‘Lawrence, how lovely to see you after all these years.’
Enveloped in a hug from the bearlike American who stepped off the train at New Street Station, Anne found herself filling up. Not given to displays of emotion, she gulped, swallowed and blew her nose. Her first family contact in thirty years was, surprisingly, not strange at all. When last she had seen Lawrence he had been a lanky 21-year-old, off to study post-graduate law at Harvard. But the fact that he had chosen to stay in the States had somehow not altered the rapport that Anne had enjoyed with him as a child. This giant of a man was no stranger. It felt as though her nephew had always been there. His infrequent letters had kept her up to date with his career, his love-life, marriage and the progress of the great-niece and nephew she had never seen. The only strange thing was his size. Have I shrunk or has he grown? I suppose a bit of both, but his bulk is astonishing. How is he going to squeeze into my little flat?
‘Well Lawrence, I suppose the first thing to do is get you settled into your hotel. The Strathallan is not far from my home, you won’t need a car. I’m just sorry that I can’t put you up in Francis Road, but there’s hardly room to swing a cat, let alone a healthy young man.’
‘Hardly a young man Auntie, I had my 50th birthday last year, remember.’
‘To me that’s young – I can remember you in nappies’ riposted Anne. ‘But if you’re that old, couldn’t you bring yourself to call me Anne after all these years?’
‘I don’t know about that, but I’ll give it a go, Anne.’
Lawrence and Anne shuffled forward in the Taxi queue. For once Anne had been persuaded to forsake the habits of a lifetime and forego her habitual bus ride. ‘Gee Anne, this place has changed. I remember a load of slab-sided ugly blocks of offices and flats. And the surviving Victorian stuff was all black and depressing. You’ve certainly got yourselves some great architects here,’ as they passed the fantastical Selfridges building. ‘Isn’t that the ghastly Central Library just there?’ as they rounded Colmore Circus, with its modern hotels. ‘It’s so ugly it’s worth preserving as an awful warning.’
‘Yes, that’s as maybe’ cut in Anne a trifle acidly. ‘But it’s nigh on impossible to get to with all those filthy graffiti tunnels full of drunks and weirdos and when you get near it the wind vortex nearly carries you away, not to mention swirling disgusting rubbish round your feet. And when you finally get inside it’s about as welcoming as a morgue. No dear. My vote is for a new one.’
The taxi started the crawl down Broad Street past the spectacular sculpture, convention centre and the Rep Theatre. ‘Why, Aunt…Anne, the traffic’s nearly as bad as home in Boston.’
‘This is nothing, dear. You should see it at half past eight in the morning. Nothing moves and the noise and smell are awful. I always feel so sorry for those folk who have to get to work on time, but really they’d be quicker walking.’
Once he had checked into his hotel, Lawrence insisted on taking another taxi to Francis Road. ‘You must be tired Aunt… sorry …Anne. Gee this is difficult.’
‘Not at all, we’re not like the Americans who I understand never put foot to pavement. I’m used to walking, even though it’s getting rather painful nowadays. I’m waiting for a new hip, and it’s been a long time.’
‘But why on earth are you waiting? Don’t they have hospitals here any more?’
‘Yes, dear.’ Anne was surprised. ‘Of course they do, but you have to wait your turn.’
‘But Aunt … Anne. You could practically buy your own hospital now. Why don’t you – what’s it called here? – go private?’
‘Would that be quite fair, Lawrence? I wouldn’t want anyone else to have to wait longer than they should because of me.’ These young people – they think that money solves everything.
‘My dear, I’m sure that they have private hospitals. You could have it fixed and your eyes as well.’
‘What about my eyes?’
‘Well, your eyes aren’t the clear blue sparklers that I remember – isn’t it true that you’ve got cataracts?’ Blunt and to the point. Lawrence was always like that as a boy. ‘That’s as may be. But the oculist told me I’d have to wait until they were fully developed, and I don’t think they are yet – I can still watch the television and read the large-print books, even though I must admit I’ve had to stop doing any sewing or crocheting.’
‘And that’s a load of hooey. Nowadays they can do most things if you’re prepared to pay. Oh well, we’ll sort that one out too before I go back Stateside.’
Anne subsided into the comforting feeling of being looked after, protected. She hadn’t felt like this since her father had died when she was in her twenties. It’s like coming up against a steamroller, or trying to stop the tide coming in. I feel like a pawn in a giant chess game. What’s he going to say when he sees my flat?
That was quite a question. While Anne paid off the taxi, smiling to herself as she gave him a pound coin as a tip, Lawrence gazed up in astonishment at the sunlit row of elegant but run down offices. ‘But this is where you were living when I left thirty years ago. I could have sworn you had moved into an apartment.’
‘Well, dear, I did. I couldn’t afford to keep up the whole house in the seventies and a kind man – I think he was some sort of property agent – no, developer, that’s what he was called – he took over the lease, and agreed that I could stay in the little flat at the top for as long as I wanted to, while he rented out the rest for offices. I didn’t understand all the ins and outs, but the solicitor explained that my rent would be reduced to a quarter of what it had been, and that the property man would be responsible for upkeep and maintenance.
‘It didn’t quite work out like that, as you’ll see. Nothing has been done here for years, and Maggie, the secretary downstairs, told me this morning that the rest of the tenants have received notice to quit, as the terrace is to be knocked down and a tower office block will be built here instead. I’m not really surprised – this near to the city centre and with all the businesses around the Convention Centre, the prices they can ask are beyond belief, but it would be a horrible shame – there’s not much left of this elegant Georgian architecture in the whole of the city.’
