The shrill ringtone of the landline interrupted Jasmine’s disconcerting dream. As she slowly began to return to consciousness, her brain could not distinguish between reality and her dream. The penetrating resonance of the telephone appeared to be part of that fantasy world. She was vaguely aware of the sound of a faceless man’s voice trailing off weakly but could not understand what he was saying. She lay in the darkened room for a few moments running after the dream but could only remember that it was similar to many others that she had experienced. It was a recurring dream in which she was desperately trying to get to an airport to catch a plane that had no departure time and no apparent destination; her luggage was always in another part of town and somehow unreachable.
Frustrated, she climbed out of bed and drifted to the living room, where she immediately noticed that the light was flashing on her answering machine. It was unusual these days for anyone to ring on a landline. She reached out and clicked the message button. A voice, which she thought she recognised as the voice in her dream, instructed her to call “Wilton Solicitors” as soon as possible on a Central London number.
In her befuddled state, she began to panic. Why would a solicitor need to talk to her? As far as she knew, she was up to date with the mortgage payments on her flat, had settled all her utility bills and had suffered no personal injuries. She decided that a good coffee brewed in her recently acquired Italian coffee machine might help her to think more clearly. After consuming two strong espressos, she had come to no conclusion and realised that the obvious solution was to call the solicitor’s office rather than agonise over what she might or might not have committed in the way of an illegality.
She hesitantly picked up the house phone and dialled the number. Almost immediately a voice said, “This is Richard Wilton, family solicitor, how may I help you?”
“Umm, my name is Jasmine Beaumont. You left me a message to call you.”
“Ah yes, Miss Beaumont, I have had some difficulty trying to find your phone number but fortunately I had your address. I’m so sorry about your mother’s passing last week and must apologise for my delay in contacting you.
“My mother? You must be mistaken; I spoke to her only yesterday.”
“According to the documents in my possession you are Anna Seymour’s daughter. I have her death certificate and an original copy of her will right here in front of me. She has left you her house in Devon and a sizeable amount of money.”
“There’s obviously some sort of a misunder-standing,” said Jasmine, “my mother’s name is Helen Beaumont.”
“Well, Anna Seymour’s last will and testament very clearly states, and I quote, ‘Subject to the payment of my debts, funeral expenses and administration expenses, I give all my estate both real and personal to my daughter Jasmine Beaumont, born December ninth, 1979.’”
“I can only think that there must be another Jasmine Beaumont, it can’t possibly be me. It makes no sense whatsoever.”
“Is the date of birth correct?” asked Richard.
“Yes,” she replied, “I think so, although I’ve never seen my birth certificate. But that’s what it says on my passport.”
“Then I suggest that you make an appointment to see me as soon as you can.”
Jasmine agreed to meet him at his office in the City of London at ten the following morning, Tuesday 5th September. She hung up and began to pace round her flat trying to fathom out this implausible piece of news. Who the hell was Anna Seymour? Although she never drank in the morning, she poured herself a tot of brandy from the dregs of a bottle that someone had left behind in her flat and knocked it back in one go. As it flowed down her throat and through her gullet, warming her whole system, she gave a deep sigh of satisfaction. But it was only a fleeting moment of pleasure. Her thoughts returned to her dilemma, but there seemed to be no logic to it. She spent the rest of the day trying to keep busy and, after thoroughly cleaning and tidying her already spruce flat and cooking herself an elaborate meal that she could barely taste, she eventually went to bed.
She slept surprisingly well but woke at seven in the morning with a strong sense of anxiety. She was more than a little tempted to call her mother but some sixth sense held her back. She took time to get herself ready. What does one wear when visiting a solicitor? She decided on a pair of black trousers, a white shirt and a long black cardigan. She carefully put on her make-up – not too little, not too much – and took a long hard look in the mirror. She had long, glossy black hair, which she swept back in a ponytail, a slightly long, oval face and luminous green eyes. Satisfied with her appearance, she gathered her bag and her keys and left the flat.
The solicitor’s office was in King William Street; Jasmine had googled the address and printed out a map. Ideally, she would have liked to have travelled to the city by bus, but it involved a complicated route. She disliked the Underground intensely. It was not that she suffered from claustrophobia; she simply could not bear the rush and the crush of people, the smell of musty air, and the odour of stale sweat that emanated from the armpits of straphangers. Realising that she had little choice, she set off at a brisk pace for Earls Court Tube station. The journey was as bad as she had expected and, to make matters worse, the train came to a juddering halt several times and proceeded in fits and starts accompanied by the obvious, unnecessary announcements and apologies. She finally alighted at Monument station. It was ten o’clock. She looked at her map, got her bearings, hoped that she was not holding the map upside down and followed the route at a run.
Very much out of breath, she eventually arrived at the building and took the lift up to the fourth floor. There appeared to be a number of offices, and as she walked past them peering intensely at the names, she finally found a door with a rusty plaque claiming ‘Richard Wilton, Family Solicitor’. There was no bell so she knocked softly and jumped nervously when the same voice that she had heard over the phone called, “Come in!” She turned the old-fashioned knob and gently pushed the door open. The first thing she noticed was that the very dim, rather dusty room seemed to contain nothing but books. The walls were lined with bookshelves and the books therein seemed to be vying for a space. Tomes were also piled on chairs at all angles and looked in perilous danger of sliding to the floor. There was an incredibly old-fashioned filing cabinet which was so stuffed with files and papers that two of its three drawers were only half closed.
