That afternoon, Cynthia brought a strawberry cake from Patisserie Valerie because Uncle Herbert said he liked them.
Oh, Cynthia, you shouldn't have, it's so expensive! To which she replied, come on, diet is important, but never will I ever deny a cake to my one and only Uncle Herbert.
Wendy brought some sweets, and Andy and Rita topped the whole lot with chrysanthemums, white for Uncle Herbert, pink for Natalie.
Natalie also visited Uncle Herbert in his home for senior citizens every last Friday of the month. She was also his lawyer.
That Friday, Wendy brewed coffee for herself, Cynthia, Andy and Rita, while for Uncle Herbert there was peppermint tea, he has to look after his heart, you know.
Wendy always reiterated that, and everybody always nodded in agreement. We don't want to mess up his blood pressure, do we! Natalie was running late, so Wendy set aside an empty cup for her.
Autumn was creeping nearer, and the room was heated ruthlessly hot. Streams of sweat slipped from Andy's bald crown, the poor man couldn't wipe fast enough.
Truth be told, it was clear that Rita dragged Andy here against his will.
Neither Wendy nor Cynthia were blind; evidence was as clear as a police report that Rita was trying to provoke sympathy by using Andy as the loser husband.
Rita always talked about the low salaries of civil servants (meaning Andy, obviously), about the difficulties of making ends meet,
what with the kids accumulating study debt and hers being the only salary that kept the family afloat. Who could tell how long Rita would be able to be the steady rock of the household?
As if the others didn't have their own problems! With Cynthia, it was her dilapidated, falling-to-pieces flat. Everybody was kept up to date with the leaks from the roof, the taps, the bath tub.
The water seeps through the micro-cracks in the outdated sealant, see, and drops onto electric installations below, which can lead to electrocution as you step into the shower.
The most recent leaks she had discovered were from the gas cooker. None of these leaks was Cynthia able to tackle properly, since it was so bloody expensive.
She also always managed to slip into the conversation some reference to the outrageous prices of tilework, or plastering, or some such.
Wendy, in contrast, lived in a neat little house. She was also single, but did that make her life any more bearable? Not a bit of it.
Her thyroid was feeling funny, and recently she had grown to suspect her bladder of hosting stones. But then you know how it is with the NHS these days.
They turn you away at the door, hoping either that your body will fight the problem naturally or that you will die, which for the NHS is a win-win situation either way.
Travel agencies these days earn more from medical tourism than from regular tourism.
Of course, she could fly to South America for an operation she could just about afford, but then how would she pay for the flight?
Not that Wendy wanted to talk only about her own troubles. She didn't, cross her heart. Do you have gallstones yourself? No? What a pity.
I would LOVE to talk about your gallstones. But since you haven't got any...
As a matter of fact, I saw my GP just recently but, you know, one cannot expect any actual healing from a doctor unless one presents a handsome bribe.
And she kept on talking, and downing her Douwe Egberts one after another, while everyone else around the table suspected she hadn't got as much as a grain of sand in her bladder,
just too much Douwe Egberts.
In short, when all was said and done, they could all do a lot, lot better with a bit of extra cash.
So, every last Friday of the month, the meetings continued, while Uncle Herbert reclined in his comfy wheelchair.
They all agreed privately that he didn't really need the wheelchair at all and had just grown lazy. And do you know how much those things cost?
Altogether, they had kept up their visits for a full four years now, driving to this faraway spot rain or shine, and it all added up. Petrol. Coffee. Sweets. Biscuits. Cakes. Flowers.
Of course, the longer Uncle Herbert lived--let the Almighty grant him a long life, touch wood--the larger their collective investment in him became.
Andy already worried that the investment might soon be overtaken by the expenses...
It should be added that Uncle Herbert wasn't a particularly exemplary senior citizen. In fact, he was a rather grumpy, egotistical and senile old codger, totally full of himself.
Once tall, but now just plain bony, like an Ikea coat-hanger, with just a few remaining grey hairs stuck to the very back of his skull, like the last tuft of grass in desert dunes.
His uneven cranium was speckled with yellowy spots, like the fingerprints of death.
Oh, and that grin of his. Andy believed there was something quite Steven King about Uncle Herbert's grin. Yes, that was exactly how he put it.
There is something quite Steven King about that grin.
King had that short story about a horrific paranormal virus that lives in a painting, remember?
