My name is Sam Harrison and I now know that everything that happens to you, changes you. And the worse the experience, the bigger the change. My inheritance came out of the blue. I didn’t know the person it came from and it changed my life forever. It changed all the people around me. And it almost got me killed.
That phone call created hairline cracks through my life. As soon as I got the call, I took time off work and shot across town to hear more. I’d assumed that he’d be in the part of town where the lawyers clustered. But I found him in an outer suburb, in an office above a shop. I’d taken time off work to answer an unknown lawyer’s summons, my husband was out of town, everything was a bit off.
The receptionist was a faded bottle-blonde with fake red nails that clacked on the keyboard. She didn’t look interested in me or what she was typing. She had what I suspected was a permanently bored expression.
Mr Jackson, the lawyer had that lived-in look. His suit was crumpled, his hair thin. In fact, every thing about him was thin. He waited until I was seated before he began.
‘This is a matter of great importance,’ he started.
Thin and pompous.
‘You are the sole beneficiary of the estate of the late Frederick Hopmann. In his will, Frederick Hopmann has provided for you.’ His thin lips smiled.
‘This must be a mistake, I don’t know a Frederick Hopmann.’ And I started to rise.
He put out his hand to stop me, ‘Mrs Harrison, please sit down. There is no mistake.’
The change of tone stopped me and I sat back in my seat. He opened the file on his desk, confirmed my address, my date of birth and started again. ‘You are the sole beneficiary.’ He removed papers from an envelope and slid them across the desk. ‘There is a house in Manurewa and a bank account with $20,000 in it.’
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Who the hell was Frederick Hopmann? I picked up one of the papers, noted the address of a house in Manurewa, an outer suburb of Auckland. ‘But, I don’t know Frederick Hopmann. Why would he leave me anything?’
‘I’m just instructed to finalise everything for you, Mrs Harrison.’ He slid a set of keys across the desk and the envelope that the papers had come from. And the next thing I knew, I was back out on the footpath, reeling.
I went looking for my inheritance first thing next morning, on the infamous New Zealand holiday of Waitangi Day. At the time, I missed the irony of it. To the Maori, I’m a Pakeha, a white person, but I simply see myself as a New Zealander, the daughter of a German immigrant family who were landless, homeless. I was caught in the middle of the land issues with no sense of where I stood in the argument. And now, I realised that I too was a landowner.
The street directory revealed the area covered with large patches of grey blankness, indicating no housing, no streets, possibly farmland. Off to the right, the map indicated a quarry. So maybe it wasn’t farmland, maybe it was in wasteland. The only quarries I had ever seen were the back drop for murder mysteries on TV. It looked isolated. That would be right, just my luck to discover that I had been left a house in the middle of wasteland. Surprise!
It was threatening rain as I made my way through the unfamiliar suburb. Black clouds were boiling across the sky as I drove towards slanting sheets of rain. Fat drops splatted the windscreen as I made my way down the isolated country road winding through hilly farmland. I drove past farm gates with country letter boxes until I found a house nestled in trees, a long drive snaking up the hill beside it. The number was on the weather-beaten post. I turned the car through the gate and headed up the drive.
I couldn’t see what the house looked like, it was hidden behind a large wooden gate. My gate. Feeling slightly sick and reluctant to move, I peered through the rain-splattered window. Wasn’t an inheritance supposed to be like winning the lottery? Weren’t you supposed to be jubilant, excited? But every instinct urged me to start the car and drive away. I gripped the steering wheel trying to control rising panic. I didn’t have to go in, I could sell it without ever going near it.
But my practical side kicked in and before I could change my mind, I stepped out of the car, slammed the door and walked quickly towards the gate. Unkempt trees straggled over the fence and a huge branch with dark green foliage stretched across the garage as if seeking desperate escape from the enclosed garden.
The blackening sky drove me on and I put my hand hesitantly through the gap in the wooden gate, lifted the latch and walked through. Ungainly shrubs with stringy stalks reached out seeking sunlight in this damp and desolate garden and instinctively, I shrunk closer to the house avoiding their touch. A sudden gust of wind announced more rain. The black boughs moved sluggishly and I smelt sodden leaves, rotting in the gloom.
