TOO MANY COINCIDENCES
Written by Jeffrey Archer - Narrated by Bill Wallace

 

 

Angus died peacefully in the St Helier Cottage Hospital the following Friday. Ruth and the twins were at his bedside.

Max flew over for the funeral, and the next day accompanied the twins back to school. When Ruth waved them goodbye she wondered if she would ever hear from Max again.

He phoned the next morning to ask how she was.

‘Lonely, and feeling a little guilty that I miss you more than I should.’ She paused. ‘When are you next planning to come to Jersey?’

‘Not for some time. Try not to forget that it was you who warned me that even the letterboxes chatter on Jersey.’

‘But what shall I do? The boys are away at school, and you’re stuck in London.’

Why don’t you join me in town? It will be a lot easier to lose ourselves over here, and frankly no one will recognise you in London.’

‘Perhaps you’re right. Let me think about it, and then I’ll call you.’

Ruth flew into Heathrow a week later, and Max was at the airport to greet her. She was touched by how thoughtful and gentle he was, never once complaining about her long silences, or the fact that she didn’t want to make love.

When he drove her back to the airport on Monday morning, she clung on to him.

‘You know,’ she said, ‘I didn’t even get to see your flat or your office.’

‘I think it was sensible that you booked into a hotel this time. You can always see my office next time you come over.’

She smiled for the first time since the funeral. When they parted at the airport, he took her in his arms and said, ‘I know it’s early days, my darling, but I want you to know how much I love you and hope that at some time in the future you might feel me worthy of taking Angus’s place.’

She returned to St Helier that evening continually repeating his words, as if they were the lyrics of a song she could not get out of her mind.

 

It must have been about a week later that she received a phone call from Mr Craddock, the family solicitor, who suggested that she drop into his office and discuss the implications of her late husband’s will. She made an appointment to see him the following morning.

Ruth had assumed that as she and Angus had always led a comfortable life, her standard of living would continue much as before. After all, Angus was not the sort of man who would leave his affairs unresolved. She recalled how insistent he had been that Mr Craddock should visit him at the hospital.

Ruth had never shown any interest in Angus’s business affairs. Although he was always careful with his money, if she had ever wanted something, he had never refused her. In any case, Max had just deposited a cheque for over PS100,000 in Angus’s account, so she set off for the solicitor’s office the following morning confident that her late husband would have left quite enough for her to live on.

She arrived a few minutes early. Despite this, the receptionist accompanied her straight through to the senior partner’s room. When she walked in, she found three men seated around the boardroom table. They immediately rose from their places, and Mr Craddock introduced them as partners of the firm. Ruth assumed they must have come to pay their respects, but they resumed their seats and continued to study the thick files placed in front of them. For the first time, Ruth became anxious. Surely Angus’s estate was in order?

The senior partner took his seat at the top of the table, untied a bundle of documents and extracted a thick parchment, then looked up at his late client’s wife.

‘Firstly, may I express on behalf of the firm the sadness we all felt when we learned of Mr Henderson’s death,’ he began.

‘Thank you,’ said Ruth, bowing her head.

‘We asked you to come here this morning so that we could advise you of the details of your late husband’s will. Afterwards, we shall be happy to answer any questions you might have.’

Ruth went cold, and began trembling. Why hadn’t Angus warned her that there were likely to be problems?

The solicitor read through the preamble, finally coming to the bequests.

‘I leave all my worldly goods to my wife Ruth, with the exception of the following bequests:

‘a) PS200 each to both of my sons Nicholas and Ben, which I would like them to spend on something in my memory.

‘b) PS500 to the Scottish Royal Academy, to be used for the purchase of a picture of their choice, which must be by a Scottish artist.

‘c) PS1,000 to George Watson College, my old school, and a further PS2,000 to Edinburgh University.’

The solicitor continued with a list of smaller bequests, ending with a gift of PS100 to the Cottage Hospital which had taken such good care of Angus during the last few days of his life.

