lady when she’d twisted her wrist, but then I’d had words with her over the garlic. “French muck. Gives me gas.”
I wondered why my sister was so keen on a visit this particular weekend. Maybe it was to spike my social life, I fumed, and bought just two pounds of spuds. Rebel.
The queues were long. As I stood there, trying not to look at other people’s shopping, I began to recall all the Horrible Ways to Kill off Granny that we used to devise as teenagers. As I reached the checkout, I came up with The Plan.
I knew where the old woman kept the deed box. I’d discovered a wobbly floorboard while vacuuming her room a few months back. When I tried to fix it, I’d seen the box below. I even knew where she hid the key. Grandad used to have a Chinese curiosity box with a trick panel. You pushed one corner, and a side sprang free. All he kept inside were manly things like cuff links, golf tees and frayed shoelaces. “Our little secret,” he’d say with a wink.
I’d seen the old woman fiddling with the panel when I’d popped into her room one day. I just knew the key was there.
Imagine her chagrin if she thought her baubles had gone. I’d no intention of actually touching them. All I had to do was substitute an empty box. Teach her a lesson. Two pounds of potatoes are heavy, on top of regular shopping.
I pedalled to a stationer’s where I bought a similar metal box. You know, the sort of thing. Size of a shoebox, with a gold piped pattern round the edges. When I lost my nerve, it would do for the summer end-of-term raffle at school.
“You took your time,” was my welcome back. “Shelby will be here soon.”
“She rang when you were out.” With a sniff she turned and stamped upstairs.
Information is power, I thought. Discuss in 500 words. And chicken with double garlic tonight. With rice. So there.
The doorbell went, and Shelby and Oily Phil wafted in. “I’m exhausted. Bring in the bags, darling.” Oily Phil patted Shelby’s shoulder and trotted outside. Odd. He was not a solicitous man. “I’ll go up and see Granny.”
Why the sudden pretence at affection? I wondered what my sister was up to. Was she after the jewels, again? Well, good luck with that. I left her to the old lady while I got out the meat banger and wreaked havoc on the chicken breasts.
Later, when we were sitting round the dinner table, I asked: “What wine would you like tonight?”
Shelby giggled. Phil smarmed.
“Really, Helen.” The old woman’s bifocals glinted. “Shelby’s pregnant.”
“Champagne it is, then,” I said, outwardly recovering fast, as 29-year-olds are supposed to.
“To think you never told me about dear Shelby’s miscarriage from before,” the old lady said in my direction. “No wonder she couldn’t visit. I’m to be a great-grandmother at last.”
“Poor Helen.” Shelby put on a pseudo-sympathetic pout.
“I’ll call what’s his name the lawyer in the morning,” said my father’s mother.
As I set the timer for the rice, I overheard Phil and Shelby whispering. “Told you it would work, darling,” Shelby said. “Later, I can develop another ‘miscarriage’.”
“Diamonds are forever,” crooned Oily Phil. “Or whatever jewellery the old bag’s got left.”
So much for the chuffing raffle. I poured the “old bag” a large sherry and slipped upstairs. No-one noticed my absence. I went straight to the Chinese box, and yes, there was the key. I shoved it into a horrible crystal rose bowl on a cheap pie-crust table. The bowl was filled with long-dead pot pourri that smelt like a stuffed animal. It didn’t take long to fill the new deed box I’d just bought with nasty beads and buttons from the sewing basket. Finally, I scuffed up the new key a bit and put it in the Chinese box. I flipped back the rug, prised up the floorboard and shunted back the old box out of sight into the dusty darkness, placing the new one in front.
My pulse raced with mischief. Forget glaciated valleys. This was more exciting than any field trip.
Later, as Phil struggled with the champagne cork, Shelby warmed to her theme. “You must come and stay, Granny. You can look after the baby in due course. Won’t that be lovely?”
“More soda, Shelby? Can’t have you tipsy, can we?” I topped up her glass, almost beginning to enjoy myself. “I know. Perhaps we should change for dinner, Granny? It’s a special occasion. You go first.”
Shelby took the bait. Boy, was I good. “Go on, Gran. What about that nice green dress we bought you last year. And that green pendant?”
“Oh, all right.” Gracious to the last, the old woman eased out of her chair and creaked upstairs.
I took a slug of bubbly. A few minutes passed and I listened. Nothing. Then ten minutes went by. Perhaps she’d got locked in the loo. Or maybe she’d sold the jewels years ago and was trying to come up with a cover story. What if she were completely broke? I knew she never paid her share of the household bills, still... Guilt prevailed. “I’ll just go and see if she’s all right.”
The prodigal duo glanced at me and shrugged. I hurried upstairs and knocked on her door. No answer. I went into the room.
Her body was slumped on the floor, her sensible shoes caught up in the folded-back rug. She lay on her side. In her right hand, she clasped the deed box to her cardiganned bosom. In her left was the key. It had a dark stain on it. There was a smattering of something on the back of her head. On the edge of the table, too. Pale eyes glared at the skirting board.
