We’re being scammed the conspiracy theorist cousin screams down an email from far, far away. We are being scammed.
It has been over two years since Finders, the international probate genealogist firm wrote. They make money from hunting families for those who die isolated, and alone. Intestate. My protestant Scottish relations have too much money & too much anxiety about keeping a hold of it, that there is not a chance they would do something so daft. But on the other side, for the Catholic Doyles life’s only preoccupation is survival. As Eileen grew nearer death, her confidence thin, she perhaps believed that she had nothing to leave. She was worthless. Literally.
But Eileen was not. She was actually worth a great deal.
Not that we know that when the introductory letter from the genealogist comes in. It writes that Eileen is a once removed cousin and I am the first of our ragged, unwieldly bunch to be found. I am delighted. The letter lists only one of my brothers. I wonder whether I should tell the firm about the other two. Do they count? One’s not speaking. Not speaking a whole decade. A big, long, hairy sulk, and the suggestion that I climb out from behind my own silence feels like taking a step too far.
I consult a cousin and am told I need to be fair. Guileless and gullible as a toddler I shower the genealogist with news of the eleven aunts and uncles that Eileen had, her possible seventeen cousins, and most importantly, because the seventeen are dying off like roses in August, I give them a full list of the next in line – me and a ghastly further forty-six.
The bleating about scams is understandable. We are a family who have been scammed before, lied to by our parents, who have been lied to by theirs. It’s bound to make us wary. Or is it that amongst us there are some who cheat others, and are comfortable doing it too.
It is months before anyone asks about poor Eileen. About her life.
Here she is as a girl, standing beside Granny, my grinning Dad out to the far left. Eileen wears the kind of dress that can terrorize a wearer. Those white ankle socks too. Those shoes. All of them can get dirty, and not through any fault of our own. This is not a family good at keeping the linen clean.
It is one of the few photographs of Eileen that remain. House clearance has undoubtedly done for everything else. The rubble of her existence filched and trashed. But before all that disaster we find her at a family wedding with her hands clasped. There is still so much story ahead of her, and as she peeks over the edge of her bashfulness to camera, no-one can know how the rest of this narrative will go.
Yet the family around her know just how things for Eileen have already gone.
In 1939 her cousin Richard pitched up one afternoon at Glasgow Central. He had travelled by charabanc, boat and train from Ireland, desperate. He was thirteen. His clear instructions were to save his little brothers and sisters from the children’s home and for that he had to find work. The getting by, the surviving had begun.
Eileen’s father, John, was a drinker, the kind of drinker that burned a temper. Self employed, he worked from home, repairing vacuum cleaners, picking broken ones up at auctions, and selling them on. Richard arrived just before New Year, and for a treat Uncle John took him to Celtic Park. The boy remembers standing in mud, the snow falling down, miserable. Not only was Britain at war, but Celtic lost, a loss drowned long and hard in the pub. By the first week of January the boy had fallen sick.
When the doctor called, he diagnosed Diphtheria. In Glasgow diphtheria had broken out, with a mortality rate of over twenty per hundred thousand. Lancet articles talk in terms of an epidemic. Within a few days his Aunt fell to the infection too, so sick with it that she spent two months in hospital. Then four year old Eileen succumbed. The only person to escape the plague was baby John. Richard still remembers that when Eileen came out of hospital her leg was in plaster, a deformity that would never be cured. Then she started to lose her sight. Richard paused in the telling:
‘I still think about it you know. Still think that it was me who brought that diphtheria into the house.’
Did Eileen limp I ask. Those who met her and knew her once the family moved to London, can’t be sure. What they can be sure of though is that when it came to Jesus she was devout. They are also sure that she waited. Waited till her mother’s death, before she felt able to marry herself. Here she is, aged twenty-one, with her mother in Princes Street Gardens before the waiting was begun.
It would be another fifteen years before that wait was over. Paddy waited too. Was it simply that Eileen’s mother did not like him. God for sure did not like either of them. Because within months of marriage, while at work inspecting a trench, it collapsed. Paddy was buried alive.
Alone again, back in her mother’s house with her little brother, the childless Eileen mourned. Though she prayed each day, confessed freely to the priest, and took communion as regularly as she could, there was still more tragedy to come. Baby John in his fifties, the one lucky enough to avoid Richard’s diphtheria, committed suicide three days before Christmas. Together they had lived twenty five winters in the house where he died. Where their mother died. A home that was cleared and sold, food for solicitors, for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, for Finders, and for us.
‘The only scam is how these buggers hoover everything up,’ one cousin tells me. ‘The worst of it is that each one of those scam-accusing-phone-calls the family makes,’ and he’s right, there have been a few, ‘earns them more.’