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The Richest Man In The World

by Neil Walker

Charlie Ludkin sat in the Mayfair offices of Stroud and Company wondering if the next half an hour would change his world forever. In all his working life, before retirement six months earlier, he’d never been to premises such as this. The North London Oil and Gas Trading company had only every employed one person, and that was Charlie. Mostly he’d only visited the terraced homes of old ladies who’d relied on him to supply paraffin oil for their little heating stoves, or in later years, the gas canisters for mobile space heaters.

Charlie gazed in wonder at the polished walnut desk and the oil portraits of long dead former partners of Stroud and Company, Solicitors and Commissioners of Oaths. Who’d have thought that a notice in the library inviting older people to get involved in Silver Surfing would have led to this?

‘What on earth do you want to learn about the Internet for?’ Maureen had asked when he said that he’d signed up for a course on computing.

‘My old Mum said you should never pass up a chance to improve yourself. And besides, it’s something I need to be able to do if I want to keep up with little George as he grows up.’ Maureen had looked skywards and gone back to peeling the potatoes.

The young woman in the tight white blouse looked across at Charlie from behind her desk and said: ‘Mr Stroud won’t keep you long. The Duchess of Rothberry died suddenly last night and he’s having to brief the beneficiaries about the probate requirements.’

Charlie nodded, pretending to understand, and ran a finger round the tight collar of his white shirt. He was wearing the suit that he’d bought for Susan’s wedding, an absolute bargain he’d picked up in the local Oxfam shop. He’d hoped to find something with a Burton’s label, but the only ‘whistle’ in his size was a light grey affair. The name Armani didn’t mean anything to Charlie, but it had fitted him like a glove, so he’d bought it. Everyone said he really looked the part as he walked Susan down the aisle.

In thirty-five years of running his paraffin delivery service round north London, Charlie had never had need of anything smarter than a pair of overalls and an old Transit van. It was a business which had served him well, and just before retirement he’d had a stroke of luck. All the pubs in the area started buying patio heaters to keep the punters warm when the smoking ban forced them outside for their regular gasp, and Charlie had doubled his turnover in one year by supplying the gas tanks. Then he’d sold the round to a rival for a very satisfactory £5000 just before the publicans realised how useless the heaters were and cancelled their orders. He’d even got seven hundred and fifty nuggets for the old van.

A light flashed on the walnut desk and the girl smiled. ‘Please do go through. Mr.Stroud is ready to see you now,’ she said.

A door disguised to look like a piece of oak panelling opened and Charlie came face to face with the man who might determine his future.

‘Mr.Ludkin-Smythe, do come in. So sorry to have kept you,’ oozed the solicitor. ‘Some refreshment perhaps? Earl Grey, Indian, perhaps Lapsang Suchong?’

‘Cup of Typhoo would be nice if you’ve got it,’ said Charlie. Stroud’s eyebrows moved a millimetre upwards as he ordered the tea.

Charlie sank into a green deep-buttoned leather armchair and surveyed the man in front of him; the pale pink shirt, iron-grey coiffured hair, and dark blue chalk-striped suit with creases as sharp as a gold credit card.

‘Now Mr. Ludkin-Smythe, let’s get down to business.’ Charlie noticed that while Stroud’s  mouth smiled, his eyes didn’t. He wondered if he should tell the lawyer that his name wasn’t Ludkin-Smythe; that he’d only given himself that particular monica to get his first e-mail address because, amazingly, there already was a Charles Ludkin somewhere out there in hyper-space. The tutor at the library had explained that he needed a unique identity, so he’d decided to add Smythe, because his Mum had once told him that was his father’s name. ‘Smythe, not Smith mind you,’ she’d said. It was about the only thing she ever did tell him about his absent Dad.

‘You’ve come to see us in relation to one of our oldest clients, the late Angus Cumbernauld Argyll, whose estate has lain unclaimed now for, let me see…’ Stroud opened a manilla file on his desk, ‘…for three years. And you have reason to believe you are his only living relative?’

The long and winding road to Stroud and Co had begun with that course at the library. Charlie had taken to surfing the web like a duck to water and soon found himself revelling in what he could discover at the mere click of a mouse. He’d marvelled at his ability to look up old schoolmates on Friends Re-united, delighted at the football gossip on the Arsenal website, and was gobsmacked when he saw an aerial view of his very own allotment taken by the Google Earth satellite.

‘Imagine that,’ he’d said to Maureen that night. ‘The Americans going to all that trouble just so’s I can see my brussels sprouts from Space.’

But what had really grabbed Charlie’s attention was the ability to trace his family tree on-line. Not his father’s side, of course, but his mother’s. And it was while he was researching the Ludkin line that he’d come across a marriage that had led him to Angus Cumbernauld Argyll, and a web-link. He’d clicked on the link and was surprised when a message popped up that read, ’If anyone has reason to believe they are related to the late Angus Cumbernauld Argyll, please email your details to this address.’

Charlie had checked and re-checked the blood and marriage ties and come to the conclusion that he was definitely related. The question was, could this mean that an inheritance was coming his way?

Stroud put down his bone-china teacup and said, ‘Now then, the only current information we have about you is your name and your email address. I wonder if you would mind telling me about yourself. For instance, what line of work are you in?’

Charlie shook his head. ‘Retired. Quite recently as a matter of fact.’

‘And before then?’

