A young man attempts to carry out the wishes of a client who is not all he seems.
Yellow and ghastly, the paint on the firmly-locked door was rolling away from the redwood beneath, creating a sense that the sadness it contained was causing it to cry flakes of ancient acrylic, that the lack of care from within had imbued the grain with a bleakness which, like a raincloud, shadowed enough to force a physical alteration. The spherical knob, once shining brass but now mottled by decades of dirty palms and inattentive cleaning, begged from its mount to be left alone, shouted at passers-by to avoid this place, to continue ambling safely along, to go far from here and forget of its very existence.
I could not. A mere two days ago, I had received instructions to attend here today, to visit the old gentleman who now looked at me through a millimetre-wide gap in the dour lace curtain which was draped across the window next to the door. The lace was, as seemed almost normal at this property, yellowing in the direct sunlight, unwashed, unchanged. Catching his eye, from my position at the base of the stepped entry, I began to move towards the door, six short steps away. I held his gaze through that tiny gap, ensuring he knew both that I was here to see him and that I would be arriving presently to be allowed in.
A quick rap on the door, after having broken the stare as I reached the knocker in the centre of the decrepit woodwork, signalled within. The lace curtain undulated, caught by the breeze of movement from behind the closed window. From behind the door came the dull, increasing thud of unwilling leather on unyielding ceramics; as this sound reached a climax, then came the gentle rattle of tiny chains and the sound of bolts being brushed against their steel frames. It sounded to me like there were almost a dozen, combined, of these before, finally, the door lock was finally turned. The handle rattled. With a grunt, the door was pulled slightly ajar, a single chain remaining in place to secure the door against intruders.
“Worr is i’?” The voice was as grey as the hair of his eyebrows, which reached around the door at least three seconds prior to the shape of his forehead, which arrived a second or so before a single eye punctuated the motion.
“Mr. Albright?” Ironic.
“My name is Mr. Finney. I’m here from Peters, Wallace and DeWitt. I’ve been sent by Mr. Peters to discuss your arrangements, as requested.”
“My appoinmen’ ain’t ‘til next Toosdih.”
“My apologies, Sir, today is Tuesday the 14th, the date which should be on your confirmation message?”
“Where’s Pe’ers? I axed for Pe’ers, not some -“ he looked me up and down, as if weighing a fish, “- child.”
I took a deep breath and controlled my immediate, impulsive, immature reaction, which was to throw my really rather heavy briefcase at him. “Mr. Peters isn’t available today, unfortunately, as he is currently immersed in a business acquisition which requires his full attention. I assure you, sir, that I’m quite capable of meeting your needs; I have many years of experience in the industry.”
The caterpillar floated upwards. “Awlroit, awlroit, cuhm in.”
The door closed and the chain was withdrawn from service. Shrieking as it was then dragged inward, the door lost another layer of coating to the peppered ground below.
Elderly properties have a tendency to smell of lavender and rose water, in my extensive experience of visiting them. In this home, however, the aroma was more of smoke, sweat and sourdough. The walls, only dimly lit by the flickering lights of the candles in the hallway, were nicotine-stained, left undecorated for God knows how many decades, whilst Mr. Albright’s apparently regular habit appeared to simply add layers to the atmosphere of the place.
“Don’ tek your shoes off, you won’ be ‘ere long,” cast Mr. Albright, words over his shoulder like tossing scrunched paper to the floor.
I hummed in an affirmative, choosing not to use my own vocabulary at this point, and continued to follow his lagging, leathered pace across the tiled floor. He drew me, slowly but surely, towards a room at the far end of the house. In it, a kitchen, with all the usual accoutrements, and a small, round dining table, perplexingly solid in the face of the decrepitude elsewhere in the property; on that, a central lace doily supported a large, clear fruit bowl, in which was a small beach of vibrant boiled sweets, each individually wrapped and glistening with all the crystal colours of the rainbow. They refracted the light, streaming in from a laced window above the Belfast, across the table, the otherwise dreary environ broken by the rainbows. The doily, however, was the same oily yellow as the rest of the fabrics adorning the furniture of the place. He scraped a chair from underneath the table, equally as solid as its parent structure, and motioned to me to sit. I did so, accordingly, but with more care removing the chair from beneath the table edge.
“Thank you, Mr. Albright.”
