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U3A Writing: Archibald Ferguson - Deceased

Colleen McMillan tells of a ghostly bequest.

On the night Archibald Ferguson died, the devils from the face of hell surely came out to welcome him. A night when children see windswept witches etched across a sallow moon. His house, although strong and grand, bowed to the sobbing howling wind; doors clapped shut, gusts extinguished candles and caused fires beneath the chimneys to become wild erotic things. He fought, even cursed till the end, his breath coming in fading bitter gasps until it was no more, his chest a deflated tyre. His eyes remained angry, even in death.

Bonnie closed his eyes with professional competence. An unprofessional tear trickled down her cheek, whether for herself or for Archibald Ferguson only the swirling spirits of the night could tell. She ignored it and went to tell his eagerly awaiting sons.

Jenny pulled the gladwrap around her remaining sandwiches, stuffed them in her bag and ran to catch up with her group. The lecturer's voice droned on, pointing out the unique architectural features of the old house, pointing out ugly attempts at refurbishment. He explained it was in the process of being taken over by the Heritage Council, the last owner having died intestate, about two years ago.

Raising her voice above the murmuring of the bored students, Jenny asked That was the younger son of the old man who built it, wasn't it?'

The lecturer, whose interest was in old houses but not really those who lived in them, looked nonplused, and asked Jenny had she known the people who lived here.

'Not really,' she replied, 'but my mother used to live just down there,' she pointed to a row of white cottages, 'when she was a girl, and I used to stay there when we came together to visit Granny. She said the two brothers had those awful additions put on so they could lead separate lives; they hated each other and were always fighting over money. The silly thing was they hadn't been long finished when the older brother left went to New Guinea, people said.

A cold shiver ran down Jenny's back as she remembered how terrified she'd been once when, taking a short cut through the grounds on her way back from the shops, she came upon the remaining brother. He had been standing idly by what had been a garden bed, raised ground, now weed covered. He turned on her and raised his walking stick, a stream of vile threats pouring from a mouth of yellow teeth and lips ferocious and shiny with spit. His hair and beard, a jungle of iron grey spikes did little to hide small red eyes not unlike those of a cornered boar she had once seen. Jenny had fled.

Back at Granny's, sobbing out her fright in her mother's arms, Jenny barely noticed when Granny stood up, took off her apron and said very firmly, 'I can see that I need to speak to him again,' and walked out the door.

Jenny's mother had looked surprised but only said, 'Granny used to work up at the house -- nursed the old father till he died.'

Producing a large old-fashioned key, the lecturer called the group to attention. Today we are lucky enough to be able to view the house and much of its original contents naturally it is still being cleaned as it has been neglected for some time now.'

The students streamed in, dividing up into ones and twos in order to better examine the wood paneling, ceiling roses and architraves so indicative of the period in which the house had been built. Jenny was fascinated. It really had been a beautiful house and it would possibly be beautiful again. She felt angry with those unknown brothers who had allowed this to happen. She moved from room to room totally engrossed in her surroundings, hardly noticing that she had come up two stairways, a grand one, then a smaller one leading to a couple of small rooms at the top of the house. Here the cleaners had not yet been; dust lay like fur on furniture and floor, cobwebs curtained windows. Jenny shivered as she gingerly touched a teddy bear slumped in a child's cot. Obviously this had been a nursery. She turned to go, but hearing a noise in the next room and feeling suddenly that she needed the company of another student she hurried into the second room. Here too, dust lay untouched but in a single straight backed chair, beside a grime streaked window, sat a man. He so blended with the darkness of the tattered drapes that for a moment Jenny did not see him. Then as her hand flew to her mouth to stifle a scream, he spoke, his voice like the dry crackle of autumn leaves, his lips bloodless.

'Do not be afraid Jenny.'

'How do you know me?' She whispered.

He made no attempt to rise but sat in his black clothes, regarding her solemnly with black eyes gleaming beneath heavy grey peppered brows.

'I have known you always. I have known your mother Ruth, and her mother Bonnie.'

'But Granny died three years ago.' Jenny didn't know why she blurted this out.

'I know,' he said 'and it is for her sake I must put things right.'

There was a tiny silence, then he continued, 'Jenny, open the top drawer of that chest' He indicated.

Legs wobbling and hands trembling, she did as she was asked.

'Now pull out the drawer and tap the back of the chest. Tap harder girl! It hasn't been opened since your Granny left.'

Questions were quelled by fear as the panel moved and Jenny was able to pull out a yellowed envelope. Bewildered, she made to hand it to him but he shook his head.