The senior partner looked up at Ruth and asked, ‘Do you have any questions, Mrs Henderson, which we might advise you on? Or will you be happy for us to administer your affairs in the same way as we did your late husband’s?’

‘To be honest, Mr Craddock, Angus never discussed his affairs with me, so I’m not sure what all this means. As long as there’s enough for the boys and myself to go on living in the way we did when he was alive, I’m happy for you to continue to administer our affairs.’

The partner seated on Mr Craddock’s right said, ‘I had the privilege of advising Mr Henderson since he first arrived on the island some seven years ago, Mrs Henderson, and would be happy to answer any questions you may have.’

‘That’s extremely kind of you,’ said Ruth, ‘but I have no idea what questions to ask, other than perhaps to know roughly how much my husband was worth.’

‘That is not quite so easy to answer,’ Mr Craddock said, ‘because he left so little in cash. However, it has been my responsibility to calculate a figure for probate,’ he added, opening one of the files in front of him. ‘My initial judgement, which is perhaps on the conservative side, would suggest a sum of somewhere between eighteen and twenty million.’

‘Francs?’ said Ruth in a whisper.

‘No, pounds, madam,’ said Mr Craddock matter-of-factly.

 

After some considerable thought, Ruth decided that she would not let anyone know of her good fortune, including the children. When she flew into London the following weekend, she told Max that Angus’s solicitors had briefed her on the contents of Angus’s will and the value of his estate.

Any surprises?’ Max asked.

‘No, not really. He left the boys a couple of hundred pounds each, and with the PS100,000 you managed to raise on the sale of our house in the Ardennes, there should be just about enough to keep the wolves from the door, as long as I’m not too extravagant. So I fear you’ll have to go on working if you still want me to be your wife.’

‘Even more. I would have hated the idea of living off Angus’s money. In fact, I’ve got some good news for you. The firm has asked me to look into the possibility of opening a branch in St Helier early in the new year. I’ve told them that I’ll only consider the offer on one condition.’

‘And what’s that?’ asked Ruth.

‘That one of the locals agrees to be my wife.’

Ruth took him in her arms, never more confident that she had found the right man to spend the rest of her life with.

 

Max and Ruth were married at the Chelsea register office three months later, with only the twins as witnesses, and even they had been reluctant to attend. ‘He’ll never take the place of our father,’ Ben had told his mother with considerable feeling. Nicholas had nodded his agreement.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Max, as they drove to the airport. ‘Only time will sort out that problem.’

As they flew out of Heathrow to begin their honeymoon, Ruth mentioned that she had been a little disappointed that none of Max’s friends had attended the ceremony.

‘We don’t need to attract unpleasant comments so soon after Angus’s death,’ he told her. ‘It might be wise to let a little time go by before I launch you on London society.’ He smiled and took her hand. Ruth accepted his assurance, and put aside any anxieties she might have had.

The plane touched down at Venice airport three hours later, and they were whisked away on a motorboat to a hotel overlooking St Mark’s Square. Everything seemed so well organised, and Ruth was surprised at how willing her new husband was to spend hours in the fashion shops helping her select numerous outfits. He even chose a dress for her that she considered far too expensive. For a whole week of lazing about on gondolas, he never once left her side for a moment.

On the Friday, Max hired a car and drove his bride south to Florence, where they strolled back and forth over the bridges together, visiting the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace and the Accademia. In the evenings they ate too much pasta and joined in the dancing in the market square, often returning to their hotel just as the sun was rising. They reluctantly flew on to Rome for the third week, where the hotel bedroom, the Coliseum, the opera house and the Vatican occupied most of their spare moments. The three weeks passed so quickly that Ruth couldn’t recall the individual days.

She wrote to the boys every evening before going to bed, describing what a wonderful holiday she was having, always emphasising how kind Max was. She so much wanted them to accept him, but feared that might take more than time.

When she and Max returned to St Helier, he continued to be considerate and attentive. The only disappointment for Ruth was that he didn’t have much success in finding premises for the new branch of his company. He would disappear at around ten every morning, but seemed to spend more time at the golf club than he did in town. ‘Networking,’ he would explain, ‘because that’s what will matter once the branch is open.’