“Welcom, bab. Wan’ a sweet?” He motioned to the bowl; I nodded and selected a purple one, taking a moment to unwrap it and pop it into my mouth. The delicate taste of blackcurrant began to suffuse my sinuses, a filling flavour which, uncommonly for sweets in my experience, tasted unfeasibly like the real thing. Not a memory flavour, a true representation, fresh and real. He allowed me the time to enjoy the moment, with an enigmatic curl of the lip, as I settled into a calm bliss. Then, as the moment faded, the sweet diminished, he nodded, reaching for a packet of cigarettes and nonchalantly lighting one up with a sulphurous match.
“Now, down to business. Mr. Peters suggested that you wanted to revisit your retirement plans?” I laid my briefcase onto the table and clicked the little metal clasps open, revealing the abundance of carefully selected and bound paperwork within. I laid this on the table, each adorned with a perfectly placed note attached which simply read “File: Albright, R.” I also retrieved a bound notebook and an heirloom fountain pen; the book, my favourite, was sourced from a supplier in France and used paper which had been carefully made to adequately absorb the ink from my pen without smudging or blotting – worth its weight in gold to one who writes as much as I do.
“Yers, I do. Y’see, I wan’ to bring all my invessmens to a clowse.”
I dropped the pen, nib down, onto the notebook. Ink, black as the night and equally as playful, splattered everywhere, an exploding star surrounded by the rainbows of the glass bowl.
“Sir, with all due respect – have you considered your ongoing income? Withdrawing all your investments simultaneously won’t provide the best return and, frankly, would run out before you…” Delicately, I continued, “…no longer need them.”
“I ain’t gonna need ‘em in about a week, so best I mek the mos’ of ‘em now, I think.”
I gulped. Losing this account, losing its very sizeable management fee, would not reflect well upon my return to the office. Mr. Albright’s account was, in the face of his current situation, surprising: he held onto a Trust, set up over four hundred years ago, which one of Mr. Peters’ predecessors had brokered for the Albright family, prior to their… downfall. It had kept the many Albrights perpetually fed and watered since, though the current Mr. Albright was the last in the line. It was hinted at, darkly and in the very secret, sequestered shelves of the staff supply cupboard, that he’d only once had the chance to sire an heir – an ex-wife, who’d divorced him prior to having children for reasons unshared with the firm – and, instead, had chosen the life of a recluse. He wasn’t even that old; his file betrayed his real age to only be in his late-sixties, not the ancient, bird-like creature sitting in front of me. I picked up the pen and turned the page, to start afresh.
“Whilst I don’t think it’s wise, our job is to conduct your wishes and to ensure the best return for your investments. Is there any chance you can wait another week before we withdraw the funds from the trust, to give Mr. Peters and I the best chance of maximising them?”
He rolled his eyes, very visibly. “No, chick. Jus’ ge’ the money.”
The remainder of the thirty-minute visit was spent completing the swathes of paperwork required to action his request.
Mr. Peters hadn’t, as I’d expected, chewed me up over the situation. In fact, when I’d returned to the office and, tentatively, given him the melancholy news, he’d been surprisingly sanguine about it. “Don’t let it bother you too much,” he’d said, drawing his office chair up to the edge of his desk – well, as close as he’d been able before his stomach tapped the edge of the desk, a buffer of butter, “DeWitt and I have been expecting the current ‘Not-so-Bright’ to close his family’s account, on the basis that he has nobody to pass it on to. He’s increasingly become reclusive and we’re not sure about his ongoing mental condition either – you’ve seen his home now, you know what I mean.” I nodded in agreement. “Thus, we’ve been planning for his final withdrawal for around twenty years; it’s one of the reasons I didn’t feel it necessary to find the time to attend myself.” He swung around slightly on his high-backed, rouge leather chair, allowing him to look at the light streaming in from the window. Peters’ office was a third floor corner affair, allowing him floor to ceiling windows, which looked out onto the City, bustling with business in the afternoon sun. It lent itself to these moments of introspection; I, too, caught a thought in the moment.
“What did Mrs. Wallace think?”
The crack of his neck whipping around from gazing out of the aforementioned to lock eyes with me was loud enough to awaken a small nesting pair of sparrows on the ledge outside. “I’m sorry?”
Realising how that may have sounded impertinent, I explained further. “You said that you and Mr. DeWitt had thought that Mr. Albright would close his account; if you’ll pardon my asking – what did Mrs. Wallace think?”
“Oh, I see. Wallace was, uncharacteristically, contrarian about it. She thought Albright would, eventually, find some way to maintain the trust, perhaps through gifting it to a third party or by donating the income, in perpetuity, to some charity or foundation. As it is, she was clearly wrong.”
