Kirsty wrinkled her nose. The smell was unpleasant and difficult to place. Boiled cabbages, old meals of dead animals, unwashed bodies. All were present. But accentuating these, like some sauce or garnish, the faint tang of urine, from hundreds of leaky waterworks, seeping out their contents into damp underwear.
Gross. Why not put them out of their misery? What sort of life were they leading? No friends, no purpose, no brain.
Kirsty glanced at the nurse. She was young and pretty. Why did she choose to work among these losers?
The two of them stopped in front of an old man, slumped in his chair, a blanket on his knee, with a magazine resting on top of it.
“Greg, we have a young visitor for you,” said the nurse. “This is Kirsty.”
The old man looked up from his magazine and peered at Kirsty. He seemed to like what he saw. His features rearranged themselves in a gummy grin that resembled a smile. Kirsty noticed with disgust that most of his teeth were missing, and there was a musty smell coming from his mouth.
“Welcome, Kirsty,” he said, in a the drawn out vowels of an American accent. He stretched out his hand. Kirsty touched it briefly.
“I’ll leave you to it,” said the nurse. “I’ll see you in an hour.”
There was an awkward silence. As part of her community service sentence Kirsty was supposed to be a companion to these old people, many of whom were starving for the company of someone born close to this century. But what could she talk about?
“Er, what do you do, Greg?” Most adults seemed to like this question. “I mean,” she amended when Greg stared blankly, “what did you do?”
“Mostly labouring jobs. Digging drains for the council. That sort of thing. When I got older I did data entry. I haven’t worked for twenty years.”
Kirsty nodded. “Do you have any children?” Another one adults liked.
“Two. They never come here. They stayed with their mother after my divorce.”
A real loser, thought Kirsty. Career fail, husband fail, father fail. All losers. I’m a loser, he’s a loser. Life sucks.
Kirsty looked at the magazine on Greg’s knee. It was open at the chess puzzle.
“Do you play chess?” she asked, to break the silence.
Greg displayed his missing teeth again. “I’d like to,” he said. “There’s nobody around here to play. There are chess pieces in the cupboard if you want a game.”
Kirsty rummaged in the cupboard, tipping aside the Cluedo, Yahtzee and other mind-dribbling past-times until she found a box of plastic chess pieces and a battered board. Probably not much challenge, she thought. But beats having to make conversation for an hour.
Greg took a pawn in each hand and offered them to Kirsty. Kirsty chose. White. They set up the board quickly. Kirsty opened king’s pawn. Then bishop to the centre square. Greg responded conservatively, but in a way to develop his pieces.
Just as I thought. Didn’t see the chopped liver attack. Still a beginner, or maybe senile.
Kirsty licked her lips as she put her knight into position. Greg moved his queen.
So you’ve seen it, old man. But it won’t save your castle.
Kirsty took the pawn. Greg moved his bishop. Kirsty’s knight swooped on the trapped castle.
Greg didn’t seem to notice. He moved a pawn, opening up the board.
Then Kirsty made a blunder. A minor one to be sure, only a pawn, and she was a castle up. But when Greg took the pawn, the board seemed to fold open to him.
Disdaining even an attempt to take the trapped knight and get at least something in exchange for his vanquished castle, Greg started a concerted attack on Kirsty’s king. Greg sacrificed two more pieces, finally pinning Kirsty’s king in the corner with his queen and remaining knight. The game was over in ten minutes.
Kirsty’s face burned. She had underestimated her opponent, something boys at school had often done to her, a mere girl, to their detriment. This time the humiliation was Kirsty’s.
“Good game,” said Greg. “Want another?”
Kirsty nodded. Maybe she could take her revenge. Concentrate harder this time.
Greg opened king’s pawn again. He likes to attack.
Kirsty responded defensively, king’s knight’s pawn. This game would take longer. Once all the pieces were cleared from the back rank, Greg castled king’s side. Kirsty hesitated. A queen’s side castle would give a more exciting game, with both players attacking their opponent’s king.
Kirsty castled king’s side. The game ground on. But Greg seemed to be losing concentration, and Kirsty’s pieces were better placed. Kirsty took her time, making sure her defences were secure and gradually forcing her pawns forward.
Greg resigned once Kirsty’s pawn was ready to queen. “Another?” he asked. There were only fifteen minutes remaining of Kirsty’s visiting hour.
“All right”. Fifteen minutes was still too long for stuttered small talk and embarrassed silences. Kirsty knew her mother wouldn’t care if she got home late. She never seemed to notice Kirsty much. The two younger children, Kirsty’s half-siblings, took up most of her time and energy.
“You play chess well, Kirsty,” said Greg. “Have you thought of making something of it?”
“Not really.” Kirsty moved a bishop.
“You give me a good game, and I used to be an A grade player.”
An A grade player?
Mr Maxwell, the physics teacher at Kirsty’s school, and the only one she respected, was an A grade player. He ran the school chess club, and was considered some sort of chess idol, regularly playing in regional championships. This old man had been his equal? It was hard to believe.
“Pity I didn’t take my chess any further,” Greg continued. “I was too frightened.”
That was more like it. He may be a natural chess genius, but he’s still a loser.
“You want to talk? Or you want to play?” Kirsty never took her eyes off the board.
“Concentration ... yes, that’s my weakness.” Greg moved his knight to block Kirsty’s bishop advance. The game was reaching an interesting phase, and for a while both players made their moves in silence.
When the pieces were thinned out, Greg spoke again. “How did you learn to play?”
“My step-father taught me. Didn’t take long to beat him. Or her other men she hangs around with. Or my own boyfriend. The loser who dared me to chuck a brick through that shop window. Morons. All of them. I love beating them. They think they’re so much better than me. But I’m not thick. I do well at school, when I can be bothered.”
“How old are you?”
So maybe you’re still young enough to become a Master. Why don’t you try? Join a club. Get some proper coaching. Show them that girls can do anything. Play chess, run businesses...”
Greg was rambling. What did businesses have to do with it?
Kirsty moved her eyes back to the board. The pretty nurse had come into the lounge, and she sat quietly waiting for the game to end.
Greg moved a pawn.
Shit. Why didn’t I see that?
Greg’s pawn move seemed innocuous, but by sacrificing two pawns, his remaining one would queen within four moves. Kirsty glared at her opponent. Typical sneaky male play. Trying to distract her.
“Looks like you’ve won,” she said. “I wish you’d stop talking.”
Her voice was too loud, Kirsty realised. The nurse was staring at her, and even some of the elderly deaf patients, watery eyes blinking, had turned their heads to see where the sound was coming from.
“I’m sorry, Kirsty,” said Greg. “We can make it a draw if you want.”
That would be one way out. Save face with this smelly old man. But then ... it was a clever play.
