Belinda sat opposite her lawyer in his highly polished office, bitterly aware she wore down-at-heels shoes and woollen gloves with a hole in the right thumb.
She started to pray.
“As you know,” boomed Mr Godber, drumming podgy fingers, “your dear mother, Mrs Hilda Stubbs, was a very wealthy woman …. She gave generously to worthy Oxford causes all her life.”
Belinda stared down at a frayed button-hole on her coat, hoping it wouldn’t give up the ghost in front of Mr Godber.
“On her very sad death, your dear mother continues to give.” Mr Godber’s dung-brown eyes pierced Belinda’s. He smiled briefly with yellowing teeth. The smell of garlic and peppermint hit the ceiling.
“And to you, her only daughter, goes two hundred and fifty thousand pounds.”
Belinda stood outside Mr Godber’s office, swaying on her feet. She had almost fallen down the stairs in her effort to reach fresh air. The sky’s blueness seemed to be full of birds, swooping, calling: “Mrs Belinda Meadows, you are rich, rich, rich …. Linda Belinda Meadows, you are rich!”
Blinking back tears of joy, she walked unsteadily into Starbucks and collapsed over a bucket of pale froth.
After dear Daddy died when she was seven, after her older twins, both darling boys, had drowned in that ghastly boating accident when she was nine, Belinda discovered she was the most unwanted child in Oxford. Her mother packed her off to boarding school in Hampshire, hardly caring whether she lived or died. They hadn’t spoken in years. The Oxford Times often published a photo of Mrs Hilda Stubbs shaking hands with another Oxford worthy to whose cause she had donated a small fortune.
Darling Daddy made a pile of gold in oil.
Belinda stood up to buy another cup of froth. The button on her coat popped to the floor and rolled merrily away.
At the Westgate Library in Oxford where she worked, Belinda cut into the enormous cake, topped with intricate whorls and multi-coloured sprinkles.
“This is my lucky day,” she told her colleagues in the staff room. They gazed solemnly at her, blobs of chocolate dangling from their lips.
“My dear mother hated my guts because I remained alive while my darling brothers died—”
“Yes, yes, yes?” the eager voices asked. “So?”
“My dear mother has left me a fortune. I can’t begin to tell you how much.”
The blobs of chocolate swallowed down jealous throats.
Back in her tiny cottage in Jericho, Belinda shut the front door and tripped over the cat. She flung her bag on the hall table. It buckled. The frayed lamp lurched sideways, threatening spillage.
Belinda tore off her clothes. She scrunched them into the bin above the tea bags and potato peelings. Then she picked up the cat and started to dance around the sofa. The cat bit her shoulder and leaped through the window.
After her husband’s death three years ago, Belinda continued to lay the supper table for two. She and Frank were never enthusiastic lovers – there had been no children – but they really knew how to talk. Belinda continued the tradition while the cat listened.
“You will have to advise me, darling,” Belinda told the empty chair whose purple cushion Frank always adorably squashed beneath his ample bottom. “You were so careful with money. Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds is absolutely breathtaking. I’m astounded. Flabbergasted.” Belinda sipped a mouthful of Heinz tomato soup. It spattered her dressing-gown in drops of orange rain. “I’m gobsmacked.”
The empty chair smiled back.
“Do you think she might have loved me, after all?”
The purple cushion grinned.
“Shall I tell you what I’ve decided to do?”
The cat yawned. Belinda stared at the inside of his enormous red mouth.
“I’m going to London tomorrow to have one of those makeover thingies. Face, hair, clothes, shoes, bag, the works. And then I’ll give the library proper notice and spend the summer in glorious Tuscany, drinking wine and sitting in the sun.”
The cat stood up. He gave Belinda a hard stare and squashed himself out the flap.
Belinda sat on the train home. Her hair glistened: burnished copper, finished with a curl. Her patent-leather shoes winked in the light. Her sea-green coat swirled around her knees. Beneath it sat a matching knee-length dress, fit for a queen. Her nails glittered like holly berries. Her bag breathed the perfumes of new leather.
Two women sat opposite her, eating tuna sandwiches. Belinda wished she had chosen to travel first class. Old habits died hard. By the time the train had lurched from Paddington to Reading, the stench of fish had slightly diminished and one of the women opened The Oxford Times.
“Good God, that Hilda Stubbs has died.” She flapped the paper at her friend. “I was always her midwife, you know. The third child was a girl.” She lowered her voice. “Hilda told me in the strictest confidence. She never wanted another baby. Her husband had gone off on one of his expeditions. Hilda had an affair with an Oxford architect. The child was his. She even considered having an abortion. Of course, in those days it wasn’t nearly as easy as it is now.”
The woman folded the paper.
“Damned if I can even remember the name of that little girl.”
Belinda sat in her lawyer’s office. Mr Godber gaped at the transformation.
“I’ve decided what to do with the money,” Belinda folded her knees. The patent-leather shoes winked. Her cashmere scarf purred. Her coat swirled.
“I’m going to adopt two very small boys.”
Belinda smiled across at Mr Godber.
“And I’m going to give them all the love in the world.”