“You’ve won a million pounds.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. You bought a ticket at Freshways supermarket a month ago, and you’re the lucky winner. Congratulations.”
I was staggered by this phone call out of the blue. Had a vague memory of buying the ticket from an emaciated young girl who looked suicidally depressed and I reckoned that selling a ticket might cheer her up, but I had no thoughts of winning.
After that, things moved pretty fast, and I admit I found it all overwhelming. I’ve never had much money to speak of, and now I’m retired I make do as well as I can, and I manage all right in my small flat. My wife died two years ago and my two children, a boy and a girl, are grown up now with children of their own, and I hardly ever see them from one year to the next. I wondered how they would take the news of my win.
I already did voluntary work at the local food bank, and gave what I could afford to a charity for the homeless, so, after my family, my second thought was helping them out.
Then a lady of about my own age called round, what’s called a ‘financial adviser’, from Freshways.
“Hello, Mr Frost,” she said cheerfully, accepting the cup of tea I’d made her. “My name’s Jane, and I’m here to give you advice on ways you can invest the money, so it’s not too overwhelming for someone like you.”
“Someone like me?”
She coughed in embarrassment, glancing at the hole in the sleeve of my old jersey. “I mean a person who’s never before had money to invest, who might feel intimidated by figures and finance.”
“I don’t intimidate easily.”
“Sorry, I really didn’t mean to be rude. It’s our training you see, we have a patter we’re supposed to use. But that always makes me cringe, it sounds so patronising, I really am sorry.”
“Forget it.” I realised that she felt embarrassed. She seemed really nice, and I liked her instinctively.
“Well firstly I would suggest, that if you do want to dip your toe into the equities market, unit trusts would be a good place to start.”
“Oh no,” I said firmly. “The idea of my money being divided into lots of little fractions, each invested in a different equity, and some twit charging a percentage for his trouble? Ridiculous, that doesn’t appeal to me at all. If I was to go for equities I’d look at something long yield maybe, but with an eye to growth.”
She laughed. “I can see you know a bit about finance already!”
“My hobby is mathematics,” I explained. “I was a car mechanic all my life, but after I retired I took a degree with the open university in economics and then took a masters. Out of curiosity I’ve been reading the Financial Times for years now, and I read company balance sheets for fun. Take it from me, Jane, Unit Trusts are a con. For growth I’d think in terms of technology shares, but for a consistent high dividend you can’t beat equities in oil and leisure – hospitality companies in particular.”
Jane stayed and chatted for a long time, telling me about how her husband had died five years ago, and I explained about my own wife Gwen, and how her death had devastated me. As she was leaving, she spoke to me seriously, laying a kindly hand on my arm. “Look, Fred, if you’d like my honest advice, why don’t you just blow the lot and enjoy yourself? From what you’ve told me you’ve spent most of your life thinking of your family and other people. Planning for the future is all very well, but with the world as it is now, and you’re not getting any younger, why don’t you just spend it? Go on cruises, buy yourself a Rolls Royce, see the world. You only live once.”
The following day, Freshways asked me to do a ‘press morning’, and I foolishly agreed. I found it incredibly embarrassing, with people in the audience in the church hall, and the director of Freshways presenting me with a huge cheque that I had to pose behind, along with a girl in a tiny bikini who kept giggling. They explained to me afterwards that this wasn’t a real cheque – it was just for show, and the first tranche of the money was being paid into my account at the end of the week.
After that publicity, the begging letters started. My local hospital, who’d treated me for a nasty illness last year, asked for a donation for a new scanner for their X Ray department. And various strangers wrote to me with their tales of woe, from someone needing a new artificial leg, to a lady who needed costly psychiatric treatment, and people with sick children who were in dire financial straights.
As soon as she heard about my win, my daughter Alice came straight round to see me, for the first time in months. She’s a vicar, with her own parish in the north of England, and she married George, who’s also something big in the church hierarchy. They have three children that I hardly ever see.
“Well, Dad,” she said, pouring the tea and beaming. “The very best thing you can do is make over the money to me and George. That way we can give you anything you need from it as a sort of pocket money, and we’ll avoid paying inheritance tax when you die. In fact it’s very lucky really, we were only looking at larger houses recently, and this could come in very handy. The most important thing is not to let Graham have a penny – you know how hopeless he is!”
When her brother Graham came round, accompanied by his mousey wife Jane, he looked as if he’d got a nasty taste in his mouth. He’s a schoolmaster, and all he ever does is moan about his job , and their children are practically feral, known to the police as the local tearaways.
“The most important thing, Dad,” he said, “Is not to let Alice get her hands on a penny of it. I bet she’s already asked you to give her the lot?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“You can’t trust her, Dad! She’ll never let you have a bean, whereas if you give it to me, you know I’ll hand over anything you want, plus if you have to go into a home when you’re old and ill, if I have the money, then they can’t make you pay. You have to think of all these things.”
In the next few days, I tried to phone Jane, from Freshways, as I couldn’t quite forget her and really wanted to see her again. But after a couple of brief conversations, she declined my invitation to meet up with a feeble excuse, so I faced the fact that it was the end of a possible new friendship.
In the next days, Alice and Graham were constantly phoning me, telling me why I should make the money over to them, talking about inheritance tax, the cost of old people’s homes, and how Janet, my dead wife, would have wanted me to consider our grandchildren and not to be selfish. The calls often ended up in tears and angry recriminations and dire warnings about ‘how Mum would have given it to us!’
It was true that I did need to work out something for the grandchildren, even if I had to face the fact that my own two children were awful grasping shits. Maybe I’d have to see a solicitor about setting up a trust or something?
Sod it, life was getting so complicated.
The trouble was, I realised, that I had spent all my life thinking about my wife and family and people who were worse off than I was, so I’d got out of the habit of thinking about myself. Was it wrong to think about myself and buying a few things just for me? Was I being selfish, not giving the money to my children, for the sake of the grandchildren?
The strain was getting to me. In every post there were more begging letters, and the food bank were pestering me constantly, anxious to know how much money I could give them now, to allow them to buy a huge consignment of tinned pies from Portugal. The charity for the homeless were thinking of making a bid to buy new premises, and told me that a big donation right now would be particularly welcome. . .
There was a knock on the door. I was delighted to see Jane, my elusive friend from Freshways, standing on the step.
“I’m dreadfully sorry,” she began, her face a picture of doom. “I really don’t know how to tell you this. Something absolutely awful has happened.”
“Freshways has gone bankrupt. They’ve only paid a couple of thousand into your account, and you won’t get any more. I’m terribly sorry.”
“Come in, Jane, please.”
I looked at the pile of begging letters that was growing higher every day. I thought of the angry phone calls from Alice and Graham, and all the bitter rows I’d had with them, the tears and the acrimony.
Suddenly, I felt as if a huge weight was lifted off me. I started to laugh.
Jane stared at me, and eventually she joined in.
“You know, Fred, I so enjoyed meeting you,” Jane said, as she recovered from her mirth. “I really wanted to see you again, but I didn’t want to accept your invitation to go out with you in case you thought I was after your money. Whereas now…”