Read A Town Like Alice Online

Authors: Nevil Shute

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #General Interest

A Town Like Alice (2 page)

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His wife said, "Surely, the sister died, didn't she? Don't you remember him telling us, sometime towards the end of the war?"

"Well, I don't know," he said. "So much was happening about that time. Maybe she did die."

Relations or not, arrangements had to be made for the funeral, and I made them that afternoon. When that was done I settled down to look through the papers in his desk. One or two of the figures in an account book and on the back of the counterfoils of his cheque book made me open my eyes; clearly I should have to have a talk with the bank manager first thing next morning. I found a letter from his sister dated in 1941 about the lease of her house. It threw no light, of course, upon her death, if she was dead, but it did reveal significant news about the children. Both of them were in Malaya at that time.

The boy Donald, who must have been twenty-three years old at that time, was working on a rubber plantation near Kuala Selangor. His sister Jean had gone out to him in the winter of 1939, and was working in an office in Kuala Lumpur.

At about five o'clock I put in a trunk call to my office in London, standing in the cramped box of the hotel, and spoke to my partner. "Look, Lester," I said. "I told you that there was some difficulty about the relations. I am completely at a loss up here, I'm sorry to say. Provisionally, I have arranged the funeral for the day after tomorrow, at two o'clock, at St Enoch's cemetery. The only relations that I know of live, or used to live, in Southampton. The sister, Mrs Arthur Paget, was living in 1941 at No 17 St Ronans Road, Bassett-that's just by Southampton somewhere. There were some other Paget relations in the district, the parents of Arthur Paget. Mrs Arthur Paget-her Christian name was Jean-yes, she was the deceased's sister. She had two children, Donald and Jean Paget, but they were both in Malaya in 1941. God knows what became of them. I wouldn't waste much time just now looking for them, but would you get Harris to do what he can to find some of these Southampton Pagets and tell them about the funeral? He'd better take the telephone book and talk to all the Pagets in Southampton one by one. I don't suppose there are so very many."

Lester came on the telephone to me next morning just after I got back from the bank. "I've nothing very definite, I'm afraid, Noel," he said. "I did discover one thing. Mrs Paget died in 1942, so she's out of it. She died of pneumonia through going out to the air raid shelter-Harris got that from the hospital. About the other Pagets, there are seven in the telephone directory and we've rung them all up, and they're none of them anything to do with your family. But one of them, Mrs Eustace Paget, thinks the family you're looking for are the Edward Pagets, and that they moved to North Wales after the first Southampton blitz."

"Any idea whereabouts in North Wales?" I asked.

"Not a clue," he said. "I think the only thing that you can do now is to proceed with the funeral."

"I think it is," I replied. "But tell Harris to go on all the same, because apart from the funeral we've got to find the heirs. I've just been to the bank, and there is quite a sizeable estate. We're the trustees, you know."

I spent the rest of that day packing up all personal belongings, and letters, and papers, to take down to my office. Furniture at that time was in short supply, and I arranged to store the furniture of the two rooms, since that might be wanted by the heirs. I gave the clothes to Mr Doyle to give away to needy people in Ayr. Only two of the budgerigars were left; I gave those to the Doyles, who seemed to be attached to them. Next morning I had another interview with the bank manager and telephoned to book my sleeper on the night mail down to London. And in the afternoon we buried Douglas Macfadden.

It was very cold and bleak and grey in the cemetery, that January afternoon. The only mourners were the Doyles, father, mother, and daughter, and myself, and I remember thinking that it was queer how little any of us knew about the man that we were burying. I had a great respect for the Doyle family by that time. They had been overwhelmed when I told them of the small legacy that Mr Macfadden had left them and at first they were genuinely unwilling to take it; they said that they had been well paid for his two rooms and board for many years, and anything else that they had done for him had been because they liked him. It was something, on that bitter January afternoon beside the grave, to feel that he had friends at the last ceremonies.

So that was the end of it, and I drove back with the Doyles and had tea with them in their sitting-room beside the kitchen. And after tea I left for Glasgow and the night train down to London, taking with me two suitcases of papers and small personal effects to be examined at my leisure if the tracing of the heir proved to be troublesome, and later to be handed over as a part of the inheritance.

In fact, we found the heir without much difficulty. Young Harris got a line on it within a week, and presently we got a letter from a Miss Agatha Paget, who was the headmistress of girls' school in Colwyn Bay. She was a sister of Arthur Paget, who had been killed in the motor accident in Malaya.

She confirmed that his wife, Jean, had died in Southampton in the year 1942, and she added the fresh information that the son, Donald, was also dead. He had been a prisoner of war in Malaya, and had died in captivity. Her niece, Jean, however, was alive and in the London district. The headmistress did not know her home address because she lived in rooms and had changed them once or twice, so she usually wrote to her addressing her letters to her firm. She was employed in the office of a concern called Pack and Levy Ltd. whose address was The Hyde, Perivale, London, NW.

I got this letter in the morning mail; I ran through the others and cleared them out of the way, and then picked up this one and read it again. Then I got my secretary to bring me the Macfadden box and I read the will through again, and went through some other papers and my notes on the estate. Finally I reached out for the telephone directory and looked up Pack and Levy Ltd. to find out what they did.

Presently I got up from my desk and stood for a time looking out of the window at the bleak, grey, January London street. I like to think a bit before taking any precipitate action. Then I turned and went through into Robinson's office; he was dictating, and I stood warming myself at his fire till he had finished and the girl had left the room.

"I've got that Macfadden heir," I said. "I'll tell Harris."

"All right," he replied. "You've found the son?"

"No," I said. "I've found the daughter. The son's dead."

He laughed. "Bad luck. That means we're trustees for the estate until she's thirty-five, doesn't it?"

I nodded.

