A tale from
The Winefullness Armchairs
Be Careful How You treat Our Feline Friends.
Susan walked along to the solicitor and was inhabited by a mixture of sadness, happiness and oppressive guilt.
The sadness was because her friend Charles Antrim had died. Happiness because she wasn’t a wealthy woman and kind of hoped that she’d been called to receive something from the estate of Charles, and guilt because she was responsible for his death. If only she could have gone back in time she might have changed things.
Before the arrival of Charles as her next-door neighbour, she’d been living the quiet life that had seen her grow from a spinster and into a pensioner with such ease that it seemed so natural.
She was happy with her solitary life, her solitary trips to the shops and her solitary outlook on a world where she’d always felt an outsider. This might have been because slight poverty made a deeper relationship a distant notion
Susan lived in a worn house that had seen better days, on the edge of an avenue where the other houses almost seemed to show off their wealth; with their exhuberent families, their extended garages and their two-car conservatories.
It wasn’t that Susan wouldn’t have enjoyed some of these attributes, but a family had never fitted into her plans, and she had no need of a car when the bus services of the town were quite adequate. Besides, she knew that she had something her neighbours lacked; an immense pride in her home. It might have seen better days, but her garden was an immense explosion of suitable colours that surrounded a pristine lawn, and the inside of her house was dusted, hoovered, polished and cleaned to within an inch of its life.
Before Charles Antrim moved into a next-door house that had been empty for a number of months, and which previous owners had left to open a bar in Spain, she had been untroubled be it and almost oblivious to its presence.
On the very rare occasion that Susan had been inside she’d found the colour schemes garish, the furniture too modern and it contained a cellar that had become a dumping ground for empty cardboard boxes and the sort of detritus people accumulate over the years and hold on to in case it becomes needed. Of course it never will. Then Charles arrived.
He was a portly gentleman who’d been something in the city, continued to dress smartly, even though he was retired.
They’d first met about a week after he’d moved in. She was nursing her lawn, actually cutting wayward blades of grass with a pair of mail scissors when he'd popped his head over the hedge to say hello.
He had an easy-going manner that made Susan feel he was easy to talk to, and as they touched upon a variety of subjects the time flew and Susan felt something she’d not felt for a long time. Companionship.
She was too old to wish for anything more, and if she have wanted something else, the way he discussed his departed wife would have put the breaks on such notions. So this was to be a friendship pure and simple.
Charles asked Susan if she would like to pop in for a drink and his manner made it easy to accept. Soon she was standing in the tidy kitchen, while he reached for a couple of glasses which he filled with a slightly lemon coloured wine. Drinking wine in the afternoon seemed such an exotic idea.
Susan had, of course, tasted wine before, and on a couple of occasions (Christmas and New Year) had actually bought a bottle to welcome those dates, but what she was drinking now was nothing like those insipid, watery bottles she’d previously tried.
‘It’s a Montrachet that I was planning to open,’ he told her in an accent that could cut glass at five paces
‘It’s very nice,’ Susan replied without knowing how she should really react.
He lifted the glass, took a sip before performing a variety of exercises with his mouth that Susan had once seen performed on television by a wine expert.
‘It’s almost moving into an area where it will lose its vitality, but I think that it’s still something to offer.’ He assured her.
‘Do you like wine?’ she asked.
‘Yes, but I don’t drink it enough to form deep opinions. You sound like an expert I once saw on television.’
Charles nodded his head and showed his appreciation of the compliment by lifting his glass and saluting a smily thanks to her.
‘Come with me,’ he said as he headed towards the door. I want to show you my nest egg.’
Susan didn’t have to walk far because he led her to a small door that was under the staircase. She knew that this headed down to the cellar beneath the house.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small key which he inserted into a lock, and with a slight twist the door was opened, the light below switched on and he led the way downstairs. Susan followed.
Once at the bottom of the cellar Susan saw what the nest egg was and she gave a little gasp, because everywhere she looked were various wines in various sizes of bottles stacked against the walls and placed in boxes on the floor. Susan knew very little about the world of wine, but she knew that the hundreds of bottles with their different, and sometimes colourful labels must be worth quite a pretty penny.
‘My wine collection. I’ve put this together since I was a young man. The size now stands at eight hundred and twenty-three bottles, and every so often I add a couple of new ones.’
‘This will take you a while to drink?’ Susan ventured.
Charles raised an eyebrow and smiled slightly.
‘Most of these aren’t for drinking. I’ve bought them as an investment. The ones near the bottom of the stairs are the ones that I drink regularly, but they’re not worth that much.