'No, that's for you. It is time to put wrongs right, otherwise Bonnie will never let me rest' He smiled a hideous grimace.

The voices of students could be heard in the corridor. Jenny heard her name called. She moved to the door to answer, and when she looked to speak to the man again, the chair was empty. The dust lay thick and undisturbed, but in her hands she held the yellowed envelope.

Saying nothing she hastily put the envelope in her bag and joined her group. But she saw no more the wonders of the house. Thoughts spun and pounded in her head, and when her stomach threatened to rise in revolt she excused herself and rushed out into the already darkening afternoon. Instinctively, she turned to go the way she had gone as a child to her Grandmother's cottage. Terror almost engulfed her when she saw a man standing by the same garden bed where she had been threatened years before. But this was not the same man. This was the man from upstairs. He did not speak, simply pointed to the weed covered mound.

Jenny fled. She fled as though pursued by demons until she reached the main road and, still trembling, caught the first bus that came by.

Fortunately it was one that stopped not far from her mother's house in the village.

Her mother was sitting drinking tea with her Auntie Maggie. Auntie Maggie, older than her sister Bonnie, was chirpy and bright as a little bird. She had only returned to 'these parts' to live since her 'dear Ernest had passed on' last year.

Both women stood at the sight of Jenny's face, tried to understand her incoherent story but, not unkindly, concluded that maybe Jenny's imagination was working in over-drive.

'So, yes there was a man in the upstairs room perhaps he was a cleaner, a man from the Heritage Council.'

'Were you sure he hadn't just slipped quietly out as you turned to speak to your friends?'

'A secret door to the garden perhaps?'

'Was he really pointing or just acknowledging that he'd seen you not long before?'

They had almost convinced her when she pulled the envelope from her bag saying, 'Well why did he want me to find this?'

The two women put down their tea-cups as Jenny drew out a yellowed sheet of parchment and began to read, aloud, the faded spidery script.

'I fear I grow weaker. The doctor knows not the cause. I am weary of his platitudes and shall see the fool no more. He cannot see the evil that hangs like a miasma from the lips and features of my sons. It permeates the very air and I fear each day for my life. I dare not let them know of my intentions towards Bonnie. I have not used her well, yet I think she cares for me. It is my wish that she and the child inherit, along with my sons, one third each of my estate. Should my sons die without issue this child (as yet unborn) shall inherit all.'

It was signed, Archibald Ferguson, and dated.

Auntie Maggie broke the silence. Turning to Ruth she said, 'So that's why we never met your father!'

'He was a sailor; he was lost at sea before I was born,' her mother retorted.

'You weren't listening Ruth,' Auntie Maggie continued, 'Archibald Ferguson was your father, you were the baby Bonnie was carrying. She worked up at the house for about two years before the old man died; she nursed him when he was sick. She had her own ideas about his illness but the doctor thought she was mad. Anyway she couldn't prove a thing.'

Jenny found her voice, 'Why did the sons hate him?'

Auntie Maggie, in her stride now, went on. 'Most people hated him, he was as miserable as sin with his money, gave the sons no freedom, no independence, even though they were men in their thirties then. They were beholden to him for everything. He mocked and ridiculed any young ladies they may have shown interest in, yet he brought home women who were no better than they ought to be himself. Bonnie told me she'd heard he was not above taking a stock whip to the sons, when they were younger.'

Still trying to fit pieces together Jenny now asked, 'But the elder son did leave, didn't he?'

'Oh, not until years after his father's death, once they got the old man's money in their pockets they turned into replicas of him. They fought like Kilkenny cats, the help all left and they let the place go to wrack and ruin. Then, one up and left, took his share of the money no doubt, and was never heard of again.'

Ruth recovering somewhat from her shock asked, 'Did the sons know my mother was pregnant?'

'I doubt that she told them at the time. She put about the story of how her husband had been lost at sea, and moved into the cottage where you grew up, Ruth. We always thought she must have had some kind of pension, from the Navy, but perhaps she wasn't above a bit of blackmail herself.'
Jenny handed her mother the will. 'I think you'd better take this to a solicitor Mum, you could be a rich woman.'

Ruth sold the house to the Heritage Council which happily continued restoring it to its former glory. When it was near completion, she asked Jenny to accompany her on a visit to help her better understand the mother she thought she had known, and the father she had never known. As they were leaving, the man in black, again, stood near the garden bed. Jenny clutched her mother's arm saying, That's the man I told you of.'
Her mother looked but saw no one. 'It must have been one of the gardeners, dear,' she said.

The next day the gardeners found the remains of the missing brother in that garden bed. Perhaps then Archibald Ferguson rested.


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