‘When do you think that will be?’ Ruth asked.

‘Not too much longer now,’ he assured her. ‘You have to remember that the most important thing in my business is to open in the right location. It’s much better to wait for a prime site than to settle for second best.’

But as the weeks passed, Ruth became anxious that Max didn’t seem to be getting any nearer to finding that prime site. Whenever she raised the subject he accused her of nagging, which meant that she didn’t feel able to bring it up again for at least another month.

When they had been married for six months, she suggested that they might take a weekend off and visit London. ‘It would give me a chance to meet some of your friends and catch up with the theatre, and you could report back to your company.’

Each time, Max found some new excuse for not falling in with her plans. But he did agree that they should return to Venice to celebrate their first wedding anniversary.

 

Ruth hoped the two-week break would revive the memories of their previous visit, and might even inspire Max, when he returned to Jersey, to finally settle on some premises. As it was, the anniversary couldn’t have been in greater contrast to the honeymoon they had shared the year before.

It was raining as the plane touched down at Venice airport, and they stood shivering in a long queue as they waited for a taxi. When they arrived at the hotel, Ruth discovered that Max thought she had organised the booking. He lost his temper with the innocent manager, and stormed out of the building. After they had trudged around in the rain with their luggage for over an hour, they ended up in a backstreet hotel that could only supply a small room with single beds, above the bar.

Over drinks that evening, Max confessed that he had left his credit cards in Jersey, so he hoped Ruth wouldn’t mind covering the bills until they got home. She seemed to have been covering most of the bills lately anyway, but decided now was not the time to raise the subject.

In Florence, Ruth hesitantly mentioned over breakfast that she hoped he would have more luck in finding premises for his company once they returned to Jersey, and enquired innocently if the firm was becoming at all anxious about his lack of progress.

Max immediately flew into a rage and walked out of the breakfast room, telling her to stop nagging him all the time. She didn’t see him for the rest of the day.

In Rome it continued to rain, and Max didn’t help matters by regularly going off without warning, sometimes arriving back at the hotel long after she had gone to bed.

Ruth was relieved when the plane took off for Jersey. Once they were back in St Helier she made every effort not to nag, and to try to be supportive and understanding about Max’s lack of progress. But however hard she tried, her efforts were met either with long sullen silences or bouts of temper.

As the months passed, they seemed to grow further and further apart, and Ruth no longer bothered to ask how the search for premises was going. She had long ago assumed that the whole idea had been abandoned, and could only wonder if Max had ever been given such an assignment in the first place.

It was over breakfast one morning that Max suddenly announced that the firm had decided against opening a branch in St Helier, and had written to tell him that if he wanted to remain as a partner, he would have to return to London and resume his old position.

‘And if you refuse?’ asked Ruth. ‘Is there an alternative?’

‘They’ve made it all too clear that they would expect me to hand in my resignation.’

‘I’d be quite happy to move to London,’ Ruth suggested, hoping that might solve their problems.

‘No, I don’t think that would help,’ said Max, who had obviously already decided what the solution was. ‘I think it would be better if I spent the week in London, and then flew back to be with you at weekends.’

Ruth did not think that was a good idea, but she knew that any protest would be pointless.

Max flew to London the following day.

 

Ruth couldn’t remember the last time they had made love, and when Max didn’t return to Jersey for their second wedding anniversary she accepted an invitation to join Gerald Prescott for dinner.

The twins’ old housemaster was, as always, kind and considerate, and when they were alone he did no more than kiss Ruth on the cheek. She decided to tell him about the problems she was having with Max, and he listened attentively, occasionally nodding his understanding. As Ruth looked across the table at her old friend, she felt the sad first thoughts of divorce. She dismissed them quickly from her mind.