He walked over to the opposite wall to which he'd just gestured, one on the edge of light. Here he retrieved a bottle that was nestled in the middle of a wine rack that covered the wall. He then showed it to Susan before continuing.
‘This Petrus is worth quite bit because of its rarity, as are all the wines on this shelf…’
‘Aren’t you tempted to drink, or sell?’
‘One day I will, but for now I’m happy to come down here, pick out a bottle and imagine what was happening the day the grapes for the wine were picked.’
And with that he took a moment to smile at the bottle in his hand as though he were a proud parent watching his child’s first steps. Then he gently pushed it back into place.
‘I must say I am mighty impressed,’ Susan said. ‘You’ll have to teach me more about appreciating wine.’
With that the short tour had finished and Charles escorted her back upstairs where Susan suddenly froze, because watching her intently was a large, fat tabby cat.
The reason that she froze was because she didn't like cats. In fact, it’s fair to say that she hated cats. For some reason she found them a too-knowing animal by half, and from the way that the ample tabby watched her that opinion was only reinforced.
‘That’s Opus,’ Charles said as he too noticed the cat. ‘He's named after a rather nice vineyard in the Napa Valley. He’s a nosey, but friendly cat. I’ve had him for an age, and I expect he’s just come in from exploring the neighbourhood.’
‘How nice,’ was all that Susan could say until Opus started to sashay towards her, and then before he could rub himself 'friendlily' against her legs, she made her excuses, told Charles that he must come to her tomorrow so that she could repay his kindness. Then she was off, carefully avoiding the cat while trying to make it not look obvious that she held the creature in such contempt!
Charles visited the next day, and they continued to easily chat as they drank tea and eat some sandwiches that Susan has specially prepared. She told him that she would have served him a glass of wine, but her lack of knowledge would have meant that it was easy for her to make a faux-pas. Thus began Susan’s education of wine, thanks to Charles.
Over the next few months He took her through the basics of wine appreciation; from tasting wine to getting the most out of the experience, what varieties grew in what countries, what foods worked best with which wines and what glassware was appropriate for encouraging which wine.
Susan was a quick study, partly because she enjoyed Charles’ company. There was nothing physical, but the two of them felt a great need for companionship.
The one thing that was a constant worry to her was the chance that she might actually run into the dreaded Opus again. She mostly avoided this by learning the times that the horrible cat left home to go for an explore, and roughly when he would return. It was thus easy to find time for Charles without seeming suspicious. That was until Opus surprised her one day!
Now I’ve told you that Susan wasn’t wealthy and always carefully counted every penny, and I’ve mentioned that she was houseproud and maintained her garden to a high standard, and that was where she was on the day in question; tending the various flora that demanded her attention.
Suddenly, she became aware that she was being watched, and as Susan looked about she became aware that it was actually Opus who was studying her intently through eyes that never seemed to blink on the fence that divided her property from Charles’.
She muttered a curse under her breath and started to stand. The cat dropped off the fence and on to the soft earth that contained her vegetable patch.
‘Now you can get away from there you mangy fleabag,’ she quietly hissed just in case Charles was on the other side of the fence.
The cat ignored this request and deliberately walked towards her.
Susan started to back away but Opus slowly, purposefully, and with an almost sentient air continued heading towards where she was standing. All the while the cat looked up at her.
She rushed inside her home, where she locked and bolted the door before seeing what the cat was up to from her kitchen window. Opus was looking directly at her before raising a paw and carefully cleaning himself. This annoyed Susan so much that she filled a bowl full of cold water, opened the door, went outside and from a safe distance threw the contents in the direction of Opus.
Only a few drop reached him and the cat simply remained still, watching her with wide-eyed interest. Susan knew at that moment that Opus was going to be trouble!
The next day Susan got up early with plans to mow her lawn into pristine lines that would have graced any sports field. The first thing she wanted, however, was a nice cup of tea, and so she headed down to the kitchen, and as she was filling her kettle she looked out of her window. What she saw made her drop the kettle and rush outside, all the while not believing it possible.
In the middle of her already perfectly manicured lawn lay a collection of cat droppings that had been carefully piled up in as neat a way as was possible.
Susan headed inside to get a dustpan and brush, and as she cursed the revolting job of cleaning she had to do she heard a soft rumbling purr come from nearby.
It didn’t take long for her to see what was making the noise, because sat on the fence, leaning in her direction, watching her and purring loudly was the dreaded Opus. Susan was almost sure that the cat was wearing a proud smile as she swept the feline crap on to the dustpan.
‘Why you cheeky little swine!’ she said as she stood up and gave Opus a cold stare. In return, he simply turned his back on her .
‘So, you want to play a game?’