“No need.” Kirsty knocked over her king. It clattered off the board onto the floor. “I resign.”
Greg held out his gnarled hand. “Good game.”
Kirsty touched it briefly. “See you next time,” she said, and stomped away.
Kirsty felt her gut tighten as she entered her probation officer’s workplace. Her mother didn’t look too happy either. Last time Carol had given both of them the sharp edge of her tongue, berating Kirsty for her ‘selfish arrogance,’ and her mother for ‘not being there for your daughter.’ Her mother had just stared back and said nothing. Fat lot of help she was.
After her petulant behaviour at the old people’s home the day before, Kirsty dreaded another telling off. She was pleasantly surprised to be greeted with a smile.
“The nurse in charge of Greg Brown tells me he’s the most cheerful he’s been in years,” said Carol as Kirsty and her mother came in. “You’ve certainly done something to cheer him up. The nursing staff wants you to spend all your time with Greg, and not worry about the other patients. What do you think?”
“Yeah, whatever, I don’t care.” Kirsty shrugged. Better stinky Greg than senile Elizabeth. At least Greg still had a mind, even if his body was decaying.
“That’s settled, then. You’ll be seeing Greg every day for an hour after school until your sentence is over. If he’s indisposed then the home will give you other work.
“Another thing,” Carol continued. “As part of our restorative justice programme, you are both to report to the owner of the franchise you vandalised. You will be required to make whatever restitution we agree upon.”
“Sucks,” muttered Kirsty. “His insurance will pay”.
“Her insurance premiums will increase as a result. As will everyone else’s. Businesses will hire more security and everyone will be inconvenienced. All because you let some brain dead yobbo tell you what to do. Time you started thinking for yourself.
“It may be a good thing for you to meet a young woman who’s made something of her life. Foley’s is a successful business, and Amber March is one of its more up and coming managers.”
Carol glared at Kirsty. Kirsty looked down.
“Are you willing to meet next Saturday at 10am?”
Kirsty nodded. One time was as good as another. It’s not as if she had a packed social calendar. She’d dumped her loser boyfriend, and hadn’t the energy to look for another.
“Good. See you Saturday.” Carol opened the door. “You know,” she said, as Kirsty walked through it. “There’s a good person inside there somewhere. Greg Brown could see it.”
Kirsty sniffed. What did it matter what that tramp thought?
When Kirsty returned to the rest home the next day, she was surprised to see that Greg looked almost presentable in a clean jacket that nearly matched his trousers. He was even wearing a tie, if the faded piece of cloth wrapped round his neck with some sort of granny knot could be dignified by that title. Kirsty caught the smell of peppermint when he smiled at her, in place of halitosis.
“Why did you dress up?” Kirsty sat down. The chess pieces had already been set up.
“I’m entertaining a young lady.”
A nurse aide approached their table and said something to Greg. “Would you like a cup of tea?” Greg asked Kirsty.
Kirsty was about to refuse, then realised that Greg enjoyed acting the gracious host.
“Okay. Black.” They were unlikely to have non-dairy milks.
As the nurse aide left to make the tea, the two started to play. They played two games, and won one game each. With ten minutes to go, both decided there was no time for another game.
“How old are you, Greg?” Kirsty attempted to make conversation. She had heard it was rude to ask an adult their age. But the elderly seemed to be an exception.
“Eighty-five. I’ve been here eighteen years.”
My God. Eighteen years of this place. I’d slit my wrists. No wonder he enjoys my visits.
They spoke a bit more. Greg told Kirsty he had come to New Zealand from the United States as a young man and Kirsty told Greg about her school and the physics teacher. She enjoyed science. She wasn’t sure what she would do when she finished. Maybe do a trade.
“Kirsty, why not do something with your chess?” said Greg. “There are not many women at the top levels. Why not join that chess club run by the teacher you admire? Do something with your life.”
“Who are you to talk about doing something with my life?” Kirsty snapped. “Why don’t you practice what you preach? What have you ever done? Failed with your chess, and failed with everything else in your life. And now look at you. Stuck here with a bunch of senile old tossers.”
Greg sighed. “You’re right. That’s why I’m telling you not to make the same mistake I made. Anyway, you need to get home. Shall I see you tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I’ll be here. I don’t have much choice.” Kirsty got up and walked out. She knew she had been unfair to the old man and she hesitated, ready to turn back and apologise, until her anger and self-loathing put the thought out of her mind.
The Foley’s franchise where Kirsty, her mother and Carol met that Saturday was bustling. Amber March received them in her cramped meeting room, full of filing cabinets, left over stock and boxes.
Kirsty was surprised to find that Amber was a pleasant, freckled woman slightly younger than her mother. Their meeting was continually interrupted by shop staff wanting Amber to sign some authorisation or another, and in one case to placate a difficult customer. But after introductions, small talk and pleasantries had been dealt with, Amber and Kirsty came to an agreement.
The insurance company had agreed to pay for the damage, but there was a thousand dollar excess. Kirsty would pay this back by working at the shop each Saturday for fifteen dollars an hour stacking shelves and doing data entry. If she proved competent at this work she would be allowed to serve customers, in which case her wage would increase to twenty dollars. Kirsty was still on a youth rate, and Foley’s paid at the top of the range.
“All our adult staff get at least living wage,” Amber told them. It’s company policy. Our aim is to be fair to human and non-humans.”
“Non-humans too?” Kirsty looked around the busy shop for the first time. “Are all your products cruelty free?”
“All our food products are vegan, and our cosmetics and other products are not tested on animals,” said Amber. “Our range of vegan cheese and sausages are made here in Auckland by a sub-contractor, using a recipe designed by our founder.”
So Amber’s going into sales pitch mode. But it still sounded impressive.
Carol could not resist commenting. “You see, Kirsty. This shop actually aligns with your own values. Kind to animals, and buying New Zealand made. Even more reason to think before you act.”
Kirsty hung her head. If she had known it was a vegan shop she would never have damaged it. What an idiot.
Kirsty’s mother and Carol left soon afterwards, and Amber showed Kirsty around the store. Kirsty started work that day. Stacking shelves was hard, and Kirsty was exhausted at the end of it. She was, however, pleased when Amber looked over her work and pronounced it satisfactory.
“See you next week, Kirsty,” she said, as Kirsty started her walk to the bus stop.
The next day, Sunday, Kirsty stayed in bed until late then did her homework. Mr Maxwell had set a science research project, and Kirsty took extra pains in doing a good job.
On Monday she waited at the end of the class to ask Mr Maxwell about chess. Then, when one of her classmates called her for a gossip session outside the toilets she thought better of it. The impulse to ask her teacher whether she could join the chess club, and how one could become an A grade player didn’t surface again that week.