“Good morning, Miss Beaumont,” came a voice from somewhere in the direction of the only window in the room.
On closer inspection, the silhouette of a man could be seen sitting behind a desk, but as the light was behind him it was impossible to discern his features. At that moment, the outline of the figure stood up, moved from behind the desk and walked towards her with its right hand stretched out. The shadow gradually came into focus and a tall, rangy body, a craggy face and a mass of silvery hair were revealed. Jasmine found herself face to face with a man probably somewhere in his early seventies who, despite the signs of aging, must have been and still was a handsome figure. She was aware that he was examining her closely. He suddenly retrieved his hand and took a step back as if he wanted to distance himself from her. She waited for him to speak but he appeared to have turned to stone and his expression was one of perplexity and disbelief.
Jasmine broke the silence and said, “Look, I don’t wish to be rude but as I said on the phone, this woman, Anna, could not possibly have been my mother. My mother’s name is Helen Beaumont and she is still alive. I really don’t understand what this is all about.”
Richard asked, “Is Beaumont your mother’s married name or her maiden name?”
“Her married name of course. My father was Frank Beaumont. He died two years ago.”
Richard moved to his desk, picked up a document and handed it to her and said, “This is Anna’s will.”
With a deepening frown Jasmine quickly read through it. When she had finished, she was totally bewildered and began to feel a sense of fear. She wanted to sit down but on looking around could not find an empty chair. She wondered where his clients, if he had any, usually sat. Realising her predicament, Richard removed a pile of books from one of the shabby hardback chairs and gently guided her to it. She flopped into it like a rag doll and put her head in her hands.
“I’m so sorry,” said Richard, “I’ve obviously given you a terrible shock.”
Jasmine lifted her head, pushed her hair off her face and said, “Did you know Anna personally?”
“Yes, but I haven’t seen her for years. We kept in touch, obviously; I drafted her will on her instructions and sent it to her for her approval. She signed it, and here we are. I have to admit, however, that I hadn’t realised that she had a daughter until I received her will. She was a very private person and I know very little about what’s happened in her life since we first met.”
“When did you meet?” asked Jasmine.
“In the early sixties; I was just out of law school and was dealing with her parents’ family affairs.”
“How well did you know her?”
Richard turned away and started to shuffle some of the papers on his messy desk. He seemed to hesitate before answering her question. He finally turned, looked at her and said, “Not as well as I would have liked, and for years we only corresponded by post on legal matters.”
This was a somewhat cagey response, and although it appeared to broker no further probing, Jasmine persisted in her questioning. “Did she mention nothing of her personal life to you in her letters?”
“No, nothing at all.”
Jasmine hunched forward in the uncomfortable chair and became deeply absorbed in thought. She eventually shook herself out of her reverie and turned to face Richard, who was leaning back in his chair behind his desk. For a moment it seemed as if the desk was serving as a barrier between them.
“I simply don’t know what to do at this point,” Jasmine said desperately. “How can I accept an inheritance from a woman I have never heard of and who cannot possibly be my mother? You said yourself that you didn’t know that Anna had a daughter.”
“Well, the fact is that Anna has left you her house and money and once we have completed a few legalities it will all be yours.”
“But I don’t want it.”
“Whether you want it or not, it is lawfully yours and you can do with it what you will. However, if I were you, I would find time to visit the house; perhaps it will reveal more information.”
“Where exactly is it?”
“It’s just on the edge of a village called Excombe, in North Devon.”
“But that’s miles away and would mean taking time off work.”
Richard rummaged around in one of his drawers and handed her a sheet of paper and a set of keys. “Anna sent me these alongside her will. Whatever you decide to do, that is the address and here are the keys.”
He curtly wished her good luck and shook her hand somewhat limply. Jasmine left his musty office with a sense of relief and, ignoring the lift, she ran down the stairs into the street, took a deep breath of the relatively fresh air and made her way back to her flat with a sense of urgency. During her return journey, she reflected on the fact that there were many more questions that she should have asked Richard, but his uncommunicativeness had not been encouraging and her own mind was, to say the least, in a state of total confusion. By the time she reached her flat, confusion was replaced by fear and ultimately panic. She felt a desperate need to talk to someone but could not think of anyone to whom she could reveal her situation, least of all her mother. There was so little to go on and it could in all possibility be a serious case of mistaken identity. One thing was certain, she could not remain in limbo. The only solution was to pluck up the courage to go to the house in Devon, which according to the paper that Richard had given her was called Rose Cottage.
She had sold her car some months ago, deciding that she really did not need one in London, so, after some hesitation, she started up her laptop and searched for a public transport route to Excombe. The journey was obviously not at all straightforward, and all in all, including waiting times, it looked as if it would take over five hours. She would probably have to hire a car in Bideford, which appeared to be the closest big town. She decided to waste no time, and with much trepidation she booked her train ticket online for Friday and printed it out.
Because the situation was such a sensitive one, Jasmine decided that she would contact no one before leaving London, not her friends, not her mother and not her colleagues. She hesitated with her finger hovering over the power button of her smartphone and finally pressed it firmly, cutting off all contact with the outside world.