Twenty months after that first letter from the Finders our family has all been found, a family scattered and fragmented in a tree that stretches horizontally over ten pages. We are strewn across the Antipodes, North America and Europe, and amongst our number is a policewoman, an engineer, a farmer, a homeless free thinker and a conspiracy theorist. Many of us believe we're being scammed.
Eileen, the probate genealogist tell us, has nine living first cousins, and seven dead ones. Then in the next layer down - my layer - there are thirty-one living beneficiaries, two dead, and four ‘adopted out’ (a term used by the courts which means exactly what it seems).
We beneficiaries who were, gratefully, not given up for adoption, receive a solicitor’s letter, which outlines how much our bequest might be. At best I was expecting a muffin’s worth. So when the news comes in I nearly fall off my chair. It’s a holiday-of-a-life-time, a second hand BMW. It’s why the ‘We’re being scammed’ mails have a note of hysteria. There’s far, far too many of us for holidays and cars, AND there’s the solicitors fee, the finder’s fee, and a whopping 40% of tax. Someone isn’t telling the truth. Is anyone suggesting that Eileen mined gold?
The solicitors ask us to present a passport, a utility bill and a bank statement before funds can be released. It is this request that increases the unease. Clearly we will have our identities stolen, and our bank accounts robbed. But the itinerant free thinker, of no fixed address, is not listening. First through the solicitor’s door, with nothing to lose, he presents himself for inspection.
It’s the ‘scruffiest London lawyer’s office’ he has ever seen he tells us: ‘mouldy, damp, items of clothing everywhere.’ And when he goes to relieve himself, he informs us that the whole ‘crew’ were just sitting round a table back stage eating fish and chips.
There is panic. The call goes out that someone needs to go in. The itinerant cannot be trusted. Clothes on the floor. Fish and chips.
I get on a train. The conspiracy theorist imagines that since there are two locations for the solicitors online, the second address must be the scam. So I head directly to the first. On Tooley Street it’s expensive. Shard-proximity expensive, and directly opposite the office entrance is a huge suit shop, mannequined with an army of pricey solicitor uniforms.
Inside, on the ground floor, there’s a security man at a desk. I am given a badge. Then told to go up to the second floor.
Everyone in the lift with me is suited, paunched, complaining, and getting off at floor two as well. There I find the same logo as used on the letterhead, and behind an extremely posh reception desk, an under thirty receptionist, chosen for her presentation skills and her handling of flowers. There is a large vase. She looks baffled when I ask whether she is away with the faeries, and whether the letter I have received (I brandish it) is really, really from her firm.
'Yes,' she shoos me back towards the lift, 'the office you need,’ she stabs the letter with a manicured finger, ‘is further south, on the Walworth Road.’
In the lift, on the way down, I ask the gentleman trapped alongside me what work it is that these solicitors do. He lists words that I don’t understand: mergers, acquisitions, debentures, conveyancing, probate. Clearly I must look bored, because he pauses, speculating on what it is that I might need: 'And of course we do marriage mediation too.'
Two stops further down the Northern line, at Elephant & Castle, I find gentrification has not yet got the better of Walworth Road. The sub-office looks like it was once a Jobseeker’s stall. There is a stingy, narrow counter, and glassed off access to a receptionist, who I peer at through the smudgy window. Screen open on a database the receptionist is stapled to a desk surrounded by mountains of cheap cardboard wallets in the kinds of colours you’d never want to give to a wall, a dress, or a shoe.
The woman is nested amongst the chaos, degrees older than her Tooley Street colleague, whose only irritation was me and the flowers. When the glass screen opens there is a desk, a cheap table for overflow and more filing in piles across the floor. When I announce that the family believes that she and her firm are a scam, the woman flumps into her cheap chair.
She's sick of the sight of the Eileen Freeman paperwork, she tells me, and levers a blue folder from the overflow table, where it is balanced atop a bulging pile of three. On the flap is written the deceased’s name in felt tip, the word ‘probate’ and a case code. She shows me the wide, wide family tree and a list of people she has sent letters to, ticks and highlighter slashes marking the margin with a code.
‘A relation on Eileen’s mother’s side,’ she tells me, ‘organised the funeral and informed us that she had died. The pity of it is that his own brother was lost in the waiting. Now it’s only himself left alive.’
While on her father’s side there is me, and a diabolical thirty-nine moaners.
I ask her if I can have his address to thank him.
‘Did he know Eileen well?’
‘Not so much. They’d not seen one another in those last years. It’s what happens I suppose as the time drifts by.’
This is no scam.
Against the conspiracy theorist’s clear instructions I offer up my bank details. I am informed that perhaps it would be cheaper if the office sends me a cheque.
‘It's forty-two pounds for a bank transfer, and that could eat things up,’ she replaces the folder back on its pile. ‘Tell your relations to send in their identities. Poor Eileen should be at rest,’ she gestures at the gaping blue files. ‘It’s time we put her away.’