For the next four weeks, and for four evenings the following week, Kirsty played chess with Greg at the home. The two of them were evenly matched, and both developed a healthy respect for each other’s strengths even as they probed their weaknesses.
Kirsty’s game was improving, but she never got an edge because Greg’s game also lifted. Greg’s play was aggressive; he loved nothing more than sacrificing a piece or two to break a pawn barrier. He would then push his passed pawns to the eighth square, or go on a king hunt. Greg’s tactics often worked, but he was learning to temper valour with discretion in the face of Kirsty’s meticulous defensive play, and to concentrate more on long term strategy.
“Great to see this old dog can still learn a trick or two,” he commented to Kirsty on one occasion.
“This young bitch is learning plenty as well.” Kirsty grinned back, causing Greg to chuckle.
That Friday, Kirsty was greeted by the pretty nurse, whose name she had ascertained was Angela, not Julie.
“Greg’s not well today,” Angela said. “He’s not in any condition to play.”
“So what am I to do?”
Angela caught Kirsty’s expression and laughed. “Don’t worry, I won’t make you talk to Elizabeth. I think Greg would like to see you. Would you like to visit him?”
Yuk. The very idea made her feel ill. The rest home was depressing enough. What must the hospital annex be like? Warmed over bodies waiting to die.
Kirsty had not been to the hospital wing, but once when a white-coated doctor had passed her in the corridor on the way to see Greg, she had caught a whiff from his clothes. The rest home smell in concentrated form, with the additional stink of fear and antiseptic.
“Not really. What’s wrong with him?”
“It’s just a cold. But you can understand that for our elderly residents, the sort of infection that strong young people such as ourselves can throw off, can be totally debilitating.
“He’s not in the hospital.” Angela seemed to sense Kirsty’s fear. “He’s in his own room. Come this way.”
By rephrasing her question as a command, Angela had not given Kirsty much choice. Perhaps his room may not be so bad, she thought, as she trailed her feet after Angela.
It was bad enough. When she went into the darkened room after Angela and almost gagged on the strong body smell, Kirsty realised just what an effort it had been for the old man to spruce himself up for her visits.
The room was furnished simply, a bed, hard chair and desk. There were some photographs in an alcove, but that part of the room was so dark that Kirsty only took in shapes. She did recognise a younger version of Greg, his arms around an attractive brunette, and two shadowy children.
“Kirsty is here to see you, Greg,” said Angela. The bed clothes writhed and Greg’s face peered up at the two visitors.
“It’s good to see you, Kate,” he croaked.
His mind’s going. “Kirsty,” she said. “It’s Kirsty”.
“Sorry, yes, I should have known. Sorry, Kirsty, I’m not up for a game today.” Greg reached out his hand and grabbed hold of Kirsty’s.
Kirsty had to fight the urge to snatch her hand away. Instead she shook the old man’s hand. “Sorry you’re not well, Greg. Maybe we can play again on Monday, if you’re better.”
Then Angela spoke up, to Kirsty’s relief. “Best let Greg rest now,” she said. “Come again on Monday.”
The two of them walked out of the room. Kirsty was worried. Under the terms of her community service, the rest home could assign her any suitable task during the hour she was here. She hoped it wouldn’t be scrubbing bed pans, or whatever they did with them. Even talking to daft Elizabeth would be better than that.
“Greg has perked up since you’ve been seeing him,” said Angela. We were afraid he would die. But apart from this virus, which he’ll soon shake off with plenty of rest, his health has improved no end.”
“Do you get patients like that? They can just die because they want to?” Why didn’t more of them want to? Kirsty couldn’t understand it.
The two were now in the patient’s lounge. Angela stared at Kirsty. “You have no experience with old people, do you? Where were your grandparents?”
Kirsty shrugged. “Dead.”
It was almost true. They were dead to her and her mother at any rate. She never knew her mother’s family. Never wanted to. The way her mother described them, they sounded depressingly like her father.
Her mother had left her family and unemployed boyfriend at nineteen following a screaming match with her parents when they discovered she was pregnant with Kirsty. Kirsty’s mum had got on a bus to the city, got a job and never contacted her family again as far as Kirsty was aware.
“Greg’s not used to teenagers, either,” said Angela. “I’m sure he told you he’s been estranged from his children since they were little.”
Greg had told Kirsty something like that, though she tended not to listen when Greg said personal stuff. Too awkward.
“What do you want me to do now?” asked Kirsty. “I’m not washing bed-pans,” she added hastily.
“I don’t expect you to,” said Angela. “You don’t have much experience with hospitals either. We have sterilisers to do that job now.”
Angela paused in thought. “I don’t think there is anything for you to do that doesn’t require training. You could talk to some of the other residents perhaps.”
Kirsty made a face.
“You feel awkward with them, don’t you?” said Angela.
Kirsty nodded. “I can’t see how anyone can work here. I’d rather have done my time at the SPCA but they said they already have too many volunteers and they don’t take community service cases.”
“Lots of people wonder why I work here. Maybe one day I’ll tell you. In the meantime I’ve got more work to do. I won’t ask you to talk to anyone else. I’d rather you just concentrate on Greg. You and he have something special going. You may as well go home.”
YESSS! Then Kirsty wondered why she was so excited. She would only play video games or watch TV at home after all. Nothing as interesting as an intellectual tussle on the chess board.
As Kirsty walked towards the exit she noticed a familiar figure shuffling towards her on her Zimmer frame. Kirsty had seen her a number of times, and had avoided her. This time she stopped in front of the old lady.
“Hello, Aunt Elizabeth,” she said, slowly and clearly.
The old lady fixed her watery eyes on Kirsty.
“Hello, young Anne,” she said. “Good to see you.”
“You too,” said Kirsty. There was an awkward pause. Kirsty had forgotten the script. “Well, must rush,” she said eventually. “Very busy day ahead.”
“Tell me about it,” said Elizabeth. “Always rush, rush, rush, that’s me. See you next time.” Elizabeth pushed the frame slowly up the corridor.
Kirsty started the walk back to her mother’s house.
Saturday came around and Kirsty was working at Foley’s again. Last week Amber had appeared pleased with Kirsty’s diligence, and approached her to suggest something new.
“You’ve got a good head for figures,” she said. “I could maybe use you on the book-keeping team. Not sure whether you’re ready to serve customers yet.” Amber’s reticence may have had some connection to a rather choice and explosive expletive that Kirsty had released on the occasion when she had dropped a glass jar of organic peanut butter.
Kirsty liked Amber. She was hard working and intelligent, and what was more important to Kirsty, she was obviously dedicated to the values of the company. It had long been her ambition to run a Foley’s franchise. She had gone into debt to purchase her equity in the company and was determined to make a go of it. Kirsty found out Amber didn’t have a boyfriend, saying that boys were a waste of time, something that Kirsty concurred with.