“Yes, sir. Perhaps, if I may…?”
“I’ve worked out the value of his collected assets, so could easily provide him the figures directly. Perhaps I could return and convince Mr. Albright to consider a hybrid solution? Part charitable, part liquidity? That way, we could retain a portion of the account.”
Peters smiled, broadly. “Yes, clever lad; I like it. Even holding on to ten percent of that trust would keep a quarter of the firm in employment forevermore.” He retrieved a large cigar from a box open on his desk and, after pausing momentarily to snip the end and retrieve a box of matches, lit it and drew a mouthful of smoke. “Head back, but proceed carefully – Albright is a prickly old duffer.”
Once again, I ascended the concrete steps and tapped on the door, eschewing the knocker as it appeared damp, oily. I aimed for a spot which appeared to be a little more wood than paint. The lace twitched, as if on cue, and the sound of footsteps once again travelled along the hallway.
The door, once again, opened ajar after a flurry of metalwork removal.
“Worr is i’?”
“Hello again, Mr. Albright; it’s Mr. Finney, from Peters, Wallace and DeWitt.”
“My appoinmen’ ain’t ‘til next Toosdih.”
“No, Mr. Albright, I’m returning from my visit earlier today. About your investments?”
“Where’s Pe’ers? I axed for Pe’ers, not some -“ same motion, same sneer, “- child.”
“No, sir, you asked me to come back, so I have. Also, and with all due respect, I’m twenty-seven years old.”
“Awlroit, awlroit, cuhm in.”
This felt… repetitive. ‘It’s his advancing age,’ I thought, behind false eyes, ‘I would hazard he’s developed a disorder of the mind, as Mr. Peters indicated.’
“Thank you, Mr. Albright. Shall I keep my shoes on again?”
“Absolu’ly not! Tek ‘em off! Didn’ your mother raise you prop’ly?”
After a momentary pause, in order to take in the situation, I quickly removed my boots and placed them, paired, on the porch step. He nodded, gruffly, and we advanced once again to the dining room – during which, I noticed that his brown shoes remained firmly on his feet. As last time, I gave him the opportunity to offer me a seat. The bowl, the crowning glory of the dining table, was no longer present, the doily unadorned by grace; the rainbows had been replaced with the murky shadow of the lace framework on the windowpane, which blocked the diminishing sunlight from flooding the room. Instead, there was a water jug, filled with a translucent orange liquid and a tray of ice, and two glasses, placed on the table upside down at antipodes from one another, a low (but still visible) orange glow on the tabletop. He motioned vaguely to the glasses. “‘elp yuhself, bab.”
“Thank you, Mr. Albright.” I took a glass and decanted some of the liquid into it. I took a sip. Citrus, undefined, but refreshing; I completed the glass and poured myself another; I drank this one more slowly, savouring the flavours – grapefruit, lime, orange, sequentially. He nodded as I did. The afternoon sun was not forgiving; the table was mottled and the room almost cloyingly warm, the squash only taking the edge off the heat. I removed my jacket as I sat down, to allow some respite from this; Mr. Albright watched me do this, his eyebrows descending and a veil slowly casting across his face.
“Shall we begin then, Mr. Albright?”
“Goo ‘n then.” He, too, sat down.
“Your investments, held within the Trust are extensive and diverse. You have at least seven and a half million pounds in shares, currently, in very secure multinational corporations – though this will change based on the market at sale. You also have around nineteen million pounds held in gold and silver, which have solidly appreciated over the years and have been the main contributor to your monthly income. You also have a significant amount locked up in property, which cannot immediately be sold due to almost all having extensive leases, which new buyers are less likely to purchase as going concerns; though, at least two of those are within three months of the end of their tenancy, so we could issue notice, should you wish to proceed.”
A grunt. Aquiescence? Approval? I continued.
“However, sir – I have a proposal. Might you consider retaining the property and part of the commodities with us as an ‘in-perpetuity’ charitable contract? We would continue to manage the portfolio and distribute the profits, after our usual fee, to a number of beneficiaries, all foundations, with legacies in your name.” I smiled the wide, dazzling grin of a man determined to meet someone halfway.
He looked deep into my eyes. “No, chick, I think I’ll be tekkin’ the money. Flog the ‘ouses to the tenants at ‘alf market, give ‘um a year extenshin on the lease to save up, an’ ‘alve the rent too. That’s charity. Flog the rest to the ‘ighest bidda.”
