Over Her Dead Body by A B Morgan
I'm Not Dead
I reached out for the oval brass knob of the Yale lock, wedging my mobile phone to an ear with my shoulder. In need of repair, opening the front door had become a source of intense frustration, requiring both hands to budge it from the frame. Ordinarily I would have ended the phone call before answering the doorbell, but I was not prepared to lose my place in the queue to the call centre.
‘All of our customer service operatives are currently busy. Please hold and we will deal with your enquiry as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience, Moorline Telephone Banking Services values your custom.’ Once more the message was repeated, followed by a few bars of Vivaldi. After some determined wrenching with my teeth clenched, the door freed itself and opened to reveal two men in ill-fitting suits standing on the doorstep. One had a clipboard clamped to his chest.
‘Yes?’ In no mood for salesmen that morning, I was curt.
The man nearest to me cleared his throat as I scanned him, trying to determine his reason for being there. Polkadot tie worn askew; the top button of his shirt undone to accommodate a fleshy neck. ‘Sorry to disturb you, madam,’ he said, handing me a laminated card, passing it off as a warrant of some kind. ‘The local authority sent us to recoup monies for a funeral.’
He glanced down at his paperwork while I checked over his job title and contact details. Being addressed as ‘madam’ hadn’t gone down well, and only good manners prevented me from closing the door before he could finish his opening remarks. A half-hearted smile was all I could muster as I handed the card back. From what I could gather, he was some sort of debt collector. ‘Gabriella Dixon. Does the name ring any bells?’ he asked.
‘It ought to,’ I replied. ‘But you’ve made a mistake. My mother’s funeral costs were paid in full. I should know, I paid them.’
He looked at his more lightweight, silent colleague and again at the form, then took several steps backwards and checked the house number. ‘This is number six Derwent Drive.’
‘Yes, that’s correct.’
‘Your mother was Gabriella Dixon?’
‘No, I’m Gabriella Dixon. My mother died less than a year ago – she used to live here. I’ve just moved in.’ My neck was aching, so I juggled the phone across to the other shoulder, still holding onto the edge of the door and speaking around it. ‘It’s a long story. Now what do you want?’
I wasn’t normally this impatient, but the morning hadn’t been going well and their intrusion was preventing me from dealing with more pressing matters. My ears vied for attention, caught between The Four Seasons in one ear and a council debt collector telling me some claptrap about an outstanding bill on the other. ‘I’m desperate to speak to my bank, so can you come back another time?’
When he showed no sign of retreating, I looked at the ID badge slung on a lanyard around the man’s neck, checking it corresponded with what I’d read on his so-called business card. ‘Paul, is it?’ He nodded, staring at me with a frown. Then he started running his chubby index finger across lines of typed information on the clipboard. His sidekick, whose name I hadn’t bothered to find out, craned his neck to see the form and provide back-up for a bewildered colleague.
‘Well, Paul, whoever sent you can be reassured there’s no money owed in respect of my mother’s funeral. I paid the bill at Castle and Wyckes in full and on time, just as she had instructed me to. I paid everyone, even the dreadful caterers. My mother’s name was Eileen Brady, and she’s buried at St Ninian’s. Got that? Want me to sign anything?’
Paul’s eyes widened, and he handed me the sheet he’d been referring to. Reading it, I grinned as the truth dawned. ‘Oh dear, someone’s got their wires crossed. I should trot back to the office if I were you.’ Perhaps it wasn’t the most suitable reaction, but I laughed. ‘Whatever your piece of paper says, it’s wrong. I can’t be dead, because I’m here talking to you right now and I’d know if I’d popped my clogs.’ With a condescending nod of myhead, I handed the paperwork back to Paul, who stood pulling at the knot of his dreary tie. ‘A simple case of mistaken identity, I would say.’ Smiling thinly, I closed the door and made my way back to the lounge. ‘Dead
When a human voice unexpectedly cut into the loop of music and recorded announcement, it broke through into my amusing thoughts about who had attended my funeral and wondering what I’d died of; I was still tittering.