“And no, I don’t fancy girls either,” she said. “I just want to get myself established in business before I start breeding.”
As if spending most of every day at the shop were not enough – and coping with vandals, Kirsty remembered with a pang of shame -- Amber was studying part time for an MBA.
“I’m doing my thesis on our founder,” she said. Maybe some time I can show you.”
Kirsty worked the four hours required under her agreement, but as she was about to leave for home, there was a crack of thunder like a battery of artillery and the rain swept down in a continuous sheet.
“No way are you walking home in this,” said Amber. “If you can wait for an hour until the shift finishes, I’ll arrange for one of the staff to drop you home. You can have a look at my work on Catherine Foley while you’re waiting. You said you were interested. The thesis is a bit academic but you can have a look at an article I’m writing about her for “Women’s Weekly”.”
Kirsty agreed readily enough and Amber showed her into her office. A different, and more tidy place than the small meeting room she was received in during her first meeting. At the desk was a sheaf of papers, and a photograph of a pleasant looking middle aged woman, who looked vaguely familiar.
Kirsty sat on the comfortable swivel chair, and was soon absorbed in Amber’s article.
“Vegan Business Queen Smashes the Glass Ceiling
Catherine Foley, founder of the successful vegan food manufacturing and retailer Foley’s Ltd, is a role model for women everywhere. Catherine’s tragic death from a brain haemorrhage at the young age of fifty three left a gaping void in both the business world and the vegan activism community.”
Kirsty read on, spellbound. She read about Catherine’s humble beginnings as the child of a single mother from a state house, rather like Kirsty’s own situation. Catherine had done as well as could be expected at school, and had then gone on to do a City & Guilds cooking class.
Amber’s article quoted an earlier interview with Catherine in which she reportedly stated “nobody ever went hungry feeding others.”
That might have been the case, but as Amber went on to explain, Catherine found the male ribald word of commercial kitchens too hot to stay in. After a particularly acrimonious exchange with one Gordon Ramsay-type head chef, Catherine walked out, determined to make it on her own.
“Catherine taught herself food technology,” Amber’s article continued. “A much more technical and demanding subject than the cooking classes she had attended. It’s rather like a chauffeur learning to service vehicles and not just drive them. Catherine had to come to terms with esoteric biochemistry, biology and nutrition, while still juggling her career and motherhood.”
Amber wrote well, taking the reader on a journey through Catherine’s early failures and business flops; selling muffins door to door to local businesses, a coffee cart that also sold healthy juices, a web-based food delivery service when the internet was still in its infancy. Kirsty remembered some of the arty magazine pieces she had been forced to read for her English teacher at school. This was much more entertaining; and practical, too. Kirsty read on.
“Catherine was knocked back several times, but never let her determination falter. A lesson for all women, and indeed all people in business. And then, she had the idea of Foley’s; a vegan meat and cheese manufacturing business, making healthier plant-based versions of the type of comfort food the standard kiwi palette has come to crave.”
The article skilfully wove in quotes from business associates and Catherine’s children. The youngest child was nineteen when Catherine died unexpectedly. Both children were now running successful businesses of their own.
The children’s praise for their mother seemed somewhat over the top to Kirsty. What would it have really been like, she wondered, living with Super-mum. Her own mother was always distracted with her two siblings, both from different fathers, and her new boyfriends. According to her probation officer, this had been a huge contributing factor to Kirsty going off the rails.
Kirsty kept reading.
“Catherine Foley is a rare inspiration. Certainly she had some help along the way from respected figures in business, but most of the time it was her own grit and determination that got her to the top of her profession; a thriving business that keeps growing. Seventeen years after Catherine’s death, Foley’s has twelve franchises in all the main centres and employs a hundred and twenty people. Catherine was determined to prove that women do not need men to help sustain them. Catherine’s example shows us that girls truly can do everything!”
Amber entered the office just as Kirsty finished reading the last paragraph, swinging her car keys. Kirsty pointed out a few typos she had noticed. Amber nodded.
“Well spotted,” she said. “You have a talent for writing as well as figures. Better make use of them. Much more lucrative than vandalism.
“Sorry,” Amber continued, noting Kirsty’s scowl. “Uncalled for. Especially as you’ve been doing a good job making amends. I appreciate your work here, and I hear you’re also making a difference at the old people’s home. Not easy, that.” Amber wrinkled her nose. “Don’t like oldies much myself.”
“Can I buy this for Greg?” Kirsty thrust a box of vegan chocolates at Amber. She had taken them earlier, intending to put them through the till, but had somehow forgotten.
“Those should be rung through the till,” said Amber. “The store’s closed now.”
Kirsty’s face fell. Should have just taken them. Fessed up later.
Take them,” said Amber. “I’ll remember to put them through tomorrow and deduct them from your account.”
“Do I get the staff discount?” said Kirsty. “I do sort of work here.”
“Hmm, nice try. Yes, all right. Anyway, none of the other staff are going your way, so grab your coat and I’ll take you home.”
Kirsty broached the subject of Catherine Foley when she was sitting in Amber’s warm car. She liked the sound of this woman, who rose to the top of her profession without any help from men. She remembered a saying she had heard once. A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Then she thought of something.
“You mentioned Catherine’s children in your article. So does that mean there was a man somewhere?”
Amber’s lips pursed into a tight line. “Catherine was married for twenty years.”
“So why didn’t you mention this?”
“Look, Kirsty, Catherine’s husband had nothing to do with her success. He was a complete deadbeat. Rather like that drongo who dared you into smashing my shop. Only worse, far worse. He was fifteen years older than Catherine, which tells you what he was after. He married her when she was twenty-five and was a millstone round her neck until he left 20 years ago.”
“Where is he now?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care. Dead, as far as I know. I interviewed Catherine’s children for my thesis, and they never mentioned him. Who knows how much more Catherine would have achieved without that leech sucking on her.”
They drew up outside Kirsty’s home, and Kirsty said goodbye to Amber. The business woman had certainly given her something more to think about. For the first time, Kirsty’s mind rose above thoughts of a trade. I could go to business school, even university. Become an engineer, or a doctor. Why not; after all, girls can do anything.
“I hope you’re feeling better today,” said Kirsty. She and Greg were sitting in their usual place, the chess set between them.
“I bought you a present, Greg.” Kirsty placed the chocolates on the table beside Greg. “They’re vegan. That means they don’t contain any animal products. No milk or eggs”.
“That’s nice.” Greg looked at the chocolates, noting the brand. “Foley’s, eh,” he said.
“You know it?”
“I know it well,” said Greg. “Very tasty. Of course I don’t eat out much now, and the food here, while perfectly nutritious, is somewhat bland. So I’m very pleased to receive such a thoughtful gift.”
The two of them started their game, but it soon became apparent to Kirsty that Greg was not his usual sharp self on the chess board.
