Our new blogger on the everyday challenges of juggling family life with a hectic career as a solicitor somewhere in England. This week: Of Amy Winehouse, sprinting to the office and remembering to empathise.
I have come to the conclusion that I live with two very small, blonde Amy Winehouses. And not just because of their moody, antisocial behaviour, mixed with flashes of potential future brilliance and a reluctance to wear shoes outside. It’s mainly because of the tangled beehives I have to wrestle with every morning. In the last week alone I have found sellotape, a half-eaten candy cane and a set of needles from a sewing kit in their hair.
I start late on Wednesdays to drop them at school and then race to work for 9.15am. At that time there are few car parking spaces to be had, so I can generally be found at 9.17am running across town trying to get to the office before the disapproving looks start from colleagues.
On this particular Wednesday, I am stopped by a man walking his dog. He says hello.
I say hello back, politely, and try to keep running. He then says: ‘Don’t suppose you have heard anything?’
Who on earth is this man? From whom should I have heard?
My shoulders are hunched somewhere near my ears and my eyebrows are raised almost to my hairline with the residual stress of the hair-brushing and car parking and everything in between.
‘No’, I say, keeping my tone as neutral, polite and non-committal as possible. I guess this is the correct answer, because surely if I had heard something I would have contacted him? I continue running to work.
On arrival I have an appointment with a woman in her late-80s, who has recently lost her good friend and neighbour. I ask her how long they had been friends.
‘The thing is,’ she says, ‘I went to the optician last week and they said I needed a hospital appointment because of something they could see in my eye. So I went to the doctor and told the doctor what the optician said. The doctor said I would get an appointment at the hospital next week, but she didn’t know when so I made the appointment to see you today. But I didn’t know if I was going to make it and I didn’t want to have to cancel. but you need your eyes don’t you? Actually I got a letter this morning to say I have an appointment at the hospital next week.’
The meeting continues like this for an hour, at which point I am not much clearer about her problems. Only that she lives in the upstairs flat and her man friend lived in the downstairs flat, and as he hadn’t made a will she wasn’t going to get his flat.
Bearing in mind her age and verbosity, I decided to wait for another time to ask her about – ahem - the exact nature of their relationship, which could become relevant in a 1975 Act claim. My eyebrows and shoulders not standing a chance of coming anywhere near their normal positions, and thinking about all the urgent, chargeable work on my desk, I try to bring the meeting to an end.
When I was a trainee, my grumpy old training principal had a habit of standing up when he decided the meeting had finished. So I stand up now. This does not deter the woman from continuing to talk incessantly about - literally at this point - the price of fish. I bite my tongue to stop me asking the inevitable question - what on earth does this have to do with the price of fish? Eventually, I tell her that I just have to go and do some other work.
She says: ‘I don’t think you are really able to understand the situation unless you come to see the flats.’ In a weak moment and in order to get her out of the door, I agree to visit on my way home that afternoon.
The building is a converted maisonette with two front doors, but there is a small sofa blocking the entrance to the downstairs flat. I go in the other door and up the stairs to the woman’s flat. The living room is cluttered and small. There are two small bedrooms not much bigger than the single beds they contain, a kitchen with one cupboard, a sink and a cooker, and a small shower room.
It is tiny. For the second time that day, I try to explain that she has no claim against the estate - under the 1975 Act at least - if she didn’t live with the deceased.
In her own home, she is almost calm, and confident. ‘We did live together, I tried to tell you this morning,’ she says. ‘We were together 70 years and we loved each other. We only used his flat to do our washing and for the dining table if we ever had visitors.
‘I can’t have someone else move in downstairs as I won’t have anywhere to do my washing and I think I need to make a claim against his estate. I have money to pay you, I know it won’t be cheap.’
I don’t believe she did tell me any of this morning - or not coherently anyway.
She shows me around downstairs, via the shared garden and the back door that gives direct access to the downstairs flat. It is even smaller than the upstairs flat because of an integral workshop/garage.
In the garden, the fence separating the gardens of the two flats has long since been removed. There is a collection of garden gnomes and a row of vegetables growing, leaving just room for a very small table and chairs. How this was ever two gardens I don’t know.
We go back inside and talk about the flats, their relationship and their joint love of Strictly Come Dancing. This conversation lasts a while, as Deceptively Angelic Looking Child 1 is a superfan.
I wonder, not for the first time, when life became so hectic that I periodically forget how to listen and empathise. I also remember how much more confident my gran was in her own home, and the importance of putting someone at ease.
I think she might have a claim.
As I leave, I get a text from my secretary: the beneficiaries have both agreed we can accept the neighbour’s offer to buy the house on the Smith estate. I grin as I recall the man walking his dog this morning.
I quickly send him an email on my phone: ‘Sorry, I was in such a rush when I saw you this morning! I have just heard from the beneficiaries that we can accept your offer. Please let me have details of your conveyancers. Kind regards…..’