I looked at the rug. She must have tripped and hit her head on the table. Numbness set in. Then Phil was there behind me. “She’s not... ?”
I stirred and moved closer to feel for a pulse. Nothing. I shook my head. Phil called for an ambulance. “An accident, I suppose?” He sounded odd.
“It was my fault.” Someone was speaking in a hoarse voice. My voice.
“Don’t get hysterical.” Shelby appeared.
“I’m not. It was my box.”
“No, it’s not. It’s mine.” A blatant lie, which she compounded, as she always had as a child, by going on. “She said so. She did.” I shrugged, letting Shelby misunderstand my confession. Her voice rose. “I’m going to look inside.” She rattled the box. “Still locked.”
So the old lady hadn’t actually opened it? Death by natural causes. Relief surged. Just a fall. Not my fault.
With a gleam in her eye, my sister prised the key from the crabbed fingers and shoved it into the box. She opened it up. “Bitch.”
“Old bag sold the lot. This is just rubbish.” Shelby threw a handful of plastic baubles on the floor.
Nice epitaph. I scooped up the beads and dropped them on top of the pot pourri. Hiding the other key.
Well, the ambulance came, and then there was a lot of horrible sitting around, followed by mounds of paperwork, all culminating in a weary funeral a few days later. I dealt with the lot.
After that, we turned up to the office of what’s his name the lawyer where he read the will. First surprise. My father’s mother had left £53,792 to her old school. I’d always thought she hated the place. Maybe she didn’t have the name of the nearest donkey sanctuary.
Next shock. All she left Shelby was a nasty floral painting. My sister, chic in a black suit that cost more than the funeral had cost me, pursed her lips and sniffed. A familiar sniff.
To me, she left, and I quote, “the contents of the deed box”. I suppose I had taken care of her for years. So there it was. A repayment of sorts, even if just a handful of old pendants.
My sister quelled an oath. Oily Phil whispered in her ear. I heard the words “cheap trash, anyway”. She shrugged, somewhat mollified.
“And,” what’s his name the lawyer continued in a lugubrious tone worthy of a Dickensian cleric, “your grandmother added this note. ‘The amount raised from the jewels should balance out all the loans I paid out repeatedly to Shelby, despite my misgivings, especially after her marriage. Just as well my husband made sensible investments.’”
Oily Phil turned an odd shade of green and hurried his wife, my scamming sister, out of the room.
I went home and downed a large gin and tonic. So my darling sister and her sleazy husband had been bleeding the old woman dry for years. No wonder my father’s mother had never contributed to the upkeep of the house. There were three women in my family, and two of them had screwed me over. Correction: not so much three women, but two women and one stupid doormat.
Of course, another reason she’d left me the jewels was to piss off Shelby. And drive another, possibly lethal, wedge between us. I think it was working.
I changed back into my jeans and T-shirt and returned to the master bedroom. I could still smell the faint whiff of peppermints from the old woman’s handbag. Shelby hadn’t offered to help with clearing out the belongings. All up to me. Just as well. I took a deep breath, bent down and flung back the rug.
I prised up the floorboard and reached inside. My fingers touched cold metal. I pulled the old deed box out into the light and stared at it. The key? Oh yes. I rummaged in the pot pourri, mingled with cheap beads. It was still there. I poked it into the lock and turned it. It clicked. I flipped open the dusty lid. Inside lay a half a dozen jewellery cases.
I began with the largest. Inside was a pearl necklace, with matching earrings and bracelet. Genuine. The second contained a ruby pendant with matching accoutrements. Soon there was a mound of diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, cairngorms, opals … you name it … sitting on the rug in front of me. I sat cross-legged, gaping at the pile. Huge, sad stones in ugly settings. As I stared at the horrible hoard, I knew just how they felt. I knew I’d never wear any of it.
In a dusty corner of the box, I spotted one last tiny velvet pouch. Inside was a simple silver chain Mum and Dad had bought for her, still with its jeweller’s tag. She’d never even tried it on. I cried for the first time in years.
The next day, I bagged up the ill-gotten swag and went to a local jewellery shop run by ever such a nice man. He laughed at my jokes and complimented me on my dress sense. “Shame, really. The settings are posh, but they’re so old-fashioned, they won’t raise much. I could rework them, a bit. New lease of life, and all that. I’ll give you a price and then you can decide. No pressure. Take yourself off for a nice sabbatical. You deserve it.”
Well, I was sold. He had a kind face, too. He asked me why I looked so sad.
“My little secret,” I quipped.
“Oh. A woman of mystery.”
I found myself laughing. It felt good.
“I know what I’d do in your place. Write it down, lock it up in a box and throw away the key.”
“I might, at that.”
Well, I let him take my phone number (well, you live in hope) and I took his advice. I went straight home, looked up some posh hotels in Cozumel and wrote down everything that had happened.
My little secret. I folded up the sheet of paper and locked it away forever, not forgetting to throw away the key. I had the very box, of course.
I just hope no one ever opens it.