I glanced at the decaying, abandoned garden. Call me irrational with an over-active imagination or woman’s intuition, but I had a weird sense of journeying forward into the past.
I turned to take in the house. A bit disappointed to see an ordinary weatherboard house, faded blue with flaking windowsills, paint curled back to reveal the raw wood underneath. Green slime covered the top rows of planks of the house facing the garden. This was your average middle-class, Kiwi weatherboard home. There was nothing Gothic and not a vampire in sight, nothing to account for how nervous I felt which made me even more jumpy.
I clutched my jacket more tightly against the damp and the now persistent rain and cautiously made my way along the path beside the house. Tightly shut windows with drawn curtains kept all secrets hidden from outsiders. I could find no crack in the curtains to allow me a peek in. Pulling the set of keys from my bag, I prepared to enter the house and find out why this man had left me an inheritance.
I walked down the path but stopped as I passed the meter box. Was Frederick Hopmann like most New Zealanders? I reached up and slid my hand along the top of the meter box. Kiwis were pretty casual about security and if there wasn’t a key under the doormat, it was usually kept on top of the meter box. There was grime but no spare key. There was a noticeable shake to my hand as I withdrew it from the top of the meter box.
“Get a grip, girl!” I slid the key into the lock of the back door. It clicked smoothly and I tentatively pushed the door open. Goose bumps ticked my arms and fighting a desperate urge to go to the toilet, I hesitated expecting someone to appear demanding to know what I was doing in their house. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was invading someone’s home. The sighing of the trees behind me pulled me back to the reality of an empty house, its owner deceased. The place seemed to be holding its breath. I stepped inside.
I was in the kitchen, a long narrow room with cork tiles, light tan cupboards and at the far end, the first window naked of curtains. I’ve always liked the warmth of cork tiles and I moved forward past the cupboards, past a large, old microwave on the bench, past the large fridge and stopped. The fridge was way too big for one person living on his own. Had there been someone else living here with Frederick before he died? A flatmate? A friend? I didn’t even know how he’d died. Had he spent a long time in hospital or had it been sudden? There was so much I didn’t know. And, of course, why me?
At the end of the room, I turned through the doorway on the left and found the lounge in darkness. I could just make out shapes of furniture crouched in the dark. I hurried to the end of the room and pulled back what I discovered to be deep teal curtains. Shrubs scratched against the windows, distorted in their growth and neglect, preventing me from looking out or neighbours looking in. I shivered and turned back to the room. Tan wood lined the walls contrasting with the light grey carpet and a black vinyl lounge suite. A fireplace with a black chimney hood stood to my right, the wall behind it lined with bookshelves. But a pale square on the wall at the end of the room caught my eye. A picture had hung there and left a faded square when it was removed. Who had taken it off the wall? I felt cheated of a potential clue. A family portrait; a photo of a favourite holiday location; some place around the world waiting to be visited; even an abstract work of art said something about the owner.
I found two more faint squares on the wall facing the fireplace. Someone had removed all the pictures. Frowning, I opened the door in the corner of the room to find a long passageway with doors on both sides. All the doors were closed.
I stood and thought about that. You don’t go round your house and shut every door unless perhaps you’re going away on holiday. Someone had removed all the pictures and carefully closed up the house. Who would have done this? If there were family, they would have inherited instead of me. And if it wasn’t family, then who would have been so careful? And why would they have removed the pictures? I had inherited the house and contents, so if Frederick had pictures on the wall, they were mine. Why would someone take them all down? It didn’t make sense.
The lounge had revealed no clues about the person who had lived here. It was your average New Zealand home without the mess and the occupants.
I turned and walked down the hallway, opening the first door on my right. It was a small bedroom with a single bed, no pictures on the wall, no personal effects and the curtains were drawn. I shut the door and moved to the next one. It was a slightly larger room with a double bed and again, nothing to indicate who had lived here. The door opposite led back to the kitchen and the one next to it was a linen cupboard. I opened it wide and disappointed, reached out and switched on the hall light. The linen cupboard was completely empty. I ran a finger the full length of the shelf. It came away clean. No grit, no dust. Not only had the cupboard been emptied, it had been thoroughly cleaned. Now that wasn’t your average New Zealand house. Who dusted the inside of their linen cupboard?
