One minute, I had worked through my New Year resolutions which included moving to a neighbouring state to pursue a lucrative job in real estate. The next, there was an ominous silence after the signal died during a call from my aunt. She sounded more distressed than usual. I hoped she would not change her mind about selling her property. I needed the deal closed before 31 December. Although Aunty Herriot had a son, David, somehow I had become her surrogate daughter since her husband died in a car crash. I didn't have a problem with this setup, being perceived as the caring niece. However, much as I loved her, every call or visit of late had left me with trepidation.
"Hie Aunty. Are you phoning to say Happy New Year already? Count down is still about 8 hours to go."
"No Chenai. I wanted to catch up with you after the festive season. How was your Christmas Day?"
"Same old, same old... We had a real spread at my mother's place with the usual crowd around the table. There was enough food to feed an army. All is well at this end. Is everything ok with you? You sound strained."
"I didn't want to bother you yesterday. I slipped on a mat and fell in the bathroom."
"Oh, no! I hope you were not seriously injured! How are you feeling today?"
"I am in hospital for observations till tomorrow. Covered in bruises of course. My doctor said I should be out probably tomorrow to recuperate at home."
"It sounds serious Aunt Herriot. At least there are no broken bones. You should have phoned me on the day."
"And spoilt your Christmas?"
"Aunt Herriot, you know I would have come round to see you, even over Christmas. When is visiting time?"
"I am feeling much better and visiting time at East End Hospital is 4-6 pm this evening and 10-11 am in the mornings."
"I am not sure I can make it this evening. Has David been to see you? He should have told me."
"No, he hasn't. been to visit."
"Aunt Herriot, is there something you are not telling me? What on earth would prevent him from checking up on you?"
"We had another quarrel. This time it was serious, and I have not seen my son since Christmas Eve."
"Are you serious? What was the disagreement about?"
"It's the same as always. David got his allowance and blew it with friends. Now he says he is broke. He's behind on his rent and wants a loan. Since his father passed away, my son has been nothing but trouble. When he is clean out of money, that's when he remembers he has a mother. I told him I had had enough. What was his response? After giving me verbal diarrhoea, he slammed the door and left. Ungrateful child!"
"So he doesn't know that you are in the hospital? That's awful Aunt Herriot. Let me try and talk some sense into him. I have a soft spot for David. I'm sure he'll at least come and see you."
" Good luck with that approach. I know my son. I have tried my best and have to admit I have failed in bringing him up to think of others. It's always about him and his needs."
"I feel for you. So I suppose this is not the time to talk about your planned move?"
My aunt lived alone in a large family house with more bedrooms and en suites than a boutique hotel. David, who thought the world revolved around him as an only child, had moved out saying he needed more freedom. He didn't appreciate his mother breathing down his neck, now that he was the man of the house. I am not judgmental, but I have lost count of the number of times my mother lamented how David had been enabled by his parents. He's the product of a child born in old age. I'm not saying I don't have my own faults, but, since his teenage years, he has taken recklessness to new levels: wrecking his first car, flunking college exams and just generally behaving like a spoilt brat.
So it wasn't a surprise to hear that mother and son were no longer on speaking terms. What made it worse was that David was unemployed with no interest in the family car dealership except as a cash cow. Aunt Herriot always reminded David about all the hard work his father had put into amassing their wealth. After only a few years, the only debt-free assets left in her name were her large house and the flat that David lived in.
I had been trying to persuade my aunt to downsize for some time, but she was stubborn and saw any scaling down as a loss of her social status and a betrayal of her husband's memory. My parents had given up talking sense into her about living within her means. They berated me for involving myself in her affairs when she had a son who should man-up and be responsible. Time was waiting for no man, so I decided to see my aunt that evening before her hospital discharge. I couldn't keep the sale paperwork on hold much longer.
"Chenai! How lovely to see you and are these flowers for me? Thank you for coming even though you have lots to do before you leave. I am actually feeling much better and ready to go home. The doctor is doing the rounds later this evening. I hope he will give me the all-clear. However, I have a small problem."
"Is it anything I can help with?"
"I am not sure I can cope with selling up and starting afresh somewhere else. I don't have the energy and have so many happy memories of family life in that house, including David playing in the garden with his friends when he was younger."
"I am glad you are on the mend, Aunty. However, sorry to sound rather short, but we have talked about this before. I thought we had agreed that your family business is on the downturn. So you cannot afford to maintain the house, especially since you have no other income source. I even suggested that instead of moving, you could sell the flat which David is living in and the proceeds could help finance the family home. David could move back and live with you. You can't cope on your own Aunty, and this recent fall is an example."
"Stop right there Chenai, I am not going to live under the same roof as David! You want us to kill each other?"
