Friday, May 12, 2006

Last Will and Testament

I don’t suppose you’ve ever called unexpectedly at Albert Harness’s house in the Old Town, maybe trying to flog him some dusters, or on the Lord’s business, or, heaven forbid, in connection with Aunt Fanny's will. No, if you're reading this, probably not. But if you had, it almost certainly would have occurred to you at some point during your visit that his is a truly exquisite residence of quite perfect proportion and timeless, understated elegance; and it’s quite likely you would have experienced an acute attack of envy, perhaps accompanied by an uncharitable sense of resentment, and you might have felt an overpowering desire at that point to sit down on the nearest chair, drink a glass of water, take several deep breaths and put your head between your knees for a minute or two; and pretty soon, if not before, you would have taken to wondering, becoming disoriented and possibly on the verge of something resembling panic, what a place like Albert’s must be worth; and if, like the majority of your fellow countrymen, you were well versed in the ubiquitous dinner-party topic of residential property prices, you might have felt able to hazard a guess as to its current market value and, having done so, you would have reeled in astonishment as you asked yourself, dizzy by now and sweating profusely, how on earth a humble ambulanceman could possibly afford such a beautiful house, the likes of which the likes of you could only ever dream of owning; and then quite probably, as the room started spinning and your vision blurred, you would have passed out and fallen to the floor.

Albert, it has to be said, harbours a marked aversion to strangers calling uninvited at his home of an evening, particularly those selling household cleaning products, or peddling religious mumbo-jumbo, or, worst of all, questioning his right to inherit, and he has long displayed an incorrigible tendency to poison them all. Unerringly the gentleman, though, he’ll invite you in, exuding his characteristic smiling charm and offer you some form of liquid refreshment, which you’ll be more than happy to accept, certain you’ll be closing a deal pretty soon, possibly on a set of overpriced tea towels and a six-pack of pan scourers, or, then again, on the very deeds to his immortal soul and a tenth of his income for life, or perhaps on Aunt Margaret's little cottage by the river, the one you've always had your eye on; and no doubt you’ll be feeling rather smug because you think you are about to get the better of him, and you’ll look around at his beautiful house, wondering what it’s worth, and the next thing you'll know will be waking up in a cellar with your hands and feet tightly bound, a filthy rag stuffed in your mouth and a less than charming Albert Harness standing over you with something shiny in his hand.

The fact of the matter is that Albert did not purchase his house at all but was bequeathed it some years ago, so legend has it, by an elderly woman of his acquaintance whom he had come to know closely through his work on the ambulances. His numerous other properties, half a dozen or so of which are scattered around the parish plus a bungalow in Frinton-on-Sea and a chateau with seventy acres in the Dordogne, came into his possession in more or less identical circumstances. I realise this may give the impression that Albert has a way with ladies of a certain vintage and possibly nurses an unusual predilection for girls with papery skin and removable teeth; and while I have no wish to vouchsafe to the general public any glimpses into the darker corners of any of my colleagues’ inner selves, well, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

“As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” preaches the Reverend Harness, who views his many handsome bequests not so much as mere good fortune, nor as the happy outcome of a bit of playful flattery (and who knows what other gruesome ministrations besides?), but rather as a kind of harvest, a gathering-in of a plenteous bounty, the reward of careful husbandry and sensible long-term planning. Or, to put it bluntly, a systematic campaign of forgery and fraud stretching back nigh on thirty years.

He told me once that the idea was born shortly after he started on the ambulances when a regular patient asked if he and his crewmate would be so kind as to witness a signature on a legal document, it being the self-written last will and testament of one Horatio Halliburton, an elderly and one-legged diabetic of the parish for whom the end, sadly, was hoving into view. Unerringly the gentleman, Albert naturally obliged, as did Sid Dressing, who had the pleasure back then of playing the old master to Albert’s young apprentice, and the matter, it seemed, was closed. But a seed had been sown in the rich soil of Albert’s venal mind and I can picture him now as a smooth-cheeked youth, stroking his beardless chin, his eyes narrowing and a smile playing about his lips as the full implications and possibilities of the situation began to shoot up and grow, to prosper and ripen to fruition in the fertile meadow of his iniquitous imagination.

Within a matter of days he had lodged his first will with the Probate Office, that of a Miss Maud Endecott, and he has continued to do so throughout his long and illustrious career as an ambulanceman whenever the right opportunity has presented itself. The elderly spinster, he advises, tends to be most dependable in the generous bestowal of assets because, having no children and usually having outlived her male siblings, there is less likelihood of a disappointed family contesting the will through the courts, though Albert tells me that disgruntled nephews and nieces will occasionally surface with a view to being meddlesome and obstructive. And if you can imagine the impertinence of some people, he's even had one or two calling at his house without an appointment.

If a case should ever reach the unfortunate stage of being brought before a court of law, he will simply explain to the presiding practitioner of jurisprudence, perhaps managing to summon a tear to his eye, that he and the dearly departed had formed a deep and abiding friendship after becoming acquainted through his work for the ambulance service – and here he will pause to allow the assembled parties a few moments to reflect upon the sordid implications of such a relationship – and she, wishing to repay Albert’s fond affection and many hours of close and exclusive attention, bequeathed him her house, her fortune and several thousand shares in the Clapham Dog Biscuit Company. As long as the document has been signed and witnessed correctly, there is little more to be said.

But, warns Albert, your witnesses must be unwavering throughout, as steady as the hand of a neuro surgeon in the face of hostile questioning from highly-paid and artful advocates.

Like all ambulancemen, I have witnessed more than a few signatures in my time and indeed have often played the role of executor and sole beneficiary as well. The fact of it is, for this last will and testament malarkey you need a minimum of three players, and our good friends Stan Tablets and Bert Klaxon have always proved most steadfast in their commitment to the redistribution of wealth, which we in the trade like to think of as just another perk of the ambulance game; a well-deserved gratuity, if you like, from a grateful punter.

Well, you can’t take it with you, can you?