‘My name is Yasmina. Before I deal with your request, can I take your name and the first line of your address, please?’
Moorline Bank, at last.
‘And the first and third digits of your PIN.’ There was a considerable delay before Yasmina at the call centre spoke again. ‘Can I ask the nature of your enquiry?’
I was still very embarrassed after having a debit card payment declined by the local garage the day before, and further irritated that the card had been swallowed by the ATM on the forecourt. By chance, I’d had a credit card from another provider to use, saving me from total ignominy. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. No matter how confidently I’d tried to brush it off as a bank error, the cashier at the garage had continued to stare at me as if I were attempting to commit a heinous crime.
Consequently, I was short with the girl on the phone. ‘Simply put, Yasmina, I can’t access the money in my account, and my online banking isn’t working for some reason.’
‘Can you please confirm your identity for me again, caller?’
This time I distinctly heard a note of misgiving in her polite tone. ‘Why are you asking me these questions again?’
I queried, but as I uttered the words I panicked. Had I dialled a scammer by mistake? I quickly held the phone in front of me so I could check the call display on the screen, only to find the usual number; the one logged into my phone, the one I always used. Whether the chipper-voiced Yasmina was being obstructive or overzealous, I wasn’t sure, but since she was putting questions to me twice I suspected something was awry. ‘Look, I’ve told you my name, address, and my mother’s maiden name. I know my PIN, and I’d like you to tell me why I’m unable to access my bank account online, or anywhere else for that matter. Can you sort this out?’ With concerns beginning to creep up on me, my throat closed off, resulting in a squeak at the end of my plea.
As it turned out, Yasmina couldn’t help me. ‘Caller, I’m required to inform you that you do not have permission to access any account in the name Gabriella Louise Dixon. We have suspended these accounts.’
I scraped back my hair with one hand and held my astonishment in check at such an outrageous statement. ‘Suspended? Do you mean they’re frozen? On whose say so? These are my accounts and I need to access them.’ Flabbergasted wasn’t the word. Incredulous barely covered it. ‘Can I speak to your supervisor, please? There’s been a mistake. I start a new job soon, I have a mortgage to pay any moment now, and I need a functioning bank account.’ It was becoming harder for me to remain composed.
Again, there was a delay before the response from Yasmina, but this time there was no getting away from the truth. ‘Caller, the bank has received notification that the holder of these accounts is deceased. Therefore, I suspect you of trying to access money to which you are not entitled, and I must pass on your contact details to the police.’ Sweet Yasmina appeared to be reading from a script. She ended the call by informing me that if I wanted to take the matter further, I must make an appointment at my local branch to provide valid ID.
‘Don’t you worry, I bloody well will!’ I shrieked. Cheeky little madam, who was she to be accusing me of trying to steal my own money?
Side-stepping an empty tea chest, I sank into the musty upholstery of my parents’ ancient sofa. A vacant expression on my face, I stared at a faded family photograph. ‘Whatever
I cross-checked the time on the old wall clock with my watch. ‘Shit.’ The last hour had flown by, and like it or not, I would now be late for an important meeting. The late Gabriella Dixon.
I ran the last few yards from the car park, and spotted Laura, all piercings and cheesecloth, waiting for me outside the office building. Coils of blue-green batik held a dark mass of undulating Medusa dreadlocks away from her face. She no doubt considered it a stylish look, when in fact she resembled a grubby market stallholder selling incense sticks and hubble-bubble pipes. My sister hadn’t the slightest sense of occasion, turning up looking like this. Poor dress sense aside, it delighted me to see that neither of her children was in tow. The last appointment had been an awkward demonstration of how not to conduct business affairs, when one bawling baby and a stroppy toddler took precedence over the legalities.
In shabby espadrilles, Laura beckoned for me to hurry while hopping from foot to foot. ‘Where’ve you been?’ she asked. ‘I was panicking when I couldn’t get hold of you. Try switching your phone on.’
