Lindsey climbed the last few steep steps before pausing to catch her breath. She furrowed her brow and put her hand to her eyes to take in the view from the Great Wall. It was her second week in China and her third month spent travelling. Around her, tourists bustled and took clumsy photos; silhouettes in the blinding sun. She took in the clean air and snapped a quick shot of the great, green mountains and valleys, carving out the ridges that bore the wall like a majestic crown of stone and cloud.
The weather was dry. Mellow. Five thousand miles of meteorological difference between where she stood now, and where she’d found herself standing five months earlier, looking up at that dark house. Now, with the sun in her eyes, warming her skin, she cast her mind back. Back to that trip, back to that time. The taste of the wine and the smell of the curtains in the drawing room. She remembered the buzz of the auction house and the excited, desperate declarations, the smell of money in the air. “Fifteen! Can I get seventeen? Seventeen! Eighteen to the gentleman there. Twenty? Twenty! Going once. Going twice. Sold! To the gentleman in the corner. Twenty thousand dollars!” She remembered. And she felt thankful.
She’d been at work when she got the phone call. It was her mother. Lindsey was working as an intern at a music magazine. She’d been lucky to get the position. She was reminded of this every day by the sharp faces around her whose passive aggressive comments of ‘anyone your age would kill to be writing about Harry Styles’ were frequent and abrasive. It was a Tuesday afternoon when she learned that her grandfather had died.
Eric Alderman had always been a peculiar man. Estranged from his family, he had lived his winter years in his English stately home in the Surrey Hills whilst his daughter and her family grew across the ocean in Long Branch, New Jersey. Lindsey had met her grandfather many times when she was younger. Through summertime visits, she’d come to think of him as a fascinating older gent, with a tome of life stories to tell her; always delivered with an enchanting narrative and a village of funny voices.
His estate had once been home to his wife, Lindsey’s grandma Lucy, and their four Irish Wolfhounds who’d roam the hallways and sleep in great, furry heaps upon their choice of pristine Persian carpet. Lucy passed away when Lindsey was a child and since the funeral, she’d seen her grandfather only a handful of times. Something about him changed when she died. His spark faded and his stories were lacklustre. He began walking with a cane and hired a dog walker and housekeeper to maintain the empty rooms of his lonely estate.
“He didn’t want a funeral. But you need to be present for the will reading. It’ll be a quick there and back again — can you make it? Apparently, he left you something.”
Ten days later, Lindsey bundled herself and a bulging backpack into a taxi bound for JFK Airport. She’d promised the editors that she’d work overtime in order to make up for her rather last-minute absence. Despite the sombre nature of her unprecedented escape, Lindsey was grateful for the time away. She hadn’t had a holiday in years and always relished getting on a plane and flying away from the humdrum of her reality.
Her mother had flown out a few days earlier to help sort the house, alongside siblings, cousins, aunts and a handful of lawyers. Lindsey had barely heard from her, but knew she’d be picking her up from the airport in a rental car.
She took out her phone and texted her mum. “OMW to airport. So, what is it that I’ve been left? V intrigued.”
Lindsey checked in, sauntered around the airport’s lounges and bought some breakfast, glancing at her phone every ten minutes. No reply. She wondered what he could have left. Or, more accurately, how much he could have left. Eric had been a hugely successful writer in his youth before forging a career in advertising. Despite his ‘old money’ heritage, he’d never leaned back on his privilege, instead choosing to carve his own path and embrace the highs and lows of life’s successes and failures. And it was fair to say that his path had almost always had a view.
She took her seat on the plane and whipped out a packet of chewy sweets for the flight — she needed the sugar. A sharp buzz startled her, and she dug her hand in her pocket searching for her phone. A text.
“Will just says a book. Don’t know. Maybe other things too?”
It was very vague, but Lindsey’s heart sank re-reading the words. A book? ‘It had better be a first edition of the Bible’, she mumbled under her breath as she turned off her phone and clicked her seatbelt into place.
Lindsey’s mother pulled up at Arrivals in a red hatchback, speckled with mud. She looked tired. Her hair was roughly tied up, and between heavy sighs she had little to say. Even the chatter of the car’s radio couldn’t break the tension. Lindsey found herself wondering whether her mother was becoming catatonic or merely focussing intently on driving on the left side of the road.
“Mum, are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Sorry. I’m just y’know. I should have visited more often. He was my dad, and I should have done more these last ten years.”
Lindsey rested her hand over her mother’s tense fist which was wrapped tightly around the gear stick. She gave it a squeeze.
“You only get one dad, Lindsey. I’m taking you to see yours when we get back. He’s …he’s a good guy. You’ve just got to give him a chance.”
Lindsey rolled her eyes but knew that this was not the time or place to complain about her absent, cheating, gambling father.