When Max returned home the following weekend, Ruth decided to make a special effort. She spent the morning shopping in the market, selecting fresh ingredients for his favourite dish, coq au vin, and picking out a vintage claret to complement it. She wore the dress he had chosen for her in Venice, and drove to the airport to meet him off the plane. He didn’t arrive on his usual flight, but strolled through the barrier two hours later, explaining that he had been held up at Heathrow. He didn’t apologise for the hours she had spent pacing around the airport lounge, and when they eventually arrived back home and sat down for dinner, he made no comment on the meal, the wine or her dress.

When Ruth had finished clearing away after dinner, she hurried up to the bedroom to find he was pretending to be fast asleep.

Max spent most of Saturday at the golf club, and on Sunday he took the afternoon flight back to London. His last words before departing for the airport were that he couldn’t be sure when he would be returning.

Second thoughts of divorce.

 

As the weeks passed, with only the occasional phone call from London and the odd snatched weekend together, Ruth started seeing more and more of Gerald. Although he never attempted to do anything more than kiss her on the cheek at the beginning and end of their clandestine meetings, and certainly never placed a hand on her thigh, it was she who finally decided ‘the time had come’ to seduce him.

‘Will you marry me?’ she asked, as she watched him getting dressed at six the next morning.

‘But you’re already married,’ Gerald gently reminded her.

‘You know perfectly well that it’s a sham, and has been for months. I was swept off my feet by Max’s charm, and behaved like a schoolgirl. Heaven knows I’d read enough novels about marrying on the rebound.’

‘I’d marry you tomorrow, old girl, given half the chance,’ Gerald said, smiling. ‘You know I’ve adored you from the first day we met.’

‘Although you’re not down on one knee, Gerald, I shall consider that an acceptance,’ said Ruth, laughing. She paused and looked at her lover, standing in the half-light. ‘When I next see Max I’ll ask him for a divorce,’ she added quietly.

Gerald took off his clothes and climbed back into bed.

 

It was to be another month before Max returned to the island, and although he took the late flight, Ruth was waiting for him when he walked in the front door. When he leaned down to kiss her on the cheek, she turned away.

‘I want a divorce,’ she said matter-of-factly.

Max followed her into the drawing room without saying a word. He slumped down into a chair and remained silent for some time. Ruth sat patiently waiting for his response.

‘Is there another man?’ he eventually asked.

Yes,’ she replied.

‘Do I know him?’

Yes.’

‘Gerald?’ he asked, looking up at her.

‘Yes.’

Once again Max fell into a morose silence.

‘I’ll be only too happy to make it easy for you,’ said Ruth. ‘You can sue me for divorce on the grounds of my adultery with Gerald, and I won’t put up a fight.’

She was surprised by Max’s response. ‘I’d like a little time to think about it,’ he said. ‘Perhaps it would be sensible for us not to do anything until the boys come home at Christmas.’

Ruth reluctantly agreed, but was puzzled, because she couldn’t remember when he had last mentioned the boys in her presence.

Max spent the night in the spare room, and flew back to London the following morning, accompanied by two packed suitcases.

He didn’t return to Jersey for several weeks, during which time Ruth and Gerald began to plan their future together.

 

When the twins returned from university for the Christmas holidays, they sounded neither surprised nor disappointed that their mother would be getting a divorce.

Max made no attempt to join the family for the festive season, but flew over to Jersey the day after the boys had returned to university. He took a taxi straight to the house, but stayed for only an hour.

‘I am willing to agree to a divorce,’ he told Ruth, ‘and I intend to start proceedings just as soon as I return to London.’

Ruth simply nodded her agreement.

‘If you want things to go through quickly and smoothly, I suggest you appoint a London solicitor. That way I won’t have to keep flying back and forth to Jersey, which will only hold things up.’

Ruth put up no objection to the idea, as she had reached the stage where she didn’t want to place any obstacles in Max’s way.

A few days after Max had returned to the mainland, Ruth was served with divorce papers from a London law firm she had never heard of. She instructed Angus’s old solicitors in Chancery Lane to handle the proceedings, explaining over the phone to a junior partner that she wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.

‘Are you hoping for a maintenance settlement of any kind?’ the solicitor asked.

‘No,’ said Ruth, trying not to laugh. ‘I don’t want anything other than for the whole matter to be settled quickly, on the grounds of my adultery.’