“Sorry, Kirsty,” he said after losing the third game in a row. “The old dog is not up to it today. I must still be woozy from my cold. Maybe we could talk a bit instead. Some of my fellow residents are jealous you know. They ask me when I’m seeing my girlfriend again.”
“I’m not your girlfriend,” said Kirsty, rather more sharply than she’d intended. “I’m not anyone’s girlfriend. I’m giving up boys. For good.”
Greg gave his gummy smile. “You’re a bit young to be giving anything up for good,” he said. “What brought this on?”
“I’ve been reading about a successful business woman. She made it to the top without any help from men. And brought up her family herself when her husband wouldn’t support her. Women need men like a fish needs a bicycle.”
Greg nodded. “That’s original. But no reason to dismiss relationships so hastily. Remember I encouraged you to make something of your chess. We need more women masters.”
“Chess is just a silly past-time. That’s why women don’t bother with it. I want to do better than that, start a successful business, that kind of thing.”
“And I’m sure you’ll do well. You have the intelligence, the concentration, and the ruthlessness to succeed.” Greg sighed and his head drooped. “But do you have the compassion, that’s the question.”
Greg really looked unwell. So Kirsty bit back her angry retort, instead reaching out and touching Greg on the arm. “Are you all right?”
Greg didn’t respond. “Angela!” yelled Kirsty, in some panic. “Something’s wrong!”
Angela appeared with two nurse aides. Angela checked vital signs and nodded to her companions. One of them ran to fetch a wheel chair. The three of them eased Greg into the chair. The two nurse aides wheeled Greg back to his room as Angela turned to Kirsty.
“He’ll be all right. He’s still weak from his cold. I think it would be better if he had a rest tomorrow. We’ll see you again on Wednesday.”
“I thought it might have been something I said,” said Kirsty.
“Yes, I thought I could detect a rather spirited discussion,” said Angela. “But I very much doubt that had anything to do with it. Greg has always been pleased to see you, and indeed I would not be exaggerating if I told you that you have saved his life. But go easy on him. He’s eighty-five and can’t stand too much strain.”
Kirsty said nothing. She had never saved anyone’s life before, or even been told she had been moderately helpful. That was certainly a good feeling, but mixed with it was a sadness, that Greg was frail and ill and not long for the world.
Greg appeared his old self on Wednesday, and beat Kirsty quite convincingly in the first game. In the second they tussled to a messy draw.
“I told Mr Maxwell at school I want to join the chess club,” said Kirsty.
“That’s good,” said Greg. “With proper tuition it won’t take you long to become an A player. Then maybe a master.”
“Why didn’t you continue your chess?” said Kirsty.
Greg was silent for so long, that Kirsty thought he hadn’t heard the question. As she was about to repeat it, Greg held up his hand.
“It was a traumatic experience for me,” he said. “Even after sixty-eight years I can still feel the pain.
“It was in Chicago, before I migrated to New Zealand. My parents were bit players in some gang, doing very well for themselves. The gang had taken advantage of shortages after the war to sell on the black market. They then branched out into drugs and prostitution, and my parents used to sometimes act as runners.
“I didn’t know about their profession at that time. They ran an antique shop as a cover. I suspected some of their business dealings were a bit shady, and maybe they were fencing stolen goods, but they never told me the full extent of their involvement in Chicago’s underworld. My brother knew, and later he followed them into the family business, but I was weak and sickly and they never saw much use in me.
“That was until my gift for chess became apparent. Then I became a gold mine.
“My parents would parade me like some sort of side-show freak at events, challenging all comers to beat me at chess. The adult challengers, being swaggering and overconfident clowns, usually lost. I was the centre of attention and revelled in the praise. My folks treated me well and showered expensive presents on me. I didn’t know there was an ulterior motive; I thought it was love. What I didn’t know at the time was that they placed heavy bets on me to win. Since I lost only seldom, I was like the proverbial goose. Far too valuable to treat with anything but deference.”
“So what happened?” asked Kirsty. The swaggering adults that Greg described were so like the boys in Kirsty’s own world.
“I was seventeen. I was an A rated player, in the Chicago champs, playing a boy from an upmarket suburb in the final. I lost the match. I played well, but he was just better.
“My father beat me to a pulp, while my mother cheered him on. I had three broken ribs, and lost three of my teeth. Of course they never let me go near a doctor, let alone a hospital. I was thrown into my room to recover as best I could.
“The physical pain was of course indescribable. But worse was the realisation that my parents had never cared for me at all. Like everything else in their world, objects and people existed only for their monetary value.”
“That’s awful,” cried Kirsty. “But you did so well to get to the finals. Why didn’t you take up chess again when you left home?”
“I didn’t leave home,” said Greg. “It may seem strange to you with your fighting spirit, but mine was broken. All my aggression is concentrated on the chess board. I have none in real life.
“I stayed with my abusers for another five years. I may have stayed longer if they hadn’t got themselves conveniently shot in a gun fight with the police. I never played chess again, and they didn’t force me. Instead they had me do the menial work for the business while my older brother did the dangerous stuff. He died two years after my parents, knifed in the guts outside a bar in some stupid skirmish over a girl. He was left to die on the street.”
There was a silence. Kirsty alternatively loathed and pitied the old man. Her original assessment of him had been correct. He was a born loser. But maybe he couldn’t help it. She had read somewhere on the net about an illness where people get to depend on, and even fall in love with their abusers. Named after some European capital.
“After my parents died I snapped out of my depression,” said Greg. “I had to leave Chicago. I hitched to New York, worked my passage as a deckhand on a merchant vessel, and eventually made my way to New Zealand.
“As I told you, I survived doing labouring jobs and other menial work. Eventually I got married, and added my failures as a husband and father to my failures in chess.”
Kirsty looked downwards, twisting her hands.
“What are you thinking, Kirsty?”
Kirsty was thinking of so many things it was difficult to make sense of them all. Greg’s life had been full of pain, violence and suffering that certainly put her own self-pitying in perspective.
“I think it’s very sad,” said Kirsty. She reached over and grabbed Greg’s hand. She was getting used to the snaky feel of ageing flesh, and her revulsion was no longer as strong.
On Saturday, Amber allowed Kirsty to read her thesis synopsis on Catherine Foley during her lunch break, seeming pleased with the interest Kirsty was taking in her own role model. The synopsis was heavy going, and full of academic jargon, but Kirsty got a sense of a driven woman with no shortage of business acumen, who nevertheless only started to succeed at her ventures when she had made the ethical decision to cut all animal products out of her life.
Amber seemed to think this was significant in some way, and in a more clearly written final paragraph put forward the conclusion that success in business required a heart as well as a head.