‘I was a trader,’ explained Charlie.

Stroud’s eyebrows went up a tiny notch. ‘Really? In which commodities exactly?’

‘Oil,’ said Charlie. ‘Mostly oil. And gas of course.’ The eyebrows continued on their upward trajectory. ‘Luckily for me I got out just before the market crashed. Decided to cash in while the going was good. Sold the lot and made a tidy penny, I can tell you.’

The solicitor was now looking impressed. ‘Oh well done. Very well done. I wish we could all be as shrewd as you. And do you live here in London?’

Charlie was a Londoner born and bred, but his Mum had always believed you could get on better in life if you ‘talked proper’. As a result she’d sent him to what she called ‘electrocution lessons’ which meant Charlie was the only kid in his school who did not believe that a thrush was covered with ‘forty fousand fevvers’.

‘Yes,’ said Charlie in answer to the question. ‘And I’ve got a fantastic view from my bedroom, right across to the South Bank.’

‘It’s a large building, is it?’

Large enough, thought Charlie, when you’re loaded with bags of shopping and the vandals have put the lift out of action again. ‘Six floors,’ he answered truthfully.

Rupert Stroud sat eyeing this well-spoken stranger who’d arrived in his office wearing an Armani suit. How should he sum him up?

Charles Ludkin-Smythe. Clearly a successful trader on the City of London Stock Exchange. A man who must have made a mint from dealing in the oil and gas markets and yet was also clever enough to see the banking crisis coming and make a timely exit. A man now living in comfortable retirement in one of those millionaire mansions overlooking the Thames, probably with two basements – one housing a gym, the other a home cinema – and four floors above with river views across to the National Theatre on the Southbank. Probably a very rich man already and about to become even richer.

Charlie broke the silence by deciding to ask a question. ‘This possible relative of mine. Where exactly did he live?’

‘He lived in Scotland. On a large estate.’

‘A large estate? How big would that be then?’

Stroud checked his file. ‘Around thirty-two thousand acres I’m given to understand.’

Blimey, thought Charlie. He’d never met anyone who knew exactly how big an acre was, but he knew that thirty-two thousand of them added up to a very large council estate indeed.

‘Are you any good with a gun?’ asked Stroud.

‘A gun?’

‘Yes. The estate is famous for its shooting,’ the solicitor informed him gravely.

Poor sod, thought Charlie. It’s bad enough living on a blooming great council estate without druggies running around waving guns in your face. His own estate had its fair share of gun crime but you wouldn’t say it was famous for it!

Stroud was speaking again. ‘And what about dogs. Do you like dogs? The estate has its own pack, y’know.’

‘Is it a big pack,’ asked Charlie nervously. He was becoming quite concerned for this relative he’d never known. Living on a massive Glaswegian council estate, confined to his home by gun-wielding hoodies and packs of marauding dogs.

The solicitor checked his file. ‘About thirty at the last count. Lots of foxes around you see.’

Now Charlie understood. Feral urban foxes were a big problem in London too, especially on his allotment where they broke into sheds and dug up his onion beds.  Obviously in Scotland they were such a problem that the local strays had formed into wild packs to hunt them down.

A new thought came to Charlie. ‘Did this chap have his own house?’

‘Yes of course. Though I have to tell you it is a bit of a crumbling pile. The roof hasn’t been touched for years and is in a bad way, which meant the old boy had pretty much resorted to living on the ground floor, mostly occupying just the kitchen and one other room during his final years.’

Charlie nodded sagely. Most of his old customers had been like that. It was a sad way to end a life. Stroud stood up. ‘Well Mr.Ludkin-Smythe, I think you’ve got the picture by now. And I am pleased to be able to tell you that we’ve checked out the genealogical details, verified the details on your birth certificate, and you are indeed the sole beneficiary of Angus Argyll’s estate. There will of course be considerable death duties to pay, but whatever is left comes to you. However there is a provision in the will that if no relative can be found, or if the beneficiary decides he or she does not want to take on the responsibility of sorting out Mr. Argyll’s affairs, then everything goes to a number of designated charities.’

Charlie was sitting at the kitchen table spooning sugar into his mug of tea when Maureen arrived home from a day out shopping with Susan. ‘Well,’ she asked, ‘how did it go?’

‘Pretty much what I expected, old girl,’ said Charlie. ‘Turned out to be some poor Scotsman living on a huge council estate in a house that was falling apart, and surrounded by drug dealers.’

‘No big inheritance then,’ sniffed Maureen, in that “I-told-you-so” tone she sometimes used.

‘Nah, shouldn’t think so. Didn’t even bother to ask in the end. But I’m not bothered.  It’s like I’ve always said: I’ve got you, our Susan, and now little George. We live in a lovely council flat. I’m captain of the darts team in winter and the bowls team in summer. I’ve got my allotment to keep me busy, and more than five thousand quid in the bank. Do you know what I told that Mr.Stroud?’ Maureen paused in the middle of emptying her shopping bag.

‘Give it all to charity,’ I said. ‘With everything that I’ve got, I’m already the richest man in the world.’

Judges comments

''A very funny tale of a misunderstanding on both parts and with a bit of social comment too.''

Ann Burnett

Winning stories 2011

1st prize - The Bed Lucy Made, And She Lies In It

2nd prize - Body

3rd prize - Sinking

3rd prize - Valerian

Highly commended

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