"I'm not being funny but, did you even know this guy?" My best friend Stella stares at me, waiting for some hot gossip she's never going to get.
"Yes I knew him, but it still doesn't make any sense!" I reply, still confused by the events that have unraveled over the last fortnight.
We sit opposite each other, in a small cafe that sells multi-coloured hot chocolates and little cakes with flowers on them. It's a cute local business, somehow struggling to get customers in, but me and Stella are happy regulars here. A closing down sign unfortunately dampens the mood of the employees, and I feel guilty for them.
"But, did you know him know him?" She wiggles her eyebrows, taking a sip from her blue hot chocolate. I nearly spit out my own, shocked by her accusation.
"Oh my God, no!" I slap her arm playfully, disbelieving she'd actually think of me like that, "That man was eighty years old. All I ever did was buy him some groceries and mow his lawn for him." I pause, looking over to the cafe's cakes, "I even got him one of their cakes once, and he loved it. But, I promise you it was nothing weird."
Stella sits back in her chair, pondering my response with her hand resting on her chin. "I just think Liz, that it is weird." She leans forward to me now, keeping an eye on the barista that walks past us.
"It is totally and completely weird that a man left you twenty grand and his damn house!" She whispers the last bit, not wanting anyone to hear how suddenly twenty thousand pounds richer just because my next door neighbour kicked it.
"Okay, I know." I run a hand through my hair, distressed by the situation. I'm trying to play it cool, but it's failing miserably.
"Surely he had family? Like, he's pushing up daisies and now I'm the one trusted with his entire life savings?" I look at Stella, the wild expression on my face reflecting off her glasses. I look befuddled, and it makes me even more stressed.
"Let's go." Stella says, reaching for the coat on the back of her chair and downing the rest of her hot chocolate. Despite being just as confused about the situation as I am, she can tell that the matter should be spoken somewhere private. "Maybe we should go to his house, you'll have to face it eventually."
I sigh, pulling on my own coat. Stella is right, the only way I'm going to find an explanation if I go and find it myself.
It's a ten minute drive back to my house, where my old neighbour's house sits and quietly collects dust. It has only been two weeks since his death, but as I turn the key and step into the hallway it feels like it has been forever since I last stepped a foot into this house.
"This way." I lead Stella towards the kitchen, the room I am most familiar with in this house. My neighbour was always too old to carry the bags of groceries I'd bring him, but I never minded doing the chore anyway. He'd thank me, offer me half a cucumber sandwich which he'd made just half an hour before, and I'd accept. I'd listen to him talk about his late wife, and the way he loved his garden. He'd tell me stories of his life at my age, and I think he enjoyed the company.
The memories all come flooding back to me as I stand in the kitchen. The counter-tops are messy, with a bowl of cereal still not washed up and put away. Instinctively, I go over to the sink.
"You don't have to do that, Liz." Stella puts a hand on my arm, and I sigh heavily.
The death of my neighbour hadn't come as a shock - it was evident it was going to happen sooner or later - but the pain and emotion still comes in silent sobs as Stella pulls me away from the sink. Her hug, warm and full of understanding, makes me grateful for her presence. Without her, I wouldn't know where to start here.
"Let's check the living room. See if he left you a note, or see if there's an address book for any family." Stella pulls away first, wipes the tears from my face.
I steel myself, knowing I should control my emotions.
"Okay, let's do this."
We talk together into the living room. It's exactly as I remember. Two large, worn, armchairs and a small table between them. A television, and a pile of magazines and newspapers to the side. A large bookcase holds dusty books that look like they haven't been touched in a long time.
"Just a generic old person's living room then." Stella looks at me. She's standing in the middle of the room, turning three-sixty to see if there's anything out of the ordinary.
"Yep." I sit down in the left armchair - the one I would sit in when we would share sandwiches.
"I really don't think he had any family." Stella says, finally stopping her circling. "There's no pictures of kids, grandkids. Nothing."
"I know." I reply, coming to terms with the reality of it all, "I think I was the closest form of family he had. He was lonely." I put my face in my hands, unable to process the magnitude of it all.
For a moment there is silence, and all I can hear is Stella's breathing. She doesn't come to comfort me, and suddenly she makes a sound of surprise, and I look up.
She's frowning, a book in her hand from the bookshelf. Unlike the rest of the books, it isn't dusty and looks well-kept. "I think you should look at this." Stella passes me the book, and I soon realise it's a notebook. It's a black, leather-bound book with two letters engraved into the front - my neighbour's initials.
I flip through the pages, many of them diary entries from years ago. One page, from the eighties, documents his wife's passing. After that, the pages are blank. I close the book, feeling disheartened.
"Don't stop." Stella walks over to me and takes the book from my hands. She opens it again, more toward the end of the notebook, and puts it in front of my face.
"Look." She says nothing else as I take the book back into my hands.
The date is recent, and I recall it as being the first day I offered to mow his lawn. He had been outside, struggling with the mower, and I didn't have the heart to see him suffer.
"Today I met Liz. She's a nice girl." I read the top line of the new diary entry. A lump forms in the back of my throat. Looking up at Stella, she smiles at me with sad eyes.
I continue to flick through the pages, my neighbour documenting every time I spent time with him. The back page is the shortest entry, and also the most recent. It reads:
"Dear Liz. I hope you find this, and I hope it finds you well. Thank you for treating my with kindness, and taking pity on an old man like me. Your company is something I'll never forget, and I'll always think of you as family. I have nobody else, so I hope you don't mind me giving you a gift when I leave. Use it well. Hell, use it badly and spend it all. I don't care. Just as long as you're happy.
Thank you, George."
The tears return even before I finish reading the letter. Silently, Stella sits beside me and reads the passage over my shoulder.
"That's beautiful." She says, "And insanely crazy. You made that man happy again after so many years of being alone. I'd hold onto that book if I were you."
I nod, agreeing with her. The book is more valuable than the money could ever be, and as I sit there re-reading the note he left me, an idea pops into my head.
"He said use it well, right?" I look at Stella and I wipe away my tears. She smiles at me, curiosity spreading across her face.
"What're you thinking?"
"I'm thinking that we really love that hot chocolate place."
That evening I write a check for a fourth of my inherited money and deliver it myself to the manager of the cafe with the multi-coloured hot chocolates and little cakes with flowers on them. They thank me profusely and I tell them that they deserve it.
That night, I reach for the black book and make my own entry in the blank pages.
Thank you for everything, especially the cucumber sandwiches. What you have done is beyond generous, and I hope you like what I've decided to do with your money. I know you liked their cakes so I'll save you a slice.
Thank you for considering me as family, it was always an honour to be there for you. I like the black book, your taste is notebooks is immaculate and I promise to take good care of it.
Until we meet again,