Kirsty couldn’t help wondering however why Amber never mentioned Catherine’s husband. Yes, she could understand that the man had done nothing to further Catherine’s success, but surely he should not be air-brushed out of history in a thesis that was essentially biographical. It was a sensitive issue with her boss, and Kirsty wondered how to bring this up without getting her head bitten off.
“I joined Mr Maxwell’s chess club,” said Kirsty that Monday, as she faced up to Greg. “We played in the lunch hour.”
“That’s good. How did it go?”
“Pretty pathetic at first. They were all boys except me. Most of them useless players, though I did find one who gave me a good game. His name’s Brian. Quite cute.
“Not that I fancy him of course,” Kirsty added quickly, as Greg raised an eyebrow. “But it’s good to meet a boy with a few brain cells.”
The next day Kirsty had some more news. “Mr Maxwell saw Brian and me play. He told us he wanted to give us a game. He played both of us simultaneously.”
“That’s good,” said Greg. “Did you win?”
“Er, no,” Kirsty admitted. “He thrashed both of us. Didn’t seem to be trying that hard either. But he did say he liked our style. He wants us both to play in the inter-school champs coming up next month. He’s going to give us both special tuition till then.”
“I’m pleased for you,” said Greg. “When you’re New Zealand Grand Master, perhaps you’ll remember who first encouraged you.”
“Yeah, whatever ... thanks, Greg.”
“That’s all right. Girls can do anything, remember.”
“Yeah, I know. Sucks that Mr Maxwell beat me so easily though.”
“He’s an A player. What do you expect?”
“You’re an A player. I can beat you.”
“Used to be. I’m nowhere near that level now. I’ve hardly played at all since that disastrous Chicago tournament. I played you because you seemed awkward and it was a way of breaking the ice. I enjoy it now, of course. Giving my tired brain the workout it needs. So many of us here just allow ourselves to slip into senility. You’ve helped me a lot, Kirsty, and I wanted to help you.
“I wasn’t always there for my own teenage children. I hit one of them once. He was taunting me, calling me drop-out, all sorts of things. That was when they withdrew from me completely. Went with their mother after the divorce.”
“Let’s play shall we?” Kirsty moved a piece.
On Thursday Kirsty had managed to grind Mr Maxwell to a draw, and even though she thought he still wasn’t trying very hard, given that he was playing five other games simultaneously, she still felt it was something to celebrate. All the other players, including Brian, had lost, and Mr Maxwell had praised what he described as her “sound defensive strategy.”
Kirsty’s mother had said ‘that’s nice, dear’ in a distracted way when Kirsty told her the news. She was chatting on the phone with her latest love interest.
Useless woman. Anyway, what does she know about chess?
Kirsty got changed and walked towards the rest home. She was looking forward to telling Greg all the details of the game.
When Kirsty saw Angela waiting for her at the entrance way she had a vague feeling of dread, which grew into near panic when she realised the nurse had been crying.
Kirsty knew what had happened even before Angela gave her the news. “Greg Brown passed away in his sleep last night.”
Kirsty stumbled through the doors, past the place where she and Greg played chess, and into Angela’s nurse station. She sat down. Angela passed her a box of tissues. “Greg died peacefully,” she said. “He didn’t suffer.”
Angela seemed to anticipate the next wrenching emotion that kicked Kirsty in the gut and caused her to gulp wildly, take a tissue and blow her nose.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she said. “Greg was an old man, and we all knew he could go at any time. If anything, your coming here made his life a little longer, and certainly a lot happier.”
There was a long silence, punctuated only by Kirsty’s sniffing.
“Greg made a will,” said Angela. “It was scribbled on a sheet of note paper with a ball point pen and witnessed by two other residents. Our lawyer says it’s legal. He wanted to leave everything to you.”
Angela passed Kirsty a scruffy cloth bag, stuffed with photographs, documents and other papers.
“These make up the entire estate of Gregory Brown,” said Angela. “When I saw him a few days ago, he made me promise to give these to you. I think he knew what was coming. He wasn’t afraid.”
Kirsty took the bag, hugging it to her chest and rocked back and forward in the chair.
“I’m sorry, Kirsty. I know you were fond of Greg.” Angela eventually broke the silence. “We would love it if you could come to the funeral. It’s on Sunday, 10am, at the chapel attached to the home. You were Greg’s only friend outside the home, so it would be great if you could turn up.
Kirsty sat silently, gently rocking, then something seemed to snap inside her. All the hate she had felt at the world, held back while she had been serving her sentence, seemed to burst its banks at once.
“I’m not attending that loser’s funeral,” she snapped. “What’s he ever done with his life? Okay, he was abused, but so what? That’s no reason to spend sixty years moping. No career, no family, his kids hate him. He was a total waste of space! All of them are a waste of space. They should be put out of their misery. I don’t know how you can work here. What a bunch of oxygen thieves.”
Kirsty jumped up, disregarding Angela’s shocked face, and stormed out of the room. Her anger lasted all the way home. The fire was laid, and Kirsty’s mum was in her room, no doubt chatting on her phone to her latest love interest.
Kirsty pulled the papers from the bag she had somehow forgotten to discard, intending to consign the entire estate of Gregory Brown to the flames. A photograph fluttered to her feet. It was the same one she had seen in Greg’s darkened room that time. A younger Greg, his arm around a pretty woman much younger than him.
Kirsty picked it up. First for the fire. Then she looked again. The woman’s face was familiar. Kirsty searched her mind for where she had seen that face before. Then she remembered.
Kirsty upturned the bag and shook out the papers. She found a faded certificate, crudely mounted on cardboard, stamped with the seal of the City of Chicago. “Gregory Albert Brown, Runner up, Chicago Junior Chess Championship”.
There was a yellowing cutting from the Chicago Tribune with a photograph of several young men, hair shaved short in suits and ties. Kirsty recognised one of these as a youthful Greg. In keeping with the nationalistic rhetoric of the Cold War, the headline read Chicago Challengers to Soviet Chess Supremacy.
Kirsty laid these to one side. Among the jumble of remaining papers were several hand-written sheets of A4 paper, creased, crumpled and in no particular order, mixed with the magazines, old receipts, official looking letters and sundry trash.
When Kirsty saw the letterhead at the top of these pages, all thoughts of burning her inheritance went out of her mind.
Kirsty scrabbled through the papers, put all the A4 sheets together in a pile, smoothed them, sorted them and started to read. There were eight sheets altogether, and the handwriting was untidy and tightly packed. As Kirsty opened her dictionary app to help with some of the more difficult terms, her mother came into the room.
“You’re back early,” she said. “What happened?”
“Er, Greg was ill again,” said Kirsty, dragging her eyes from the page to look at her mother, then quickly looking downwards again. She didn’t want a long protracted conversation. This was too important.
“Yeah, well, dinner’s at the usual time.” To her relief her mother left Kirsty alone.