After what seemed like hours of whizzing along motorways and winding down country roads, the little red car pulled up to a pair of iron gates which opened at the touch of a button. The house, like a turreted mountain, loomed at the end of the long drive, casting an afternoon shadow across a manicured centre island. They pulled up neatly alongside a dozen other cars, and Lindsey heaved her backpack to her shoulders.
The hallway looked exactly as Lindsey remembered it. Simultaneously homely and grandiose, with flamboyant velvet curtains and a modest umbrella stand perched unassumingly in the corner. The last remaining Irish Wolfhound, Benji, paced slowly towards Lindsey. She set down her backpack to stroke the giant dog before being guided deeper into the house where crowds of people stood talking. The sandwiches and drinks scattered throughout the rooms told Lindsey that this was some sort of unofficial wake, and she tentatively slunk into the room of unfamiliar faces. The afternoon was an intense and doleful procession of handshakes, awkward embraces and words spoken by strangers about a man Lindsey felt as though she hardly knew.
“Your grandfather was a wonderful chap,” said a middle-aged woman with grey, cropped hair who claimed to have been his gardener for years.
“He was on top of his game, way back when,” said a spritely gent, gesturing to the colourful advertising awards, lined up along the open fireplace of the drawing room.
A short man with a cascading, wiry beard approached her. “Your grandfather met the Queen, you know. He was awarded an MBE! Did you know that?” Lindsey did not. She quickly googled ‘MBE’.
She stepped back to pour a glass of wine and observe the room of strangers. The sombre mood occasionally elevated by a roar of laughter from someone regaling a group with an amusing anecdote.
“Psst. We’re needed upstairs.” Lindsey’s mother beckoned from the doorway. Lindsey threw back her drink and followed, climbing the broad steps of a grand stone staircase before shuffling into a small, stuffy study off the main landing. Two grey-suited men were sat at a table, papers in hand. The reading of the will had already begun.
“And for his granddaughter, Lindsey, Mr Alderman left this wooden box. It contains a notebook, some silk scarves, and a pocket watch.”
Lindsey took the box graciously but glanced at her mother with a look of disdain and disappointment. The house was to be sold and the money split evenly between Lindsey’s mother and her estranged siblings. The pair breathed a long sigh as they left the room.
“You know, my money is your money, eventually.” Lindsey nodded and shrugged as they made their way down the staircase and back to the wake.
Evening set over the house and after a quaint delivery dinner of fish and chips and several more glasses of wine, both mother and daughter exhaustedly waved off the last of the guests. They were jetlagged and relieved to be alone. Lindsey called for a taxi to take her to the airport hotel where she would recuperate before her early morning flight.
“I’m sorry I can’t stay. You know what they’re like at work,” she said as she picked up her backpack and pulled open the heavy front door.
“Don’t forget this!” Her mother held out the wooden box, arm outstretched. Lindsey sighed. “Don’t be such a brat. He wanted you to have it. It must have meant something to him.”
Lindsey embraced her mother tightly before climbing into the taxi with her belongings and driving away from her grandfather’s house, into the night.
The following morning was hectic and hurried. It was only once Lindsey had finally flopped down in Departures, that she suddenly realised she hadn’t yet taken a look at her meagre inheritance. Pulling the box from the tangle of clothes bundled in her backpack, she eyed its wooden lid with scepticism. She lifted it. A black notebook, three silk scarves and a brass pocket watch — exactly as described. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected.
She removed the notebook and observed its soft, leather hide. She thumbed its pages and to her surprise, a sea of sporadic squiggles jumped from its creamy leaves. Wedged towards the back of the notebook were more than a dozen little polaroid photographs. In them, she recognised her grandfather in his youth, posed alongside many familiar famous faces; each one, a treasured memory. Here he was sharing a pint with Paul McCartney! Another showed Eric posed in front of an airplane with Marlon Brando. And one of him with his arm around Bob Dylan. In another he was sat on a couch with Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken, a martini decadently hung in his hand.
She flipped the book and flicked through the pages again — each squiggle was a signature. And there were hundreds. She recognised many of the personalities who’d signed Eric’s notebook: Jimi Hendrix, Clint Eastwood, John Lennon, Robert De Nero, Janis Joplin, and there were plenty she’d never heard of. Her fingers tingled at the thought of so many famous hands writing in this very book.
As she read each signature and note, a smile spreading across her face, the polaroids silently tumbled from the back of the notebook into her lap. As Lindsey gathered the bundle to slot them safely back inside, something caught her eye. A pencilled note, on the very back page.
“Lindsey, my beautiful granddaughter. Keep these snaps of your old granddad. He made lots of friends, saw this wondrous world and had a great life. As for the autographs, sell them, and make yours a little greater too.
I love you.