Charlie had a terrible and annoying habit of saying “a what?” at the end of a sentence. Oh, and the other thing; I do wish he wouldn’t call me “Old Chap”. He is however my very best friend, faithful and reliable, but normally slow on the uptake and has the reputation of getting the wrong end of the stick. We first met at boarding school and became firm friends, and then we both ended up at University together. In the main we liked the same things, so I suppose this cements our relationship.
To give Charlie his full title, it is Charles Algernon Ewart Berwick Woodstock. The Earl of Berengrave Marchant; which is an ancient Earldom in the county of Huntingdonshire. He took the title when his Grandfather died at the grand old age of 92, a year ago. He didn’t really know his Father because apparently he was killed while on a hunting trip in the Punjab just after he was born.
Charlie’s rumour was delivered as he stood looking down at me as I sat at a table in the Coffee Republic Coffee shop in London’s West End. He was casually, but elegantly dressed in cream summer trousers, blue checked shirt with a cravat sitting loosely around his neck, and a boyish grin all over his tanned face. He appeared younger than his twenty four years, which was two years younger than me.
Realising what he had just said, and nearly choking on my two shot strong Americano, I managed to blurt out;
‘Charlie, what are you on about?’
‘Well I heard my old Mater talking on the phone to our Solicitor Lord Chelling, and I thought I heard her say “So I suppose that means Bertie will end up with it, as it’s his inheritance.” I assumed she was talking about you but I must admit old chap that I don’t know why she should mention you as I wasn’t aware that she knew anything about your family business stuff. She is a terrible snob, and looks down on people who she calls the peasants, so for her to take an interest in anybody they have to be very important. So it’s all a mystery to me– a what?’ Charlie replied, as he sat down and waved a waitress over and ordered a double espresso. How he got her attention so quick amazed me as the coffee shop was heaving with people, and to get individual attention probably meant she knew him from somewhere.
Charlie was right on two counts; first; my family were in financial difficulties, so a windfall would be very handy at the present, and second; I didn’t know his mother very well as we had only seen each other in passing when I called on Charlie, because as she was going out I was coming in, and vice versa and she always ignored me so she wouldn’t know anything about our family affairs
I looked at him in amazement as he seemed so relaxed about what he had heard his Mother say. He didn’t seem at all concerned about the meaning of it; I mean this could be very important coming from her. However, what annoyed me more about what he had just said was that his Mother considered me and my family peasants.
I tried to think of anywhere a windfall could arrive from. As far as I knew there were no distant relatives who could leave me an inheritance. My Father was always pleading poverty, and my Mother just accepted what he said and kept quite. I worked in a City Bank which helped with some of the bills, but I didn’t see my circumstances changing in the near future.
‘What’s the matter Bertie old chap, you look a bit hot and flustered.’ said Charlie.
‘So would you be if you were told the same thing. I can’t believe that your Mother was referring to me, maybe she said some other name and you misheard her.
‘No Bertie old chap it was definitely your name. One thing I am good at is overhearing clearly what people say. ’ said Charlie grinning.
My suspicions were now roused if Charlie was that positive. It could be related to what I had seen a month ago. I had gone to the Crown Inn near where we lived for a quick drink, as I entered I spotted my Father sitting by the window talking to someone. I was about to go and chat with him but then saw he was talking to a Woman, their heads nearly touching, and both looking serious. Then I recognised the Woman, it was Charlie’s Mother Ruth. I was completely mystified, but decided to leave before they saw me. I didn’t know my Father knew anyone in Charlie’s family, let alone his Mother. Could that be tied in with what Charlie had heard his Mother say to the Solicitor on the phone?
After we had finished chatting about what else we had been up to we both got up to leave. Turning to Charlie I said;
‘I’ll let you know if I find out anything Charlie. Mind you to be to be perfectly honest I think your rumour is just that, a rumour with no foundation.’
When I got outside the coffee shop I realised I would have to find out from my father and that was not a pleasant thought. I knew he would be furious if I told him I had seen him with Charlie’s Mother, and he would probably accuse me of spying on him.
I live with my parents at Helliwell Manor, which although a reasonably sized property with an imposing name, and with several acres of land, it did not compare to the size of Charlie’s Estate. I drove home after work and as I entered the house I could see my Mother had been crying so something serious must have happened.
‘What’s the matter Mum, why are you crying?’ I said, walking quickly over to her.
My mother was sitting on a settee in our main lounge and holding a tissue to her face, and when she looked up at me I could see her eyes were red from crying, and her make up had run down her cheek. She was normally impeccably dressed and made up but now I saw she looked unkempt and hadn’t bothered with her appearance.
‘It’s your Father Bertie. He’s left me. He said he was leaving me for another woman, and that he couldn’t live a lie any more.’ And she continued to sob into her tissue.
‘What a rotter Mum.’ I said sitting down next to her and putting my arm around her shoulders to try and comfort her. ‘What did he mean, living a lie?’
‘I know where he’s gone, but I never thought he would ever go through with it.’
‘Who is it, and how long has it been going on mum?’
‘He’s gone off with that Ruth Woodstock. It’s not the first time you know.’ She replied.
I realised then what she meant, and also that meeting I had seen of Charlie’s mother Ruth must have been them planning my father’s decision to leave.
‘Bertie, you might as well know now he has left. He had an affair with that woman before you were born. It’s going to come as a shock to you but I’m not your real
mother, she is. But your Father is your real Father.’
‘What! do you mean its taken twenty six years for you to tell me that?’
I was shaking at the thought of the deceit.
‘Why on earth did I end living with you then and not with her.?
‘You did for a while, but she had Charlie two years after you and it was decided that you should live here with your Father. Her husband, the Lord, didn’t want you living in the same house as Charlie. Oh it was all very complicated Bertie; and I agreed so that your Father would stay living here especially after the Earl was killed out in the Punjab. You see I couldn’t have children myself. But I did love you very much and it all worked out, until recently when the old Earl of Berengrave Marchant died.’
‘Wait a minute mum. That means that I’m the real Earl of Berengrave Marchant because Charlie is two years younger than me. And it’s me that should be living in the great Manor House.’ Then I told her about what Charlie had overheard his Mother say on the phone. ‘They have done a dirty trick on you Mum and I’m going to make sure they pay for it.
‘Oh Bertie, do be careful.’ His mother said wringing her hands.
‘Don’t you worry about me; we will have our revenge Mum.’
Three weeks later I saw my real mother; it was just as we drove up to move into Berengrave Manor. She was just getting into a large removal van with my Father. They didn’t wave back to me when I waved to them. The pair of them didn’t look too pleased. But then again I could understand that. They had lost everything, and as my Father was bankrupt they were destined for a council house. I wondered what Ruth would do living among the peasants.
I turned and saw Charlie standing on the steps to the front door with a big grin on his face. He had been delighted about us moving in. He never wanted the responsibility of being an Earl and was pleased to relinquish the title. He had accepted my request for him to continue living in the style he was used to and looked forward to the future with delight. When he had been told of the situation he had said;
‘ So it wasn’t a rumour then, it was a fact. That’s great news Bertie old chap, I always wanted a brother, but fancy it being you. A-what.’
I took my step Mothers arm, and put my arm around Charlie’s shoulders and we walked in through the main doorway. The Head Butler Jenkins was standing there with several staff, and he said;
‘Welcome to Berengrave Manor your Lordship. Tea will be served in the lounge shortly.’
‘Excellent Jenkins, I’m just in the mood for a cuppa.’