Page 6

The Endgame Jeffrey Archer 2022/7/22 14:06:11

some photographs. May we also have your permission to place a sign in the garden?’

‘Please do,’ said Cornelius without hesitation, and barely stopped himself from adding, the bigger the better.

After he’d left the estate agent, Cornelius walked a few yards down the street and called into the local removal firm. He asked another young man if he could make an appointment for them to take away the entire contents of the house.

‘Where’s it all to go, sir?’

‘To Botts’ Storeroom in the High Street,’ Cornelius informed him.

‘That will be no problem, sir,’ said the young assistant, picking up a pad from his desk. Once Cornelius had completed the forms in triplicate, the assistant said, ‘Sign there, sir,’ pointing to the bottom of the form. Then, looking a little nervous, he added, ‘We’ll need a deposit of £100.’

‘Of course,’ said Cornelius, taking out his chequebook.

‘I’m afraid it will have to be cash, sir,’ the young man said in a confidential tone.

Cornelius smiled. No one had refused a cheque from him for over thirty years. ‘I’ll call back tomorrow,’ he said.

On the way back to the bus stop Cornelius stared through the window of his brother’s hardware store, and noted that the staff didn’t seem all that busy. On arriving back at The Willows, he returned to his study and made some more notes on what had taken place that afternoon.

As he climbed the stairs to go to bed that night, he reflected that it must have been the first afternoon in years that no one had called him to ask how he was. He slept soundly that night.

When Cornelius came downstairs the following morning, he picked up his post from the mat and made his way to the kitchen. Over a bowl of cornflakes he checked through the letters. He had once been told that if it was known you were likely to go bankrupt, a stream of brown envelopes would begin to drop through the letterbox, as shopkeepers and small businessmen tried to get in before anyone else could be declared a preferred creditor.

There were no brown envelopes in the post that morning, because Cornelius had made certain every bill had been covered before he began his journey down this particular road.

Other than circulars and free offers, there was just one white envelope with a London postmark. It turned out to be a handwritten letter from his nephew Timothy, saying how sorry he was to learn of his uncle’s problems, and that although he didn’t get back to Chudley much nowadays, he would make every effort to travel up to Shropshire at the weekend and call in to see him.

Although the message was brief, Cornelius silently noted that Timothy was the first member of the family to show any sympathy for his predicament.

When he heard the doorbell ring, he placed the letter on the kitchen table and walked out into the hall. He opened the front door to be greeted by Elizabeth, his brother’s wife. Her face was white, lined and drained, and Cornelius doubted if she had slept a great deal the previous night.

The moment Elizabeth had stepped into the house she began to pace around from room to room, almost as though she were checking to see that everything was still in place, as if she couldn’t accept the words she had read in the solicitor’s letter.

Any lingering doubts must have been dispelled when, a few minutes later, the local estate agent appeared on the doorstep, tape measure in hand, with a photographer by his side.

‘If Hugh was able to return even part of the hundred thousand I loaned him, that would be most helpful,’ Cornelius remarked to his sister-in-law as he followed her through the house.

It was some time before she spoke, despite the fact that she had had all night to consider her response.

‘It’s not quite that easy,’ she eventually replied. ‘You see, the loan was made to the company, and the shares are distributed among several people.’

Cornelius knew all three of the several people. ‘Then perhaps the time has come for you and Hugh to sell off some of your shares.’

‘And allow some stranger to take over the company, after all the work we’ve put into it over the years? No, we can’t afford to let that happen. In any case, Hugh asked Mr Vintcent what the legal position was, and he confirmed that there was no obligation on our part to sell any of our shares.’

‘Have you considered that perhaps you have a moral obligation?’ asked Cornelius, turning to face his sister-in-law.

‘Cornelius,’ she said, avoiding his stare, ‘it has been your irresponsibility, not ours, that has been the cause of your downfall. Surely you wouldn’t expect your brother to sacrifice everything he’s worked for over the years, simply to place my family in the same perilous position in which you now find yourself?’

Cornelius realised why Elizabeth hadn’t slept the previous night. She was not only acting as spokeswoman for Hugh, but was obviously making the decisions as well. Cornelius had always considered her to be the stronger-willed of the two, and he doubted if he would come face to face with his brother before an agreement had been reached.

‘But if there’s any other way we might help . . .’ Elizabeth added in a more gentle tone, as her hand rested on an ornate gold-leafed table in the drawing room.

‘Well, now you mention it,’ replied Cornelius, ‘I’m putting the house on the market in a couple of weeks’ time, and will be looking for . . .’

‘That soon?’ said Elizabeth. ‘And what’s going to happen to all the furniture?’