‘Sorry, I got held up. Some monstrous blunder at the bank. I’ll explain once we’re inside.’ Time and breath were in short supply.
‘You made it. That’s the main thing,’ Laura said, giving me the once over. ‘I see you left the house in a hurry. Perhaps we should have waited for you to settle in. You look frazzled.’
I caught sight of my reflection in the nearest window and set about tidying myself up. ‘Frazzled and then some,’ I said, as I tucked the tail of my white blouse into the waistband of a pair of tailored trousers. It had been a poor decision to wear linen trousers, which were now more crumpled than the matching jacket. Much to my annoyance, I hadn’t had time to reassemble the impressive bun on top of my head before stepping out of the car. The wind had taken its toll, and as I marched towards the glass entrance doors of Bagshot and Laker’s solicitors, more wild wisps freed themselves. I must have looked frightful for Laura to pass comment.
Our appointment was with Bernard Kershaw, a little full of himself in the typical public-school manner, a partner in the firm and as dull as he was thorough – I rather liked him. As we stepped inside the front office, Mrs Fiona McFarland, his secretary, ushered us straight through.
‘I think we’ve made it in the nick of time,’ I said to him, one hand outstretched in greeting.
‘Five minutes late actually,’ Bernard Kershaw replied, as he shook hands with polite words of welcome and then did the same to Laura. We took our seats opposite his desk. Without conferring, I sat to Laura’s left as I did each time we saw our solicitor. ‘Right, down to business,’ he said. ‘Time is money. Yours not mine.’ He was short on charm and this was as near to humour as he ever came in our presence. ‘Both your wills have been drawn up as we discussed at your last appointment.’
He handed over copies for inspection. ‘Read them through and then I’ll ask Fiona to witness them unless you have any objections,’ he said, nodding his rounded balding head. ‘Then we shall proceed with the last remaining issues regarding your mother’s estate.’
Unable to resist, I smiled across at my scruffy sister as we silently shared a private joke. It was Laura’s fault for referring to Bernard Kershaw’s secretary as “Fiona McFatarse”. And all because the woman wore her Scottishness with pride in the form of tartan skirts, with her centre of gravity set low and wide. Fiona didn’t really deserve the unflattering epithet, and I reminded myself of this as I
pulled my face straight again.
Today I was to pay Laura half the value of our mother’s house in exchange for sole possession of it. It was part of a fresh start after Mum’s death. With an unpleasant and damaging divorce recently behind me, I’d returned to Bosworth Bishops with a plan to renovate the old family home, such as it was. The property itself, although tired and dated, was a decent-sized Edwardian semi with a massive garden suitable for development. By using the proceeds of my divorce settlement, I only required a small mortgage to manage the building costs and would eventually bag a handsome profit. It was time to draw a line under a spectacularly stressful year, and I looked forward to completing the final legal requirements and embarking on my new life.
Laura and I were the joint and equal beneficiaries of our mother’s will. Except for the dispersal of a few personal items, and a bequest to my best friend Stella, who spent most of her teenage years at our house, our mother’s instructions were simple enough.
Bernard Kershaw looked from me to my sister. ‘On release of the agreed funds to you, Laura, we will request the Land Registry to reassign the deeds to Gabriella. Then the terms of your mother’s will are met to my satisfaction.’ He shuffled some papers. ‘I sent a directive to the bank for release of funds as per the completion documents, but as yet no monies have arrived.’ Bernard seemed unperturbed by this. I wasn’t so calm.
‘Oh, dear,’ I said with a gulp, realising what could have caused the hold-up. ‘I was afraid this might happen.’
‘No need to panic, this isn’t unusual. Mortgage lenders can be a little reluctant on occasion.’ The unflappable solicitor tapped his pen on the desk and put a cross against an item on a list. ‘I’ll chase them up.’
