Last Will - Chapter 1

‘Are you sure you want to go through with this, Robbie?’

Barry Munn was a five-fruits-a-day man. Grapes were his favourite, preferably squashed, fermented and poured from a bottle. Barry might not have been Scotland’s foremost family lawyer. He might not even have been the best in West Lothian. But he was the best family lawyer in the room and the only family lawyer I knew who owed me a favour.

‘Because if you do...’ Barry continued, hands clasped on the desk in front of him, peering at me through large puffy eyes that had seen the insides of a million wine glasses, ‘you have some very big problems.’

‘Like what?’

‘First of all there’s the whole man thing.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, you’re a man.’

Even my finely tuned legal mind could take no issue with that statement.

‘And the courts don’t just hand out residence orders for wee girls to men like they’re—’

‘Sweeties?’

‘Not the best analogy,’ Barry said, ‘but accurate enough.’

‘What about the DNA report?’

‘No one is disputing that you’re the girl’s father.’

‘Her name is Tina.’

‘Okay, okay, no one denies that you are Tina’s father. It’s just that a residence order is not all about genetics. The court will decide who has custody based solely on what is in the best interests of the child.’

‘But—’

Barry unclasped a hand and showed me the palm of it. ‘You remember my drink-driving case?’

I remembered it all right. Remembered how the Crown had botched up the breathalyser printout and how Barry had taken a miraculous walk from what would have been his second conviction and an automatic three-year ban. The good thing about a bad reputation was that Barry thought I’d somehow contrived the whole affair and was now forever in my debt ―or at least until his next Section 5 allegation came tootling along.

Barry sat forward, arms crossed on the desk. ‘Remember you told me how the evidence was stacked against me? How difficult a case it was going to be and how you had to apprise me fully of all the options available? Well, that’s what I’m doing to you now, so shut up and let me apprise.’

Hands behind my head, I studied the yellow damp-spot in the far corner of the swirly white Artex ceiling.

‘Right,’ Barry said, ‘I’ve already mentioned the gender difficulty. Add to that your restricted accommodation, lack of experience when it comes to caring for children, oh, and the business you run single-handedly.’

I wasn’t sure how Grace-Mary, my secretary/commander-in-chief, would have taken that last remark. ‘My dad says he’ll help out with Tina.’

‘Please, don’t make it worse.’ Barry waited until I had leaned back in my chair again and resumed the staring at the ceiling position. ‘What about your single status? Would the child...would Tina have any female role model in her life?’

‘Not immediately, no, but I haven’t completely discounted the prospect of forming a meaningful relationship with a woman sometime in the, hopefully, not too distant future. I’m not planning on taking holy orders if that’s what you’re suggesting.’

‘There’s no need to be like that,’ Barry said.

We both knew I was behaving like a punter. I just couldn’t help it. ‘Sorry. Look, I can buy a bigger place, that’s not a problem, well, not too much of a problem. I might have to cut down on a few of life’s luxuries for a while, like food, but what child-rearing experience am I supposed to have? What experience does any parent have in raising a child until the first one comes along? And, anyway, it’ll be easier for me. Tina’s not a baby. She’s four years old. There are no bottles or nappies to worry about. My dad was a single parent and he raised me and Malky, didn’t he? Sort of.’

Barry’s smile was more of a grimace. ‘These are good points. Most of them. I’m just trying to point out certain weaknesses in your case. That’s my job. Will you let me finish?’

‘There’s more?’

‘Yes. You’re unreliable.’

Was I hearing him correctly?

This time Barry showed me the palms of both hands. ‘I’m only stating the facts as I see them.’

‘Unreliable? In what way am I unreliable? Name one.’

Eyes wide, Barry puffed his cheeks and blew out, the expression on his chubby little face that of a DJ who’s just been put on the spot to pick his favourite desert island disc.

‘You’re hopeless at timekeeping,’ he said at last. ‘Don’t look at the clock. What time is it?’ I hesitated for a split second. ‘See? You don’t even wear a watch. You were well over ten minutes late for this meeting. You were supposed to be here at one fifteen and didn’t roll in until closer to half past. I mean, you were only across the road at the court. It stops for lunch at one. It’s a five-minute stroll at the most.’