It had taken me a few seconds to realise that my mouth was hanging open, the smile having evaporated at the first instance of the word ‘flog’. “Sir, may I ask – why?”
“Tole you, I ay gonna be ‘ere next week.”
“If I may be so bold – where are you planning to be?”
“Tell you what, sort out me business and come back tomorra with a cashier’s cheque. I’ll tell ya then if you’m so intresstid.”
Thus, for the second day in a row, and for the third time in those two days, I found myself tapping brightly on that ridiculous door once more. Upon the listing for sale of the property, I thought, I should need to engage a decorator in stripping the entire construction back to brick and wood to be brought to a saleable condition.
“Worr is i’?”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Albright; it’s Mr. Finney, from Peters, Wallace and DeWitt.”
“My appoinmen’ ain’t ‘til next Toosdih.” This was getting tiresome.
“Mr. Albright, I’m returning as discussed, from yesterday’s meeting.”
“Where’s Pe’ers? I axed for Pe’ers, not some -“ This sweep felt longer, more intense, as if he were seeing me for the first time; there was an edge to it, razor sharp. The final syllable of his repeated sentence, this time, felt less certain. “- child.”
Breathing, very slowly, I once again reminded Mr. Albright of our prearranged meeting. “I’ve returned with your cashier’s cheque and the paperwork you need to sign, Mr. Albright.”
“Awlroit, awlroit, cuhm in.”
Another shoe removal adventure, another short be-socked trudge to the dining room following on from the man almost vindictively wearing leather brogues indoors, another moment awaiting invitation to sit. The absence of the glass bowl was now joined by an absent doily; instead, the centre of the table contained just a single crimson rose, held upright by the narrow neck of the simple crystal vase in which it was placed. Lipstick red, it almost refracted the light; the desperate sun’s rays forced themselves through the petals of the flower and caused the table to glow a light pink. I looked at it and, as usual and seen from the corner of my eye, he nodded; I lifted the rose from the vase and held it to my nose, inhaling deeply the scent of the flower, at once delicate and effusive, calming and exciting, purposeful and freeing. I felt my frame relax in a way I’d not felt for a long time – my posture rejecting my lifestyle, for a brief moment, absorbed in this wonder of nature. It was like I had never smelt a rose before, experiencing its joy and terror for the first time.
Abruptly, the feeling left me. Suddenly sharply awake, I moved to put the rose back into the vase. As I slid it into the aperture, I felt my finger slide onto a needle-like thorn along the stem. I let go of the thing and looked at my now injured digit; it was bleeding, only slightly, but as vibrant as the rose which had drawn it. Traces of my blood became swirls of colour around the green stem as the rose fell into the water in the vase; endless circles, fractal, a part of me becoming one with the flower in endless variations.
Pressing my finger against my thumb, to stead the wound, I looked up; Mr. Albright had drawn closer, unnoticed, and was staring at my finger. He was standing bolt upright, his head almost at ninety degrees from his shoulders. His breath had become shallow, his voice – when he eventually spoke – was resonant, ageless. All traces of his regional accent were wiped away as if cleansed by bleach. He had dropped his cigarette, still burning, on the granite surface of the kitchen worktop, its smoke forming curls and wisps in the unfathomably still air.
“And to think I was going to put an end to all this; instead, I’ve been graciously gifted your fine form to continue my lineage.” The light outside had diminished to nothing, the guttering candles and the dying cigarette now providing the only light in the house. “My dark Father provides and prevails. Now, child: give me your finger.”
Unresisting, unable to resist, hypnotised by spirits unseen but vividly heard, I reached towards him, the lone digit extended. The spot of blood on the end of my finger glowed in the light. The room trembled, crockery rattling in the cupboards desperate for liberation. The vase on the table seemed to whirlpool within, the rose turning around and around. He reached out, grasping, in slow motion, as if the room had suddenly been stretched wider.
Finally, he clasped my hand in his, squeezing the finger and causing my vitality to emerge further.
Ruby red, the spot of blood was vivid against the candlelight. He drew his face closer to my finger. Closer still. First sniffing the blood, he then pushed out a hungry, dry tongue. Delicately, he tasted it, as if sampling an hors d’oeuvre. His pupils dilated until his eyes became blacker than the vastness of the night.
The veil, the shadow around him, enveloped us.