‘If those are your instructions, madam, I’ll draw up the necessary papers and have them ready for you to sign within the next few days.’

When the decree nisi was served, Gerald suggested they celebrate by taking a holiday. Ruth agreed to the idea, just as long as they didn’t have to go anywhere near Italy.

‘Let’s sail around the Greek islands,’ said Gerald. ‘That way there will be less chance of bumping into any of my pupils, not to mention their parents.’ They flew to Athens the next day.

When they sailed into the harbour at Skyros, Ruth said, ‘I’d never thought I would spend my third wedding anniversary with another man.’

Gerald took her in his arms. ‘Try to forget Max,’ he said. ‘He’s history.’

‘Well, nearly,’ Ruth said. ‘I was rather hoping that the divorce would have been absolute before we left Jersey.’

‘Have you any idea what’s caused the hold-up?’ Gerald asked.

‘Heaven knows,’ Ruth replied, ‘but whatever it is, Max will have his reasons.’ She paused. ‘You know, I never did get to see his office in Mayfair, or meet any of his colleagues or friends. It’s almost as if it was all a figment of my imagination.’

‘Or his,’ said Gerald, putting an arm around her waist. ‘But don’t let’s waste any more time talking about Max. Let’s think about Greeks, and bacchanalian orgies.’

‘Is that what you teach those innocent little children in their formative years?’

‘No, it’s what they teach me,’ Gerald replied.

For the next three weeks the two of them sailed around the Greek islands, eating too much moussaka, drinking too much wine, and hoping that too much sex would keep their weight down. By the end of their holiday Gerald was a little too red, and Ruth was dreading being reintroduced to her bathroom scales. The holiday could not have been more fun; not only because Gerald was such a good sailor, but because, as Ruth discovered, even during a storm he could make her laugh.

Once they were back on Jersey, Gerald drove Ruth to the house. When she opened the front door she was greeted by a pile of letters. She sighed. They could all wait until tomorrow, she decided.

Ruth spent a restless night tossing and turning. After snatching a few hours’ sleep, she decided that she might as well get up and make herself a cup of tea. She began to thumb through the post, only stopping when she came to a long buff envelope marked ‘Urgent’ and bearing a London postmark.

She tore it open and extracted a document that brought a smile to her face: ‘A decree absolute has been granted between the aforesaid parties: Max Donald Bennett and Ruth Ethel Bennett.’

‘That settles that once and for all,’ she said out loud, and immediately phoned Gerald to tell him the good news.

‘Disappointing,’ he said.

‘Disappointing?’ she repeated.

‘Yes, my darling. You have no idea how much my street cred has risen since the boys at school discovered I’ve been on holiday with a married woman.’

Ruth laughed. ‘Behave yourself, Gerald, and try to get used to the idea of being a respectable married man.’

‘Can’t wait,’ he said. ‘But must dash. It’s one thing to be living in sin; it’s quite another to be late for morning prayers.’

Ruth went up to the bathroom and stood gingerly on the scales. She groaned when she saw where the little indicator finally stopped. She decided she would have to spend at least an hour in the gym that morning. The phone rang just as she was stepping into the bath. She got back out and grabbed a towel, thinking it must be Gerald again.

‘Good morning, Mrs Bennett,’ said a rather formal voice. How she hated even the sound of that name.

‘Good morning,’ she replied.

‘It’s Mr Craddock, madam. I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for the past three weeks.’

‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ said Ruth, ‘but I only returned from a holiday in Greece last night.’

‘Yes, I see. Well, perhaps we could meet as soon as it’s convenient?’ he said, showing no interest in her holiday.

‘Yes, of course, Mr Craddock. I could pop into your office around twelve, if that would suit you.’

‘Any time you decide will suit us, Mrs Bennett,’ said the formal voice.

Ruth worked hard in the gym that morning, determined to lose the surplus pounds she had put on in Greece - respectable married woman or not, she still wanted to be slim. By the time she’d come off the running machine, the gym clock was chiming twelve. Despite hurrying through to the locker room and showering and changing as quickly as possible, she was still thirty-five minutes late for Mr Craddock.