I had him on that one. ‘Not my fault. Blame Paul. We’re in a trial together and you know what his cross is like. He practically regresses witnesses back to their earliest childhood memories. Sheriff Dalrymple is just as bad, letting him prattle on. So, you see—’

‘So nothing, Robbie. Don’t you see? You can’t say to a five-year-old, sorry I’m late and there’s no food on the table, but it’s all my colleague’s fault, he really needs to sharpen up his cross-examination technique. Tina will depend on you and frankly…’

‘Frankly what?’

‘Frankly, you’re not…wholly dependable.’

‘So you’re saying I’m wasting my time?’

Barry shrugged.

I checked the clock on the wall. One fifty. I was due back in court in ten minutes. I stood. ‘I better get going. Wouldn’t want to be late.’

Barry came around the side of his desk and met me as I walked to the door. ‘Listen, Robbie. I’ve spoken to Tina’s grandmother, personally. Mrs Reynolds is a lovely woman with an even lovelier big house in Oban.’

I knew that already. I’d met Vera Reynolds on a number of occasions during the time I’d been going out with her daughter Zoë – a relationship that ended when the latter had emigrated to Australia taking a piece of my heart with her. Little had I known that she was not only setting off to make a new life for herself, but incubating one at the same time. After Zoë’s untimely death, Tina had been brought to Scotland to live with her Aunt Chloe, while my application to be declared her father and for a residence order was considered by the court. Chloe had three young children of her own so Tina had been loaned out to her maternal grandmother who was now keen to make the move permanent. For the last few weeks I’d been travelling west every weekend, and despite our contrary views on what was best for the wee girl, Vera Reynolds was always perfectly pleasant to me, and Tina got on exceptionally well with her.

‘What’s more, she’s retired and can spend all her time looking after Tina,’ Barry reminded me.

I knew he was talking sense. I just didn’t want to hear it.

‘Why is it they call you the child-snatcher again?’ I asked.

‘They don’t,’ Barry said. ‘The angry ex-spouse of a former client did. Once. I wish I’d never mentioned it.’

‘Well, you’ve told me all the negatives. I want you to start throwing a few positives at Mrs Reynolds’ lawyer.’

‘Like?’

‘Like? What am I paying you for?’

‘You’re not.’

‘Oh, that’s how it is, is it? Well, it seems to me that you’ve got your driving licence, but I’m short one daughter.’

‘Robbie, I’ll ask you again. Is this really what you want?’

Why was he even asking? ‘Of course it is. Tina is my daughter. We’re a family and we should be together.’ I grabbed the door handle, ready to walk out. ‘If you don’t think you can help, maybe I should—’

‘Okay, okay.’ Barry’s podgy hand stopped the door opening. ‘You know how I said I’d spoken to Mrs Reynolds? I’ve spoken to her lawyer too. This morning. They’re not going to be difficult.’

‘You mean, I’m getting Tina?’

‘No…not exactly. But—’

‘But what?’

‘I’ve managed to arrange a trial run. You can have Tina for one month.’

‘That’s great. And then?’

‘And then we see how it goes.’

‘It’ll go fine.’

‘You’re remembering that the court has ordered a Bar report?’

‘I’ll be on my best behaviour at all times.’

‘Sheriff Brechin has appointed Vikki Stark to do it.’

‘What’s she like?’

‘Extremely competent, unfortunately,’ Barry said. ‘There’ll be no pulling the fleece over her limpid pools. She’s a former Edinburgh City Council lawyer, now working in-house for an adoption agency and a member of the local Children’s Panel. You know what Bert Brechin thinks about civil actions. Unless he’s locking somebody up, the law’s no fun. So far as he’s concerned, whatever Vikki says will go.’

‘Fine by me.’

‘And if all goes well and the report is a good one, then Mrs Reynolds will depart the field. Without opposition from her and faced with a good report, even Bert Brechin can’t refuse to grant a residence order in your favour.’

‘Barry…’

‘You’re not going to hug me, are you?’ he said, taking a step back.

I took one of his hands and shook it. ‘Thanks. I knew you’d do the business.’

‘And you really feel that you’re up to the task?’

I threw my shoulders back and straightened my jacket with a tug on the lapels. ‘Raring to go.’

‘Good,’ he said. ‘You can pick Tina up ten o’clock, Saturday morning.’

I did a quick mental calculation. ‘This Saturday? But it’s Thursday today.’

‘Well done,’ Barry said, ushering me out of the door. ‘Maybe you don’t know the time, but at least you know what day of the week it is.’