Susan threw the cat crap in the bin, washed the dustpan and brush under an outdoor tap, returned them under the sink before heading back out on to the lawn with a broom in her hand and a warm, welcoming smile on her face. This was pointed in the direction of Opus, who had now turned back round and was suspiciously watching her once more, but without the accompany purr from the fence.
The woman took a couple of steps in the cat’s direction while rubbing her fingers and using her tongue to make a couple of warm clinking sounds.
As she neared Opus she moved slower and stooped a little so that her fingers were only a couple of centimetres off the ground. She now added a few choice phrases that she hoped the cat would interpret as a request for friendship. Fortunately he did, and in moments he’d cautiously dropped off the fence and started snaking his way carefully in her direction. The purr returned as Opus sensed he’d made a new friend.
The broom swishing firmly against his body with a hollow thud disavowed him of this notion and he speedily scampered off to lick his wound and plan his revenge.
Susan was so happy that her plan had worked, and she almost danced her way back inside her house where she poured herself a small glass of a suitable Amontillado that Charles had recommended as competitively priced but punching above its weight.
Her happiness grew over the next couple of days as Opus stayed well out of her way. He didn’t sit on the fence watching her, didn’t appear in Charles’ house when she went around for a chat, a glass of wine and more viticultural education. Her welcoming neighbour even remarked that ‘Opus was keeping an unusually low profile at the moment.’
About five days later, she was heading to the shops to buy the ingredients for a meal she’d promised to prepare for Charles as a thank you for being such a good neighbour, and though she didn’t feel that this was a date or anything of the sort, she still wanted to impress him with her culinary skills. Charles had even promised to bring around a bottle of something special that would go with the meal.
As she picked up the ingredients for the wholesome repas that had a degree of difficulty somewhere between 7.5 and 8, Susan found herself happily humming an old tune and smiling to herself.
Thankfully, the shops weren’t too far, and on the walk home she ran through the recipe and what preparations would need to be done first. She warned herself that she would need to be quick because her little empire would need to be clean and tidy for her visitor. Then she could start the peeling, the pre-heating, the mixing and cooking.
Susan entered her avenue, reached her gate, opened it and then, retrieving her key, headed towards her back door (she only used her front door on special occasions. Needless to say, it was rarely used). She stopped when she noticed that the backdoor was slightly open.
A range of emotions from confusion to fear entered her mind as she approached the door whilst remembering that she’s been in such an excited state about the meal that she forgotten to actually lock the door.
Susan couldn’t remember leaving the door open, and as she gently nudged it wider she tentatively toyed with the notion that a burglar might have paid her a visit. Her impressively tidy kitchen put her mind at rest on this score. The tiled floor was spotless, the kitchen bowls were lying cleanly next to a shiny sink, crockery had been placed in the correct cupboard space and pot towels were neatly hanging from prescribed rails. Susan smiled to herself and assumed that she been a little bit forgetful in her hurry to get the ingredients for the meal.
She chided herself for being silly, emptied the shopping bags into the correct locations, filled the kettle with water, retrieved her favourite cup, and then went to the hallway to check if the postman had been. She stopped by the open living room door.
For somebody as houseproud as Susan, the sight of devastation that greeted her was so shocking it almost knocked her off her feet and she held the doorframe to steady herself.
Her lovely fireside rug had been torn to shreds, the sofa cushions were in tatters on the floor and the stuffing was scattered all over the floor. The sofa itself had been the victim of a viscious attack and claw marks were everywhere.
As Susan looked in disbelief it seemed as though no part of the living room had been left untouched. The curtains hung torn and limp from rails that were almost coming off the walls. It was as though a heavy weight had been dragging them down. The television lay face down and, at that moment, she didn’t know if it was cracked and would still work. Then she noticed the final insult, because at the edge of the rug, near to an armchair that had been suffered a savage attack lay a present similar to that which had been laid on her lawn a few days before, and as Susan scanned the debris that had been her cosy little living room with tears welling up in her eyes she looked out of the window and saw the figure of Opus staring intently at her.
She sobbed for hours at what had taken place. Some of the tears were anger, some for the loss of one or two prized possessions, but most of all she cried because she was frustrated. She’d not enough money to replace much that had been destroyed, and the thought of her beautiful home degraded was almost too much for her to take.
Susan would, of course, try and make the best of what had befallen her, but inside she knew that when she looked about at the wreckage of what had once been a beautiful home, the thoughts of what that cat had done to her would never be far from the surface of her mind.