Can't remember what it's called, but there was a grin just like Uncle Herbert's in that story and that painting.
When he said that to Rita, she told him off. You're always making up excuses, she said, anything, just to skive off visiting Uncle Herbert. It won't do, you know.
We've visited him for four years and we're not giving up now.
That Friday, Herbert sat through the visit as stiff as ever, occasionally poked with a spoon at the slice of cake on his plate and eyed Wendy in a somewhat disturbing way,
so much so that Rita jabbed Andy in the side with her elbow.
Didn't I tell you before that Wendy is trying to seduce Uncle Herbert with that cleavage of hers? Wendy should be ashamed of herself, Rita made a mental note of saying to Andy in the car later.
She's what, fifty or something, and she exposes herself to a man at least thirty years her senior. Honestly, it's a scandal!
Isn't this just so delightful, Cynthia cooed meanwhile as she poured more coffee, to be in the company of true friends.
And, by the way, Rita dear, this coffee of yours, isn't it just THE best coffee ever? Where do you buy it?
Morrissons, snapped Rita the dear, directing a cold stare at Wendy's decolletage, yet achieving nothing.
Morrisons? Really? How is that possible? Andy, what do you think? Do you think Douwe Egberts are producing different coffee for different Morrisons stores?
At this moment, Natalie arrived, saving Andy the torture of discussing the Douwe Egberts-Morrisons conspiracy.
Noticeably relieved, he announced that it might be a good idea to start on their way home. He really wanted to get up early on Saturday morning. Trim the hedge and so on.
You know how things pile up around the house. So up they went.
Natalie stayed, as was usual, the last Friday of every month ending with her and Uncle Herbert locked away in his room.
Wendy had a theory that the old man rewrote his will every month, while Rita as always speculated that there was something sexual (Natalie was in her sixties, and men, as everyone knows,
have a penchant for younger women). Cynthia also clearly wasn't a fan. One could tell from the pursing of her lips and squinting of her eyes, that Cynthia, in fact, very much disliked Natalie.
Four years ago, Rita had caught Natalie by the sleeve and asked pointblank what they did behind the closed door. I'm giving him his bedtime read, Natalie had replied.
Whether it was the truth or some ridiculous fabrication, Rita couldn't quite work out.
Wendy was at her cooing again, hugging everybody in turn. How amazing to be together, as Uncle Herbie's closest family, right?
She cast a glance at Natalie. Right?
The thing was, not one of them was Uncle Herbert's true kin. Rita and Cynthia were related to Herbert through his late wife, while Wendy was his goddaughter.
Other than that, Herbert was as alone as Crusoe without Friday.
Alone and, most likely, quite rich. He had used to own a company, which he had sold before his retirement.
The company hadn't been doing particularly well when he did, so any estimation of his riches was complete guesswork. But the home he was in wasn't cheap, and neither were the suits he wore.
They wished him goodnight. During the whole time the old man had barely uttered a full sentence, just observed them, like a cat on a window sill.
Occasionally his purple lips had curved into something akin to a vague smile, making Andy feel uneasy again.
Finally, they left, and Natalie rolled Herbert in his chair to his room.
The fire had already been lit in the open fireplace and a hot chocolate drink had been placed on the magazine table next to it.
Natalie was about to put the cake inside the fridge in his room when Herbert beckoned with his withered paw.
'I hate strawberry cake,' he croaked. 'Take it if you want, or throw it in a bin. They just can't wait for me to kick the bucket, so I let them spend a bit on me, ha-ha-khe-khe!'
He coughed while rubbing his hands with pleasure and then moved a little to find a better position in the chair.
The fireplace poured liquid flames into their eyes, creating a dreamy circle of faint golden light around the open hearth. Natalie sat down in a chair opposite Herbert and prepared to read.
She cast a glance at the old man and then lowered her eyes to the wad of papers in her lap.
The firelight shimmered on Uncle Herbert's bare skull, his protruding nose,
his dry fingers clenching the armrests of the wheelchair--it made him look like a vulture who had descended from the skies to feast.
'And now,' Uncle Herbert creaked with anticipation, 'please read me again that clause whereby I exclude them from the inheritance and all the money goes to the British Botfly Extermination Fund.
This story was inspired by a cartoon of the great Peter Arno (1904-1968), cartoonist of The New Yorker.