Of the three more doors in the hallway, the one to my left was the bathroom. Out of curiosity I walked in and opened the vanity cupboard and almost jumped out of my skin. Unlike the empty linen cupboard, it was full of bottles, tubes, shaving gear, brushes and other jumble, which you’d normally find in a male bathroom cabinet.
Relief flooded through me and I chuckled weakly. I’d been letting my imagination run away with me. Here was all the debris of a man’s bathroom cabinet.
I straightened, thinking he must have been a bachelor. When I met my husband David, he was flatting with another bachelor. I remember being amused that all reading material was in the toilet, linen was usually found in the clothes’ basket after being taken off the clothes’ line and the ironing board was a permanent fixture in the dining room. David had loved the order I brought to his life. I had a place for everything and everything kept in its place. My father had described me as careful. High praise from my Germanic father who was so precise in everything he did.
“So, Frederick Hopmann, a bachelor you must have been,” I said quietly. In that case, the most important room would be his bedroom. I’d probably find the linen in the bedroom wardrobe. I hurried from the bathroom and opened the next door on the left only to find another small bedroom. There was only one door left. I opened it and walked confidently into the main bedroom. This is where I would learn about him. Two walls were wall-to-ceiling curtains and I walked past the double bed and swept them back.
I’d expected a bit of a shambles with stacks of books, photos, piles of bills and letters everywhere. But it was a fully furnished, empty house. Now, more observant than ever, I noticed the full-length mirror in the corner and the set of drawers were dust-free. Maybe, Frederick had rented the place out fully furnished.
I pulled open one of the drawers, it was full of socks and handkerchiefs; the next had jumpers. If anyone was renting the place, they would have taken their clothes when they left, especially if they were the type of person who would dust an empty linen cupboard. I was still bemused by such housekeeping precision. Curious, I crossed the room to the bed and pulled back the covers. Clean sheets and pillowcases still had the fold marks on them.
The bookshelf above the bed had a row of shabby paperbacks, a Frederick Forsyth, Wilbur Smith and a Sydney Sheldon - books that you would find in any motel room.
Rain suddenly hammered on the roof and I spun around, a strong feeling of someone behind me. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled and I walked back to the window to check no one was hiding in the dark spaces under the trees. It was totally illogical, but I was sure I felt a presence.
Annoyed at myself, I turned back to the wardrobe. There was a black suit, shiny with age, several shirts and trousers all hanging neatly. Three pairs of shoes sat in an orderly row on the floor of the wardrobe. I opened the cupboard above and found a suitcase, which I dragged towards me with rising hope, but shoved it back again in disgust. I could tell by its weight that it was empty.
I turned, and with a final glance out the window, slowly made my way back to the kitchen. “Where are you Frederick? If you lived here, there must be traces of you. But where?”
In the kitchen, I opened one cupboard after another. A small dinner set made sense if he lived on his own. One cupboard had a supply of tins and packets and there was an open packet of porridge. It looked as if someone had been staying here, but surely not living here. Where were the bills, the personal papers? The paraphernalia that life accumulates? The family photos, the silly gifts people give you?
The desire to leave was suddenly overwhelming and I hurried through the house, closed all the curtains and locked up behind me. I walked around the dark puddles spreading across the path and pulled the gate securely shut behind me. As I came around the garage, I looked around me. The house in front was huddled in the side of the hill half way down the drive. Below that, I could see the road winding through the bottom of the valley, with one more house further down the road half-hidden in trees. New Zealand scenery is famous for its mountainous country. What foreigners considered a small mountain, was just a hill by New Zealand standards. I wondered if I would have problems with possums, such a pest in rural areas. I squinted across the valley to see if there was anyone around, but it was too far away to really see. Not so isolated then. A couple of neighbours gave me a bit of Dutch courage.
As I turned towards the car, a flash in the paddock across the road caught my eye. I scanned the area, looked carefully at the group of trees and stood watching but I couldn’t see what had caught my eye. Without a backward glance, and no little relief, I drove down the drive and headed back towards the motorway and home, unable to shake the feeling that someone had been watching.