"How old is she now?"

I calculated for a minute. "Twenty-six or twenty-seven.

"Old enough to make a packet of trouble for us."

"I know."

"Where is she? What's she doing?"

"She's employed as a clerk or typist with a firm of handbag manufacturers in Perivale," I said. "I'm just about to concoct a letter to her."

He smiled. "Fairy Godfather."

"Exactly," I replied.

I went back into my room and sat for some time thinking out that letter; it seemed to me to be important to set a formal tone when writing to this young woman for the first time. Finally I wrote,

Dear Madam,

It is with regret that we have to inform you of the death of Mr Douglas Macfadden at Ayr on January 21st. As Executors to his will we have experienced some difficulty in tracing the beneficiaries, but if you are the daughter of Jean
Macfadden) and Arthur Paget formerly resident in Southampton and in Malaya, it would appear that you may be entitled to a share in the estate.

May we ask you to telephone for an appointment to call upon us at your convenience to discuss the matter further? It will be necessary for you to produce evidence of identity at an early stage, such as your birth certificate, National Registration Identity Card, and any other documents that may occur to you.

I am,

Yours truly,

for Owen, Dalhousie and Peters,

N. H. Strachan

She rang me up the next day. She had quite a pleasant voice, the voice of a well-trained secretary. She said, "Mr Strachan, this is Miss Jean Paget speaking. I've got your letter of the 29th. I wonder, do you work on Saturday mornings? I'm in a job, so Saturday would be the best day for me."

I replied, "Oh yes, we work on Saturday mornings. What time would be convenient for you?"

"Should we say ten-thirty?"

I made a note upon my pad. "That's all right. Have you got your birth certificate?"

"Yes, I've got that. Another thing I've got is my mother's marriage certificate, if that helps."

I said, "Oh yes, bring that along. All right, Miss Paget, I shall look forward to meeting you on Saturday. Ask for me by name, Mr Noel Strachan. I am the senior partner."

She was shown into my office punctually at ten-thirty on Saturday. She was a girl or woman of a medium height, dark haired. She was good-looking in a quiet way; she had a tranquillity about her that I find it difficult to describe except by saying that it was the grace that you see frequently in women of a Scottish descent. She was dressed in a dark blue coat and skirt. I got up and shook hands with her, and gave her the chair in front of my desk, and went round and sat down myself. I had the papers ready.

"Well, Miss Paget," I said. "I heard about you from your aunt-I think she is your aunt? Miss Agatha Paget, at Colwyn Bay."

She inclined her head. "Aunt Aggie wrote and told me that she had had a letter from you. Yes, she's my aunt."

"And I take it that you are the daughter of Arthur and Jean Paget, who lived in Southampton and Malaya?"

She nodded. "That's right I've got the birth certificate and mother's birth certificate, as well as her marriage certificate." She took them from her bag and put them on my desk, with her identity card.

I opened these documents and read them through carefully. There was no doubt about it; she was the person I was looking for. I leaned back in my chair presently and took off my spectacles. "Tell me, Miss Paget," I said. "Did you ever meet your uncle, who died recently? Mr Douglas Macfadden?"

She hesitated. "I've been thinking about that a lot," she said candidly. "I couldn't honestly swear that I have ever met him, but I think it must have been him that mother took me to see once in Scotland, when I was about ten years old. We all went together, Mother and I and Donald. I remember an old man in a very stuffy room with a lot of birds in cages. I think that was Uncle Douglas, but I'm not quite sure."

That fitted in with what he had told me, the visit of his sister with her children in 1932. This girl would have been eleven years old then. "Tell me about your brother Donald, Miss Paget," I asked. "Is he still alive?"

She shook her head. "He died in 1943, while he was a prisoner. He was taken by the Japs in Singapore when we surrendered,
and then he was sent to the railway."

I was puzzled. "The railway?"

She looked at me coolly, and I thought I saw tolerance for the ignorance of those who stayed in England in her glance. "The railway that the Japs built with Asiatic and prisoner-of-war labour between Siam and Burma. One man died for every sleeper that was laid, and it was about two hundred miles long. Donald was one of them."

There was a little pause. "I am so sorry," I said at last. "One thing I have to ask you, I am afraid. Was there a death certificate?"

She stared at me. "I shouldn't think so."

"Oh…" I leaned back in my chair and took up the will. "This is the will of Mr Douglas Macfadden," I said. "I have a copy for you, Miss Paget, but I think I'd better tell you what it contains in ordinary, non-legal language. Your uncle made two small bequests. The whole of the residue of the estate was left in trust for your brother Donald. The terms of the trust were to the effect that your mother was to enjoy the income from the trust until her death. If she died before your brother attained his majority, the trust was to continue until he was twenty-one, when he would inherit absolutely and the trust would be discharged. If your brother died before inheriting, then you were to inherit the residuary estate after your mother's time, but in that event the trust was to continue till the year 1956, when you would be thirty-five years old. You will appreciate that it is necessary for us to obtain legal evidence of your brother's death."

She hesitated, and then she said, "Mr Strachan, I'm afraid I'm terribly stupid. I understand you want some proof that Donald is dead. But after that is done, do you mean that I inherit everything that Uncle Douglas left?"

"Broadly speaking-yes," I replied. "You would only receive the income from the estate until the year 1956. After that, the capital would be yours to do what you like with."

"How much did he leave?"

I picked up a slip of paper from the documents before me and ran my eye down the figures for a final check. "After paying death duties and legacies," I said carefully, "the residuary estate would be worth about fifty-three thousand pounds at present-day prices. I must make it clear that that is at present-day prices, Miss Paget. You must not assume that you would inherit that sum in 1956. A falling stock market affects even trustee securities.

She stared at me. "Fifty-three thousand pounds?"

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