That cat! The more and more she thought about what it had done, the more a furious anger she’d never felt before bubbled inside her, inflaming her mood and making her plan revenge. She didn’t care about subtlety, she just wanted to hurt the beast so much that she never entertained the thought that the ruination of her house might have been caused by some other reason. It was obviously the cat. The cat she hated, the cat who stared knowingly at her, the cat who was capable of such much evil. When Susan thought about it, she was sure that the cat would have to pay!
Until the solution came to her, she tried hard to maintain her dignity. She continued to learn about wine from Mr. Antrim, continued to talk about the minutia of life and most of all she continued to pretend to like Opus, particularly when he wasn’t there. She took this to such a degree that she would often ask Charles where the cat was when he was absent. This worked so well that Mr. Antrim even joked with her that she appeared to love Opus almost as much as him, but all the while a simple plan for revenge was worming its way to the surface.
One day she went out to the local shops, making sure that her doors were locked and her property secured, to buy the means for her revenge, and having retrieved a suitable plate from her cupboard, she emptied the contents of a pouch of finest fishy cat food on to the saucer.
Into this she then added a small amount of rat poison. Not too much, because she didn't want to arouse suspicion if the cat died suddenly and one of her plates was found nearby.
Now, Susan mixed the two ingredients together until she was sure that even the most aware of cats would not be able to tell that the food have been doctored, and when she was happy that her goal had been achieved, she opened the kitchen door, checked that nobody (especially Mr. Antrim) was about and she went outside where she placed the deadly mixture just by the fence where she’d seen Opus evilly watching her.
For three days she diligently took out a small plate of deadly food in the morning, and in the evening she retrieved the empty plate. She then washed this thoroughly before placing it back inside her crockery cupboard. Susan was careful to use a different plate every day for fear that the crime she was committing would be easily traced back to her. She didn't know how, she just wanted to be cautious.
On the fourth day she was preparing the killer mixture on a plate when she heard a very loud cry from outside, and without thinking she went to investigate what could have made such a noise.
From the heavy sobbing she heard, she knew that the sounds were coming from Charles Antrim’s side of the fence and it didn’t take an idiot to work out what had happened.
Susan went through the adjoining gate and there kneeling over the still figure of Opus, gently nursing the dead cat’s head in his hands was Mr. Antrim. His pain was plain to see, and all joy at her revenge was quickly overcome by the amount of sadness she felt at seeing her neighbour in such a desperate state.
Suddenly the shaking from loss turned into something else, and as her neighbour's body went into a series of spasms it was obvious to Susan that something was far from okay about Charles Antrim.
An air of panic surrounded Susan’s thoughts, making it difficult to decide what to do for the best. This feeling of helplessness was further heightened when Mr. Antrim suddenly fell on his side while striving to draw in as much air as was possible while the grasp of his hand on his heart continued. Moments later he was also as still as his cat.
Ten days passed slowly for Susan. Days when she closed her sewn curtains as a mark of respect for her dear friend. Ten days when she felt a tidal wave of guilt over her part in his death, because her hatred of Opus had grown out of all proportion she’d assigned the beast human emotions that now seemed ridiculous, and in turn made everything about her seem ridiculous.
She went to the funeral and assembled with a sizeable gathering to pay her respects to a man she now realized was the one true friend she’d ever known, and as she listened to others talk about their experiences of friendship with Charles Antrim her notion of a future loneliness became large and deep.
There was a ‘do’ afterwards, back at her former friends house, but she just couldn’t face sitting there and thinking about the chats they’d had, the wines he’d taken her through and the knowledge he’d generously imparted. She went back to her solitary life, stared out of her kitchen window as she nursed a cup of tea and cried until she could cry no more. A couple of days later the phone rang.
The man had a reedy voice that sounded as though it had been given a helping hand at one of the finer educational institutions of the town, and as he spoke Susan realized that she only understood about half of what he was saying.
He told her he was in charge of the late Mr. Antrim’s estate and that he’d been tasked with contacting various people that had been mentioned in the will.
Then, Mr. Birkett; for that was his name, mention probates and things that she thought she understood but didn’t want to embarrass herself by asking in case she didn’t. So Susan just kept quiet until the odd yes was required in answer to questions.
He told her almost conspiratorially, that if she could drop by his office (which was located in the centre of town, in what was usually called the ‘Posh Part’) she might hear something to her advantage. It was at this moment that Susan started to let dreams nurse their way into her head!
At first she nursed the hope that he’d left her the odd memento that she’d admired. Perhaps he might have left her a few hundred pounds, after all he seemed to have done very well for himself in the world of business if the house he lived in was anything to judge by.