"So what's the solution, Aunty? One minute you agree with downsizing, the next you are vacillating. I have to submit the sale paperwork by New Year's Eve. It's not just my commission I am concerned about, I also want things settled before leaving town. If you are certain you don't want to sell up, I can't force you. You forget that the place we went to see at the Zuva Aged Care Home will not remain vacant forever. You agreed it was ideal on our last visit: two bedrooms with en suites refurbished fitted open plan kitchen/lounge dining room, a clubhouse, pool and tennis court, medical facilities in the complex and 24-hour security..."
"Enough of the sales talk. Selling houses is clearly in your blood! The aged care home has more amenities than I would ever need. But what if I don't make any friends? What am I going to do with the excess furniture and my other personal belongings?"
"We have talked through the options, Aunty. But we can go through them again. I am not heartless, but the fall and you landing in hospital is a wake-up call for all of us. How long did it take you to call an ambulance on your own? At least in the aged care complex, panic buttons are in each unit in strategic places, and help is never very far away. Were you not the one telling me a few weeks ago that your house is beginning to look dilapidated? The whole place needs a makeover, and David is little help while you indulge him by financing his current lifestyle."
"If only he could turn our business around and then we could live the life we had when his father was alive."
"Sorry to burst your bubble, but even my late uncle would not have been able to perform miracles in this dire economic climate. The latest predictions are that a recession is around the corner. If I was in your shoes, I would sell now and buy somewhere smaller, and at least you will have a nest egg from the profit. You could even go and visit your sister in South Africa or upgrade your car. As for worrying about not making friends, I can't imagine that happening, especially if you put your mind to it."
"Chenai, if you were not my niece, I would say that you are pushing for a sale! Do you know that after coping with a death, the next most stressful thing is moving house?"
"I understand. However, if I leave without sorting out your estate, the aged care unit deal may fall through."
"My dear niece, I appreciate you didn't come here to raise my blood pressure. So as soon as I leave the hospital, I will contact you and finalise my plans. I will also try and reconcile with David. God knows he is my only child, and much as he annoys me, we have to make the relationship work."
I passed by David's flat after the hospital visit. As always, his place was a mess. He greeted me with his usual affectionate bear hug and broad grin; while hastily shifting papers and cushions to make room for me.
"Yes, Chenai! Long time! How's life?"
"You haven't changed, apart from growing a beard. It suits you. Whenever I visit your mum, you are never home. I keep forgetting what a nice flat you have! If it was on the market, it would cost a fortune."
"Sounds ominous. Did Mum send you? Because if she did, I don't want to hear whatever the message is."
"You haven't given me time to breathe, and you are already chasing me out. Did you know your mum had a fall?"
"No, when did this happen? Is she ok?"
"Yes she is in East End Hospital, and hopefully will be out tomorrow. Whatever has gone down between the two of you, David, you have to be the bigger person."
"Why is it I am always the one who has to relent? You don't even know what the quarrel was about. Already you are taking her side."
"It's not my place to take sides, David. You can tell me its none of my business, but your mum is also my aunt. She didn't fill me in with all the details about your quarrel, but someone has to look out for her. You know she has taken the loss of your dad very badly?"
"She is a stubborn old woman who isn't prepared to listen to reason."
"You are also not always the most empathetic person! When she is really down, she tells me all you want is to inherit her money and that you are deliberately driving her to her grave with worry."
"She's such a drama queen! I don't have any sympathy for her sometimes. She knows I'm in dire straits, yet she sits on a large empty property. She's not prepared to sell and share the proceeds. She can't even maintain the place, and I certainly don't want to live there."
"I get your point, but it's not helping the situation if you can't talk like sensible adults. You are compounding her health problems by stressing her. Grow up David and stop acting like a spoilt child. So, can I count on you to have a civilised conversation about new accommodation arrangements for her in the New Year?
"What's the hurry?"
"There is a small two-bedroom unit in an aged care home in my portfolio, and the deal has to be signed before midnight on New Year's Eve. Your mum had tentatively agreed to move, and I'll help sell her current house. You can then talk to her about helping you out financially. That's the deal."
"So she's broke?"
"She is not in a good place financially, which probably explains your bust-up. She is also now seeing living alone in a different light, especially after her fall. It’s not viable."
"Sounds like you have done most of the hard work of persuading her and all I have to do is help her cross the finishing line!"
"I am doing all this for my aunt, David. She is not getting any younger, nor are you and yet you are still wasting money, drinking like a fish."
"That's where you're wrong, my dear cousin. I have been sober for over a month!"
"That's a pleasant surprise. I am so proud of you! Sounds like 2021 is going to be a spectacular year for everyone!"