Kirsty struggled on. Kirsty could read and write perfectly well. But like many of her generation, used to the tidy fonts of computer screens and print-outs, she was not adept at reading cursive script. Especially the untidy scrawl of a woman who was obviously in the throes of a strong emotion, and desperate to get it all on paper as quickly as possible.
So when Kirsty’s mother called Kirsty in for dinner, she had only read the first four pages.
During the meal Kirsty was distant and as soon as she was able she excused herself from the table and continued her reading, finishing it just before bed time.
Kirsty sat and pondered. What she had read had shaken her to the core. All her pre-conceptions had been wrong. There must be something she could do. Kirsty wondered whether there were any adults she could confide in.
She heard raucous laughter and clinking of glasses from upstairs. Mum’s alcoholic boyfriend and some of their hangers on must have arrived. No point asking her anything.
Would my probation officer help? Kirsty dismissed this possibility. Once stern-faced Carol found out Greg had died she would no doubt simply assign Kirsty something else to do; something that was bound to be unpleasant.
Then she realised there was one trustworthy adult who could help her. A plan started to form in Kirsty’s mind.
“So you’ve decided to go to the funeral after all. I am pleased.” Kirsty was back in Angela’s nurse station the next day. “But what made you change your mind?”
Kirsty handed Angela the letter she had got from Greg. Angela read the letter, seeming to struggle almost as much as Kirsty did with the untidy handwriting.
“That certainly tells us something about Greg that I wasn’t aware of,” said Angela after she had finished reading.
“I want to tell people about this at the funeral,” Kirsty said. “That’s if I am allowed to say anything.”
“Of course. We’re always delighted to have people speak at our funerals. Though I don’t think there will be many coming. You, me, the rest home director, and the priest. We may be able to get a few of the other patients to come, but most of them tend to avoid funerals, even of their friends. I can certainly understand why.”
“Maybe I can help there. There are a few people I’d like to invite.”
“Well, the more the merrier. If I can say that about a funeral. As long as they’re not Greg’s gang member associates.”
“Greg told you about that?”
“Yes, he told me. As far as we can in our busy schedules we do try to act as friends to our charges. Not always possible I’m afraid. That’s why people like you are so valuable.”
Kirsty looked down. Angela sensed the awkwardness. “Would you like a cup of tea?” she asked.
“Yes, please. Black, no sugar.”
“We do have non-dairy milk, if you’d prefer.”
“Yes, I’d prefer that. I never thought you’d have it.”
“We kept it for Greg. You know he was vegan, right?”
“I know now. I didn’t before. Just one of the many things I didn’t know about him.” Kirsty dropped her eyes. “About yesterday. I’m sorry I said what I said.”
“That’s all right. I know it was the grief talking.” Angela handed Kirsty her tea. “Do you still want to know why I work here?”
“Would you think it corny if I said being a nurse is a calling?”
“I would actually,” said Kirsty. “That’s such a gender stereotype.”
“That’s what my father said. My mother was a hopeless alcoholic and left dad when I was little. Dad’s a scientist, works at the university, and he raised me to use my brains and think critically. He’s a wonderful man, and he supported my decision to study nursing, but I still think he believes that I have somehow let down the sisterhood. That’s what you think too, perhaps?”
“I could have become a scientist, or an engineer, but do you know these people here are at a very hard time of their life? Even worse than you experience as a teenager, not quite a child, not quite an adult. Life sucks, right?”
“Sucks a lemon. Yeah.”
“It’s worse for these people. They’re used to being treated like adults, respected and even revered, and then have to come to terms with being like children again. Nobody takes them seriously, nobody listens to them, and they’re in constant need of care. You can see that, can’t you? Anything I can do to make sure they are comfortable in this world before they enter the next one, I see as a noble calling, gender stereotype or not.”
Kirsty put her head down, thinking. She still wasn’t sure of Angela’s reasoning. “Girls can do anything though, right?” she said.
“They sure can,” said Angela. “They can even go into caring professions, like nursing. And so can boys.”
“I suppose so.” Kirsty shrugged. “What should I do here now I’m no longer needed to keep Greg company? I don’t want to start again with someone else.”
“Yes, I know how you feel. You make a bond with someone and they die. Grief overload is something we all learn to cope with here. I promise we’ll find you something. Maybe work in the residents’ garden, would that be acceptable?”
Phew. One more hurdle cleared. Now Kirsty could invite her probation officer to the funeral, though her presence wasn’t absolutely essential. She ran through her mind who else she needed to invite. There were three of them. One of them had to turn up, even if Kirsty had to drag her.
But what if she didn’t? Kirsty voiced her concerns to Angela.
Angela listened to Kirsty’s plan, then made some suggestions.
“Nobody likes to be ambushed,” she said. “But if you show her the letter and follow my advice, then I think she will come.”
“I’ll see you Sunday then, Angela.” Kirsty gave the nurse a hug, and walked out of the rest home building for the last time.
As expected there were few mourners at the funeral. Angela, out of uniform, sat at the front, next to a middle aged man in a dark suit and black tie who was probably the hospital director. He was fidgeting and looking at his watch. Rude, Kirsty thought.
Behind the rest home staff was Kirsty’s mother, and in a row behind was the probation officer, Carol, hair even tighter than usual, in a corporate suit. The priest was waiting at the lectern. Since there were not enough people to be pall bearers, the plywood coffin was standing in front of him where it had trundled in on a conveyor belt.
Totally disrespectful. As though Greg were a piece of luggage.
Kirsty was hovering at the door of the chapel, obviously nervous, waiting for something, her notes clutched in her hands.
A car drew up outside the chapel. Kirsty looked up with a grin, which turned into a frown as she noted the colour of the car. Then she saw the passenger disembark and walk towards the chapel. Kirsty rushed over to the teenage boy and grabbed him by the hand.
“Brian,” she said. “Good to see you. Didn’t think you’d turn up.”
“Yeah, well,” said Brian. “I thought I’d better turn up to support you. Shall we go in?”
“You go in. Save me a seat near the middle. I’m still waiting for someone.”
Kirsty loitered outside the chapel. The minister coughed. “We need to make a start,” he said. “Could somebody call the last guest in?”
The important-looking man next to Angela called out to Kirsty. “Come on,” he said. “The minister wants to get a move on.”
Kirsty felt a tightness around her head. Why did this officious looking man think he had the right to boss her around. It wasn’t his funeral. “Five minutes, okay,” she called.
The manager took a deep breath. “No, not okay. Come in. Now.”
“I’m not one of your flunkies,” said Kirsty. “I was Greg’s friend. You never even knew him. I’ve got an important guest coming.”
The manager looked as if he was going to say something else, but Angela whispered something to him. “All right. Five minutes,” he called.