Her thoughts settled on the possibility of a bottle of good wine because that’s what they talked about, that’s where their friendship had grown and that was what she’d expressed her admiration about the most as her knowledge had grown. Maybe there was a bottle of something from Bordeaux or Burgundy with her name upon it. If that was the case she would keep it in the best of conditions in honour of Charles, and she hoped that she would have enough money to buy a suitable book about keeping such wine. Charles had mentioned the name of Steven Spurrier as a major influence on more than one occasion.
Finally, she arrived at the firm of Birkett, Raynor and Tiller, gained admittance and was soon sat being cuddled in the sort of armchair that one could sleep forever in as she looked across at Mr. Birkett while trying to act as though she had no idea why she was actually there. He simply moved papers and files around his ample desk before looking up from his work and smiling gently at her.
From the look of him he wasn’t much younger than she was, and the reedy voice she’d heard on the telephone seemed to be amplified by the thin, stick insect arms that wafted the air as he once again talked in a legalese that baffled Susan to the point of making her feel as though he were speaking to her in a something foreign.
‘And finally,’ he said, ‘We get to the reason for you being here…’
Susan tried hard to hide a faint smile as the wine she was about to receive grew from a Chateau Giscours or a Joseph Drouhin to a Haut-Brion or a Chateau de Pommard. There would be a temptation to take a sip, but she could fight it and perhaps if it was truly valuable she might find somebody to buy it and give her enough money to mend some of the items that Opus had destroyed (after the initial shock and guilt, she’d found ways to justify her treatment of the cat over the following weeks).
Mr Birkett continued, and amongst the rambling narrative he was creating, Susan heard how much Mr. Birkett had loved meeting her, becoming her friend and discussing his wine collection with her.
‘He has written that while he knew that you didn’t have too much money, the friendship you displayed towards him from the moment he and Opus arrived is something he will always remember, and I must say that from the attached bequest I would support this, because, as he had no family, and apart from business associates, friends and colleagues, he almost viewed you as his next of kin.
'With this in mind, I am pleased to tell you that not only has he left you his house, which you may sell or move into should you wish, he has also instructed me to tell you that he is going to leave his entire wine collection in your care. A wine collection that when last valued was put somewhere near £1,550,000. A sum that places its value as greater than the house.'
As he said this Susan noticed his left eyebrow raised as though emphasizing just how lucky she was. She would have studied Mr. Birkett in greater depth, but the shock of what she had just inherited meant that she actually found it difficult to see, and all that lay before her was an out of focus mist.
Eventually, the various items she could now afford came to mind. She could sell her house and move into his bigger one, or she could perhaps move somewhere else altogether. She enjoyed living on the avenue but wasn’t so attached to it that she couldn’t see beyond its limited appeal.
The wine could be auctioned so that it might even bring her more money. Perhaps she could keep a couple of the prized bottles for herself and open a bottle of Cristal Champagne the moment her finances started to really grow. A shopping list for the future worked its way through her thoughts. Then she realized that Mr. Birkett was actually saying something. Something about a codicil.
‘I’m sorry,’ Susan told the legal mind. ‘I was miles away.’
‘I’m sure you were. No I was talking about a codicil that Mr. Antrim had placed in his will.’
It was obvious to Mr. Birkett from the look on Susan’s face that she hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. Either that, or she was already spending the money in her mind. The solicitor had seen it many times.
‘To put it simply, a codicil is an addition to a will that often reinforces some wish or whim of the deceased party. In this case, Mr. Charles. Antrim.’
Susan heard herself say, ‘Oh.’ And accompany it with a large sigh.
‘It concerns Opus, who I believe is his cat.’
‘A lovely cat,’ she lied, ‘and such a shame when he suddenly died.’
Mr. Birkett looked up from the will and the smile he’d been nurturing turned to the serious.
‘Opus is dead?’
‘Yes, just before Mr. Antrim. His death is what possibly caused the dead of Mr. Antrim.’
‘That is a shame.’
‘Why?’ Susan almost shouted because she was getting a little fed-up with the way this man took the conversation in all manner of directions when straight would have been best.’
‘Well, according to the codicil, Mr. Antrim wanted you to have the house and wine collection because, he found you to be an immense cat lover like himself and he hoped that in reward for giving you the house and wine that you would agree to look after Opus until his dying day, when you would be free to do what you wanted with the bequest.
‘Should the cat predecease Mr. Antrim, he has left instructions that everything should be sold at auction. Then all monies would be given to a cat rescue centre in the hope of helping the many needy feline friends. I’m sorry, but with the death of Opus the first part of the will is void.
‘He did however leave you something.’ And after saying this Mr. Birkett reached inside the lefthand draw of his desk, brought out something and laid it on the desk.
Looking up at her was a framed picture of Opus and Susan could almost swear that the cat was looking into her soul and laughing!