His face – oh, god, his face – became deep blue, his teeth narrow and pointed, his nose rescinded into slits. His nebulous eyes began to bleed thick black blood, caressing and coating his cheeks. Finally, a shriek emerged from his throat, guttural and cavernous, drawn from the depths of Hell and beyond. I couldn’t move, trapped by forces unknown, married to the seat as one nailed to a cross. He inserted my finger into his open mouth, his tongue sweeping across his desert lips, and closed his now syringe-sharp teeth onto the wound.
Only then did I realise that I was screaming.
It is a terribly bright day here on the hill, surrounded by the daffodils and daisies of the spring. It is uncommonly pleasant, I’m told by weathermen who wave vaguely at moving bars of red and blue. I have brought a hamper with me, containing all that is required for a delightful afternoon with oneself.
He had signed the paperwork, that day, afterwards. Everything had seemed suddenly dreamlike, but I had left the decrepitude knowing I had done my job well. I had felt, with him, a sense of release. Of freedom from something he’d been carrying with him, a sense of something emotionally binding him. I followed his instructions regarding the properties; the administrators at the firm had taken over from that point, and I heard nothing more about the rent reductions and sales.
Interestingly, Mr. Albright had subsequently taken the cashier’s cheques and deposited them with a rival; it was only after his death, a few weeks later, that I discovered he’d done this to avoid conflict of interest questions; he’d bequeathed this new trust to me. In his will, updated the day after I’d last visited, he had written a single line:
‘Mr. Finney, the burden now is yours; live well for as long as it is possible, pass it on before it is not.’
I questioned the rewriting of the will. The executor, appointed by the new firm having been paid handsomely for the privilege of this minor task, had responded with clarity: he had presented as sound of mind, entirely capable of making decisions. His fortune, in the absence of a hereditary heir, would otherwise have passed to nobody, lost to the whims of auditors and accountants; he had been adamant, apparently, that he wanted to leave it to me, conditional on my not withdrawing any capital from the fund for the next fifty years and on having made my own will, lodged with the solicitors holding the trust, before accepting the bequest. Accordingly, I had done so, spending the day signing paperwork with the pen I’d previously asked my own clients to do the same with. It felt liberating to be this side of the table, for once.
It was at the end of this process that they had also informed me that the house – the one remaining property in his possession – was also part of the trust.
I had, the next day, parted ways with Peters, Wallace and DeWitt. Once I had directed the income from the bequest to my own bank accounts, so much in interest that each monthly payment easily outperformed the whole of my previous annual salary, I had decided to take some time to find myself – and, more importantly, to find out what had happened to me. Over the course of months, I’d read a number of books, journals, and newspaper articles; my search for answers, clues, anything which would explain what I’d experienced was to be extensive. There was little except myth, rumour, fiction. Oh, there was the odd hint of a similar tale here; a snippet of hearsay there, but all that I could adequately piece together from this fractal jigsaw was that his family had carried a secret for generations, shrouded in mystery, a darkness passed from heir to heir usually by reproduction, managed and kept in check before it became (and, I quote the fifth Lord Albright – the one who had lost the title for his children by, on a wet April afternoon, being biblical with a royal prince in a room sadly frequented as a hideout by the young and loquacious heir to the throne) ‘troublesome’ by giving to the young, the strong. But, Mr. Albright hadn’t an heir. There had been a tale buried in a family diary of an old uncle in the Victorian era who hadn’t sired children, who’d quietly descended into repetitive madness, absorbed by similarity, rejecting environment, obsessed with bright colour; he’d died after seeing his youngest brother for the last time, a brother who had been mysteriously scarred, both physically and psychologically, by the experience, and who had, ultimately, purchased the house with the yellow door. Consequently, I’d reasonably assumed that Mr. Albright was this century’s mad uncle, and that he’d passed whatever this was to me, bought off by the lifetime income, allowing him to finally go in peace.
Thus, I find myself here, a year from my fortuitous meeting with Mr. Albright, in delicious solitude, my blanket laid with a rose in a vase and a jug of iced citrus squash. It was a Faustian bargain, and not one of my choosing; not one that would have been made at all had Mr. Peters gone to the meeting that day. However, I reflected, it was a bargain I could live with, in significant comfort, for at least fifty more years, especially now I’ve had the property overhauled and brought back to life. The yellow door was now a sunset glow once more, the stained walls had been stripped and repainted a brilliant white, the tiles scrubbed within an inch of their lives, all lace removed and, one assumes, renovated for use in homes which truly desire them.
At some point, I reasoned, I could have a child, tell them the stories when they’re old enough to understand, begin my own family mythos. The Finney lineage shall be one of light, of freedom, of youthfulness.
I shall have to find a surrogate.
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