Four minutes passed. Kirsty shrugged her shoulders and was about to walk into the church when a bright red car pulled up, and Amber March climbed out. She had managed to combine funereal sombre with elegance, dressed in a black mini skirt, high heel black boots and stockings.
“Sorry I’m late, Kirsty,” she said. “Bit of a crisis at the store. I have a few things I’d like to say as well, if that’s okay.”
Amber and Kirsty entered the church. Kirsty sat next to Brian, with Amber on her other side.
The minister started the service. It didn’t take long. Greg had not had an eventful life in this country, and he had kept quiet about his time in Chicago. The Minister muttered a few religious platitudes and then asked if anyone wished to speak. Angela told the small congregation about how Greg had always been polite and considerate towards other residents, and then it was Kirsty’s turn.
“Good luck,” whispered Brian, as Kirsty walked up to the lectern. Her mother gave her the thumbs up sign, and Angela’s smile from the front pew allowed her to overcome her nervousness. The manager was frowning at her, and Amber looked bored.
Kirsty swallowed hard and started her prepared speech.
“I only knew Greg Brown for a few weeks,” she said. “We played chess every day. Greg was a good player, who had once made the A grade. He was a finalist in the Chicago junior championships in the USA.” Kirsty saw that she had their attention now. She was telling them something surprising, and something that none of them knew, not even Angela.
“I looked down on Greg as a dead-beat loser. I’m sorry, Greg. You were no loser. You encouraged me with my own chess, and you became a friend.”
Kirsty paused, blinking back tears. Everyone was listening now. Kirsty took a deep breath and continued.
“But that’s not all you taught me, Greg. You taught me not to judge. Because chess was not your only gift. You contributed to the success and inspiration of one of the top business women in the country. A woman who is described in the media as the vegan business Queen. I am referring to Catherine Foley, who you were married to for twenty years.
“I’ve got a letter here that Catherine wrote just before she died.” Kirsty waved the untidy paper pile in front of her.
“It’s very long and rambling,” continued Kirsty. “But it describes all the things Greg did to help the business. She summarises everything in the last paragraph. I typed it out and printed it off.”
Kirsty started to read.
“So thank you, Greg, for all the ways you supported me. For being there when I was down. For taking whatever work you could get all those years to put food on the table while I tried venture after venture, throwing money away in hopeless expectation. Thank you for taking the children off my hands when their screaming was doing my head in. For picking me up and encouraging me after yet another business failure, and giving me the courage to keep trying.
Lastly, thank you for Foley’s. After several years you finally convinced me that it was wrong to eat animals, and you were the inspiration for starting up a fully vegan business. As you know, it struggled at first, but with your help, your hard work doing inventory and data entry in the empty shop when everyone had left, it started to prosper.
It was an act of pure selfishness to abandon you just as the store was doing well – I see that now. I know that you had no patience with growing children, and they grew to dislike you as a result, but that is your weakness, as blind ambition is mine. In other ways you were patient and gentle, especially with me, and I know I was not always easy to live with.
I will see my lawyer tomorrow and alter my will in your favour. In the meantime, if there is anything I can do to assist you, please, please do not hesitate to contact me,
your loving ex-wife,
There was complete silence. Everyone was staring at Kirsty. Kirsty’s voice started to waver, then she caught the eyes of her supporters; her mother, Angela, Brian. To her surprise, Carol was positively beaming at her. Kirsty continued in a stronger tone.
“The letter was dated 17th of June 2000 and addressed to Greg Brown at the rest home. But Catherine Foley never posted that letter. Catherine never altered her will or helped Greg in any way. Because Catherine Foley was found dead the next morning, slumped over her desk, surrounded by scattered paperwork.
“Among Greg’s effects I found a typed letter from a staff member at Foley’s giving Greg the sad news of Catherine’s death and forwarding the letter. It is unlikely he or anyone else at Foley’s read the entire eight pages of spidery writing.
“It seems Greg was not a complete pushover. He got help from a community lawyer, the only one he could afford, to contest the will. But Greg and his lawyer were totally bullied by the legal firepower that the Foley estate put in place.
“I found a rather nasty letter from a lawyer representing one of Greg’s and Catherine’s children. He states that Catherine never altered her will, and that everything was left to her children. He goes on to say that whatever Catherine’s stated wishes, his client has no legal or moral obligation to honour anything written in the ramblings of an obviously deranged woman just hours before her death.
“I called Greg’s children. It wasn’t difficult to find them on line. They are both running successful businesses with Catherine’s money. Neither of them visited Greg in the eighteen years he has been in the rest home. Both said they were too busy to come to their father’s funeral.”
Kirsty stopped and gripped the lectern. She caught Angela’s eye. Angela mouthed a single word. “Control.”
Kirsty took several deep breaths. The anger left her face. She continued.
“Amber March, I will give you Catherine’s last letter, probably the last thing she wrote. You will need to revise your thesis and your Women’s Weekly article.”
Amber walked up to the front and took the letter. “I didn’t know Greg,” she said. “But that was my fault. I didn’t really want to know him. When Kirsty told me she had been visiting Catherine Foley’s ex, and she showed me the last page of the letter she read out to you, I must admit I was shocked.”
“You can say that again! Almost chucked me out of the shop,” said Kirsty.
“All right, Kirsty. We both misjudged him. I run a Foley’s franchise. I have a lot of admiration for our founder. My admiration for Catherine Foley hasn’t diminished, and if she acknowledges all the help Greg did for her, then that’s good enough for me.
“I’ll revise my thesis and rewrite my article for Women’s Weekly, making sure Greg is given proper credit.”
Amber sat down. Kirsty continued.
“I found this award among Greg’s papers.”
Kirsty showed the certificate from the City of Chicago.
“Greg was the second best young chess player in the whole of Chicago. He suffered from trauma after this event and never played again until I came along. Greg was an attacking player, the sort who liked to sacrifice pieces in order to gain a victory. He showed the same attacking spirit in his own life. In this case he sacrificed himself to allow Catherine, the Queen, to make the final moves in her business career.
“It’s the same sort of encouragement he showed me. When I first met Greg I was angry and bitter and certainly didn’t want to spend my time with a lot of old people. But now I intend to continue with my chess, and do well in other ways in life. Greg was not a loser, he was a special sort of winner who helps others win. And we need more people like him.”
Kirsty walked back to her seat next to Brian and started sobbing quietly. Brian put his arm around her. The priest pressed the conveyor belt button, and the body of Greg Brown slid towards its final resting place.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Milan Kalous, former senior lecturer in history at the University of Auckland. Milan helped me develop my chess skills when I was thirteen and he remained a friend for the next 40 years.
Dr. Kalous passed away on 19 September 2017, aged 81, at Elizabeth Knox Rest Home, Auckland.