‘But they can’t do that!’ Lawrence butted in. ‘If you have a tenancy for life, they’ll have to wait until you die or decide to move. I’m so glad you asked me to come over. You’re going to need a good lawyer, and that’s what I am!’
‘I think, dear, that once all the business tenants go, my flat is going to become a pretty nasty place to live in. I may have to go then.’
‘We’ll see about that’ said Lawrence, and once again Anne felt the comfort of this large male presence, as they made their way up the uncarpeted stairs.
Once inside, Lawrence gazed in amazement at the quantity of 1930s style brown furniture, a bit battered, but still solid and functional. The fact that the many horizontal surfaces – and some vertical ones as well – were covered with crocheted mats, knick-knacks and cheap souvenirs further restricted the free floor space. Tentatively he threaded his way round various purposeless bits of furniture to lower his bulk cautiously onto a none-too-comfortable upright chair.
Anne stepped into the kitchenette to boil the kettle, then carried through to the living room a tray set with a crocheted tray cloth, two fine china cups and cream jug plus an ancient teapot, battered but still recognisably solid silver.
‘This is great, Aunt… Anne. Just what I’ve missed all my life – a bit of what your mother used to call Gracious Living. Now then, we have to get down to business or I shall forget what I’ve come for. What have you done so far with your winnings?’
‘Well, dear, I knew you were coming to help me, so I just put the cheque in my account at the bank round the corner. I’ve got a plastic card now, so I don’t have to go there every time I need a bit of cash. I can use one of those money machines outside Tesco – he showed me how to do it. I’ve got something called a pin, which I have to remember and not write down in case someone else finds it.’
‘Yes, well, that’s a start, but you can’t leave all that money in a current account. It needs to earn its keep!’
‘I don’t want anything to do with stocks and shares and things. I wouldn’t know what I was getting and you keep hearing of stock market slumps and things. It would be a pity to lose it all – I’ve never had more than a hundred pounds in the bank in all my life. And besides, there are things I want to do with some of it. I was able to help that nice man in the supermarket to pay off his wife’s debts and get rid of some awful loan shark people who wanted to beat him up.’
Lawrence groaned. What had his Aunt been up to? She was an innocent abroad.
‘It’s no good you looking like that dear, I’ve made up my mind. I want to help people. There are so many stories you wouldn’t believe. Oh I’m not going to give away huge sums to charities, where it gets swallowed up in salaries and silly unwanted gifts they send you to get you to part with your money.
No, I want to be able to help real people in trouble – like that girl at the checkout yesterday. She had a crying baby in a sling across her front and a screaming toddler in the seat of her trolley and when she got to the till she didn’t have enough money to pay the bill. Imagine how you would feel. How could she even think straight with that row going on round her? So I just paid the bill for her. It was only twelve pounds and fifty-eight pence. She was so grateful. She cried. And I realised that she was absolutely desperate – on the edge of cracking up. So I took them into the café for a cup of tea, and we had such a lovely chat. Her husband – well she called him her partner, but I hate that word – had gone up North in search of a job, and hadn’t been able to send any money yet. She was such a pleasant girl, but a bit hopeless and helpless, if you know what I mean.’ Lawrence hid a smile at this.
‘Once the baby had her bottle and the toddler was playing with a toasted tea cake, they settled down to become the sweetest babies.’
‘Right Aun …Anne, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. First you need to protect your money from thieves and greedy fortune hunters, and you need to protect yourself. I will have to find out about this lease business – I remember that company was pretty important around here. Don’t I recall that they owned just about the whole area at one time?’
‘Very much so – they’re the ones re-developing all the land around Five Ways. They haven’t got to us yet, but it’s only a matter of time. It’s lucky in one sense that we’re the wrong side of the Hagley Road – I suppose you’d call it the wrong side of the tracks.’
‘Well, you may not want to get involved with stocks and shares, but bricks and mortar are probably the best investment of all. We’ll have to see what we can do to protect this terrace. Original features and fancy plaster work won’t cut any ice with developers, if I know the breed ‘ said Lawrence. ‘I’ll make an appointment to see the owners of the freehold, and see what I can find out.’
‘Now, Anne, about that hip and your eyes. Do you know if there’s a good private hospital with top-notch surgeons hereabouts?’
‘Of course there is dear – that would be The Priory. But it’s frightfully expensive and I – ‘
‘Anne, you’re well able to pay, whatever the price. I’ll see about getting you an appointment to see a consultant there.’
‘And while you’re about it, Lawrence dear, there’s a girl I know who badly needs her varicose veins seeing to. She works as a shelf-stacker and spends all day on her feet. She’s been waiting far too long already. If I can pay for me, surely I could pay for her as well, and it would make such a difference to her life.’
Lawrence heaved a gusty sigh. ‘If you insist. But you can’t go helping all the halt and the lame of Birmingham – you’d have all the scroungers and ne’er-do-wells round your neck for ever more.’
‘Just you try me. We’ll see about that!’ It’s about time that nephew of mine realised that I’m no pushover, for all I’m pushing 80 and a bit unsteady on my pins. I’m nobody’s rag doll. Except I seem to be letting Lawrence push me around – I even invited him to. But he’s family. Practically all the family I have, and it would be such a relief to be able to see properly again, and walk straight without this horrid nagging pain. And if we could save these lovely old buildings as well….