Once again the receptionist ushered her through to the senior partner’s office, without her having to see the inside of a waiting room. As she entered, she found Mr Craddock pacing around the room.

‘I’m sorry to have kept you,’ she said, feeling a little guilty, as two of the partners rose from their places at the boardroom table.

This time Mr Craddock did not suggest a cup of tea, but simply ushered her into a chair at the other end of the table. Once she was seated, he resumed his place, glanced down at a pile of papers lying in front of him and extracted a single sheet.

‘Mrs Bennett, we have received a summons from your husband’s solicitors demanding a full settlement following your divorce.’

‘But we never discussed a settlement at any time,’ said Ruth in disbelief. ‘It was never part of the deal.’

‘That may well be the case,’ said the senior partner, looking down at the papers. ‘But unfortunately, you agreed to the divorce being granted on the grounds of your adultery with a Mr Gerald’ - he checked the name - ‘Prescott, at a time when your husband was working in London.’

‘That’s true, but we only agreed to that in order to speed matters up. You see, we both wanted the divorce to go through as quickly as possible.’

‘I’m sure that was the case, Mrs Bennett.’

She would always hate that name.

‘However, by agreeing to Mr Bennett’s terms, he became the innocent party in this action.’

‘But that is no longer relevant,’ said Ruth, ‘because this morning I received confirmation from my London solicitors that I have been granted a decree absolute.’

The partner seated on Mr Craddock’s right turned and looked directly at her.

‘May I be permitted to ask if it was at Mr Bennett’s suggestion that you instructed a solicitor from the mainland to handle your divorce proceedings?’

Ah, so that’s what’s behind all this, thought Ruth. They’re just annoyed that I didn’t consult them. ‘Yes,’ she replied firmly. ‘It was simply a matter of convenience, as Max was living in London at the time, and didn’t want to have to keep flying back and forth to the island.’

‘It certainly turned out to be most convenient for Mr Bennett,’ said the senior partner. ‘Did your husband ever discuss a financial settlement with you?’

‘Never,’ said Ruth even more firmly. ‘He had no idea what I was worth.’

‘I have a feeling,’ continued the partner seated on Mr Craddock’s left, ‘that Mr Bennett knew only too well how much you were worth.’

‘But that’s not possible,’ insisted Ruth. ‘You see, I never once discussed my finances with him.’

‘Nevertheless, he has presented a claim against you, and seems to have made a remarkably accurate assessment of the value of your late husband’s estate.’

‘Then you must refuse to pay a penny, because it was never part of our agreement.’

‘I accept that what you are telling us is correct, Mrs Bennett. But I fear that as you were the guilty party, we have no defence to offer.’

‘How can that be possible?’ demanded Ruth.

‘The law of divorce on Jersey is unequivocal on the subject,’ said Mr Craddock. ‘As we would have been happy to advise you, had you consulted us.’

‘What law?’ asked Ruth, ignoring the barbed comment.

‘Under the law of Jersey, once it has been accepted that one of the parties is innocent in divorce proceedings, that person - whatever their sex - is automatically entitled to one third of the other’s estate.’

Ruth began trembling. ‘Are there no exceptions?’ she asked quietly.

‘Yes,’ replied Mr Craddock.

Ruth looked up hopefully.

‘If you have been married for less than three years, the law does not apply. You were, however, Mrs Bennett, married for three years and eight days.’ He paused, readjusted his spectacles and added, ‘I have a feeling that Mr Bennett was not only aware of exactly how much you were worth, but also knew the laws of divorce as they apply on Jersey.’

Three months later, after both sides of solicitors had agreed on the value of Ruth Ethel Bennett’s estate, Max Donald Bennett received a cheque for PS6,270,000 in full and final settlement.

Whenever Ruth looked back on the past three years - and she often did - she came to the conclusion that Max must have planned everything right down to the last detail. Yes, even before they had bumped into each other.