Engrossed in reading her last will and testament, Laura visibly perked up at the mention of the money. I knew why, and if I was in her position, I too would be thrilled at the prospect. The windfall would free her from the burden of debt, leaving her, husband Curtis and their two young children in enviable circumstances. ‘Don’t worry, Gabby. I know you’re good for it,’ she said to me with a ready smile. Her local accent made her sound like a yokel in contrast to Mr Kershaw’s cut glass English.
Leaning towards him, I tried to clarify the situation. ‘I wanted to check my account this morning but the app on my phone didn’t let me in, so I called the bank to make sure the funds were either there or with you, Mr Kershaw.’
‘You can’t control everything in life, Gabby,’ Laura said, throwing me a wry smirk. ‘Mr Kershaw knows what he’s doing.’
Fidgeting with my hands, I continued, ‘This is serious, Laura. Please let me finish.’ Even to my own ears I sounded more of a stroppy headmistress than usual. My sister always had that effect on me. ‘There’s been an error at the bank. There’s some confusion about Mum’s death and I can’t access my account because they’ve been notified that I’m the one who’s died.’ I wasn’t expressing myself very well and shook my head to clear my sluggish, sleep-deprived mind. ‘I’ll make an appointment with them to get the mess sorted out.’
When I looked up, Mr Kershaw wore the same impassive expression he had moments ago, but Laura was staring at me with open amusement. ‘That’s hilarious!’ she said, confining a guffaw to a snort of laughter. ‘You don’t look dead to me. Shall I come with you to the bank in case they need proof you are who you say you are?’
Seeing the funny side, I managed a smile in return. ‘I may well take you up on that. The way my life is going, I need all the help I can get.’
‘There’s irony for you,’ Laura said. ‘It’s normally the rest of the world asking for your advice.’ Slumped in her seat, she shimmied both eyebrows and flicked wayward dreadlocks back over her shoulders. ‘At least it explains the weird text I had from Phil at the weekend.’
It shocked me to learn that my ex-husband, who refused to speak to me these days, had been in touch with my flibbertigibbet of a sister. ‘What? Why did he contact you?’
There was a playful twinkle in Laura’s eyes. ‘The text said he was sorry to hear the sad news and hop d I was doing all right in the circumstances.’ She shrugged and gurgled, ‘I thought he’d sent a message to the wrong number, but I guess he must have heard about your
Bernard Kershaw interrupted. ‘Ahem… ladies, I suggest we make another appointment to finalise the matter of the house when we are able. In the meantime, are your wills in order?’
I didn’t hesitate. ‘Fine. A straightforward change of executor in my case. Now that I’m back living in Bosworth, it’s much easier if you undertake all my legal matters, Mr Kershaw. Nothing has changed since I wrote my most recent will: Laura and Stella still get the whole shebang between them. I hope you spend it wisely, Laura.’ I reached out and squeezed her shoulder. ‘Apart from keeping the bloody taxman happy – who’ll do you for death duties, inheritance tax and anything else they can dream up – and paying Mr Kershaw and his partners their well-earned cut, you’ll be rich.’
‘Stella? Why are you leaving half to her when she’s got enough money already?’ Laura said. ‘And what if she dies before you? More importantly, what if I die first?’ she asked, sounding genuinely pained at the thought of having to share; a trait obvious in her from childhood.
‘Stella is my best friend, and I’ll leave her whatever I like, thank you very much. If you die before me, then Leo and Alice will reap the rewards. Anyway, that’s not very likely.’
Laura was much younger than me. I’d left for university when my sister was four years old. It was my one and only escape route. After that I rarely trekked back to Derwent Drive, and when I did it was out of guilt. I only returned for Christmas dinner, special birthdays, or a flying visit at Easter. I’m sure Mum and Dad assumed I’d be an only child, so when Laura appeared, in the year my father turned fifty-eight, life for all of us had been turned upside down and had to be reshaped to account for her existence. The months leading up to and following her birth were the most disrupted of my life until this dreadful year.
A series of unwelcome events had conspired to drag me back to number six Derwent Drive, Bosworth Bishops; somewhere I thought I’d never return to. Perhaps I never should have.