A Bag of Humbugs

We met Tom one evening in a small hotel overlooking a harbour in Spain. A large man in his late seventies, he looked rather dispirited as he sat alone in the lounge, so we invited him to join us for a drink. He was a widower from the north of England, and, after a rather lonely week’s holiday, was only too pleased to chat to anyone. We discovered that he was a retired bus driver and that his wife had died some months ago, so we encouraged him to talk about his family and his home. What he told us left us dumbfounded. Apart from his late wife, he had a son, and a daughter who was the mother of his two granddaughters. His wife had died somewhat unexpectedly and, to his astonishment, had left a huge sum of money to be shared between the son and daughter. He didn’t divulge the actual sum, but, in contrast with his pension and humble lifestyle, it must have been a small fortune. Each time he mentioned it, he just shook his head slowly in bewilderment, for it was clear that he hadn’t a clue how the money was obtained, or how she managed to conceal it from him all those years. His late wife’s will also included a detailed list of belongings which the daughter was to inherit; these included jewellery, accessories, photographs, pictures and some items of furniture. A day after the funeral, his daughter came to the house with her husband and armed with the list. She demanded to collect what was rightfully hers. It also included a half share in the family caravan and she wanted to know when Tom would be selling it. This was a mobile home which he and his wife owned on a pleasant site overlooking the sea. Tom loved the caravan and had looked forward to living in it when everything was finally sorted out. Her husband, who was a rather charmless man, offered to put it up for sale that day, and, under pressure, Tom reluctantly agreed to it being sold. Just then, however, his son called by and pleaded with his sister to be a little more patient and sympathetic. Eventually, to avoid a family argument, he wrote his sister a cheque for half the current value of the caravan, and they left looking very pleased with themselves. Throughout the bereavement, Tom’s son had been a pillar of strength, whereas his daughter and her husband were just out for what they could grab.

We asked Tom about his two granddaughters. He said that when they were young, they were good company, but since they became teenagers, he rarely saw much of them. He didn’t feel resentful at being ignored, because that’s the way young people were. At Christmas, the first since his wife died, he decided to give each of them two hundred pounds as a gift. He assumed that this was far more than they would normally receive and that it would be a pleasant surprise. On Christmas Eve, his daughter called around briefly and asked if he had the girls’ Christmas money ready. The wording of the request took Tom by surprise but he handed over the two envelopes. The daughter counted the notes carefully and then asked ‘Where’s the rest?’ ‘The rest? It’s a Christmas gift for the girls. I’m sure they’ll find something to spend it on.’ ‘But our mum used to give them a lot more than this,’ she sulked. ‘I don’t understand,’ said Tom, puzzled by her response. ‘Mum used to give them five hundred pounds each.’ ‘Five hundred pounds?’ queried Tom, ‘That’s more than we ever spent at Christmas. We never had that kind of money. I thought that two hundred pounds would be a real treat for the girls.’ The daughter was very disgruntled by the missing money but Tom held his ground. In his opinion, two hundred pounds was quite sufficient spending money for young teenagers. Had they been attending college or university, that would have been a different matter. All the time, of course, he kept wondering about the money his wife had given the girls without his knowing, and wished he could discover where it had come from. As his daughter was leaving, she tossed a small brown paper bag onto the dining table. ‘That’s a little something from the girls for Christmas.’ Alone in the house, Tom opened up the paper bag. There was no accompanying greeting card, just a supermarket till receipt and a small bag of striped candy or humbugs as they are known in England

Though it wasn’t particularly late, Tom began to look tired, so we wished him goodnight, but arranged to meet him the next day before he left for home. We had to hear the rest of this story. Later that evening, we sat on our small balcony overlooking the harbour and tried to make some sense of it all. Though Tom’s relationship with his wife appeared friendly enough, with no indication of any serious problems, it was clear that there was no love lost between father and daughter. He admitted that they had never got on very well together; her relationship with her mother was better. Of course, we had only heard one side of the argument and wondered what caused such a rift between them. When he talked about the earlier years, he had given the impression that he may have been a rather obstinate man who had a need to exert control over people and situations. Dad always knew best. Some years earlier, he’d had a serious heart operation. Though he was not expected to survive, to everyone’s surprise, he did. Had he not outlived his younger and healthier wife, he would never have known about the mysterious inheritance. We exchanged some thoughts about the money. Perhaps it was an inheritance from a distant relative? Perhaps it was a lottery prize? Perhaps she had invested a modest sum which had flourished and the profits would see her in comfort through her old age? Maybe she ran a secret and highly profitable business on the side? Whatever the source, it looked as if it would remain a mystery for, according to Tom, neither son nor daughter had been able to shed any light on it. The next day, we met up with Tom in a harbour bar as a gentle warm sea breeze drifted in from the Mediterranean. It was still winter in England, but Tom said he was looking forward to returning home again. For a while, we shared ideas about the origin of the inheritance, but it soon became clear that Tom had investigated every possible lead and had got nowhere. He said that as long as he had enough money to get by, his lovely caravan, and his kind son, he would be quite content with his life. In confidence, he told us that he believed that he didn’t have much time left, and was going to ask a solicitor to revise his will as soon as he returned home. In all truth, Tom didn’t look as if he were about to meet his maker, and we probably said as much, but he just smiled. Then he insisted on taking our photographs so he could show his son the friends he had made while on holiday. We walked back to the hotel with Tom to collect his bags for the coach journey to the airport. While waiting for the coach, he continued discussing his will. ‘I haven’t got a lot of money so there won’t be much for anyone to argue over, but I’ve decided to leave most of it to my son because he’s been my rock in a storm.’

‘What about your daughter?’ we asked, and hoped, rather uncharitably, that he planned to leave her nothing, but kept these thoughts to ourselves ‘Oh, she’ll be alright,’ he replied with an odd look. ‘I’ll make sure she gets the same as my two granddaughters. Yes, they’ll all get the same and it’ll be in the will.’ Then the coach appeared, we shook hands and he clambered aboard with his small case. Having found a seat next to a window, he banged on it to attract our attention. ‘Look me up sometime, if you ever come my way. There’s plenty of room in the caravan.’ We nodded enthusiastically even though we knew we would probably never see him again. Then, as the coach started to pull away, I couldn’t resist shouting, ‘So what are you going to leave them?’ Despite the noise of the coach’s engine and the passing traffic, his unsmiling reply needed no special lip reading skills. ‘A bag of humbugs.’ The coach gathered speed and disappeared down the highway in a cloud of dust and smoke.

Tony Crowley (c) 2004


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