Once, there was a man who died at an inquest. He died of a heart attack, seemingly, when about to give evidence about his dead brother. He left behind his small son. But I get ahead of myself, and I would rather you knew about it the way I did, and then, perhaps, you can help me.
Outside the courtroom there was a very large gilt birdcage. Next to the birdcage was a small boy, slouched in his seat and uncomfortable in his smart clothes. Inside the cage, a peacock watched the floor.
The dark doors to the courtroom swung open, and a tall man in a long, dark cloak stepped out. His eyes fell on the bird and then the boy. He was agitated. The boy watched him as he would watch a television set.
The man hardly knew what to say. The court room doors were soundproof, in the interests of justice, and the boy would not have heard a thing. It was only belatedly, indeed that he had been remembered.
“The police are on the way.” He said, and the boy continued to stare at him, wide eyed.
“Fenton Jones, your – I am very sorry to say that Fenton Arguile, your father, is dead.”
The usher might have thought to sit down with the boy and explain, but as it was he had told the boy, and now he knew. And there were a thousand more things to do.
There was, after all, no protocol for death at an inquest, and so he turned on his heel and went back into the courtroom.
Fenton Jones’ finger was stuck into the peacock’s cage, and now the peacock nibbled it softly, and he withdrew it. Fenton Jones was a small boy, but not as young as he looked, and he was old enough to understand that now something must be done. And so he slid off his chair, as his feet had previously swung inches above the ground, walked around the birdcage, and pushed the large door and stepped into the courtroom.
Slumped across the witness stand and overshadowed by a doctor was his father, and he was undeniably dead.
Fenton Jones turned on his heel, stepped out of the courtroom and picked up the gilt birdcage, which he was only just big enough to carry. He walked down the stairs, said a polite goodbye to the receptionist, who was staring rather, and stepped outside. Puckering his face with concentration he began to retrace the steps he had taken earlier that day with his father. His father, who now was dead.
Fenton knew what being dead meant. Indeed, this was not the first inquest he had been to. Or sat outside, at least. So the route to the bus stop was quite familiar – and before long, he was sat atop a 49 bus, headed for his home.
When he got home, Fenton placed the cage by the door, extracted a key from among the roots of a large pot plant and entered the house. It had large rooms, high ceilings and fading pastel coloured paintwork throughout.
He clattered up the stairs and packed into a case a toothbrush and toothpaste, a notebook, some food from the kitchen, some money, his passport and some clean underwear. A sleeping bag. He looked around him, once, then left again, taking up the peacock, which had begun to scratch at the floor of the cage.
Hundreds of miles away, and two days later, a woman saw something in a newspaper, stood up from the table and left her coffee and walked with purpose to the police station.
And hundreds of miles away from that, a man dressed solely in black saw the same article, tapped his fingers against the table a few times, then reached for a phone, into which he barked a series of terse instructions.
A dead man, a missing boy and a peacock. Detective Inspector Alex Taylor’s notes said little else of interest, and even less that was useful. And so he sat again in the driveway of Fenton House.
DI Alex Taylor was one of the force’s top detectives, and he was rarely stumped. He had done all the right things, but this time to no avail. Fenton Jones, the missing boy, had no relations left, no clues or leads. His grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were gone. Not just gone, dead.
Alex nodded to the policeman who stood outside the house, ready for the boy if he returned. It was large, old and forbidding, and falling into disrepair. He pushed the door open, as the lock had been broken on a previous visit, and stepped inside.
He found himself holding his breath. Dust flew in the still, sunlit air. The house had large windows, but the light was not enough to dispel its attitude of abandonment. Furniture was sparse, and belongings even fewer, but those that there were lay strewn about at random.
The walls squares of brighter colour showed where pictures had once been and the colours that had been originally chosen to make a home. The corners of the rooms were messed with cobwebs. This was hardly a home.
Alex pulled the door closed behind him, feeling it was important, and breathed out. The house smelled musty. It was not a surprise, perhaps, that little Fenton Jones did not want to stay in this house after the death of his father.
And of his uncle, Alex reminded himself – it was for Fenton’s uncle that the inquest had been.
He picked his way through the house. He was methodical, and kept his thoughts strictly in order, but still did not like disturbing the silence. He went through the kitchen, the living room, bathrooms, bedrooms. All contained what is necessary for life and not much else, though what must have been little Fenton’s room contained books, all old, and various other toys. This room alone was tidy, with no dust.
Last he started up the stairs to the attic, and opened the latch door, and almost turned around and walked down them again. The attic had hardly been converted. The floor was haphazardly lain, with only a path to the desk clear, and the rest was coved in piles and piles of old books and papers.
Here, finally, was the evidence of a life so clearly missing from the rest of the house. In front of Alex was a desk, and pinned across it was a paper, on which were scribbled words, and next to the words, a rough pen and ink sketch of a peacock.
Alex felt as though someone were there, but they were not. And though this was sad, perhaps, he felt a thrill of excitement. Here, at last, was something to start with.
The person who had created this room of obsession was dead. Alex crossed to the desk, and began to read.
The first document was a series of papers stuck together as the contents needed more and more space. The words and lines upon it were in different inks. It was a family tree, from a Fenton Bradley, three hundred years ago. After that it grew outwards massively – but over time it began to shrink again, until there was only one name at the bottom. Fenton Jones.
Every name, bar this, had a horizontal line through it, including Fenton Arguile, recently deceased. The father.
Next was a postcard, with an unidentified beach scene on one side, and faded ink pen on the other.
you cannot believe that I can for one second agree with you. Your decision is founded on fear, stupidity and generations of brainwashing. I love you, but I have had enough. I desperately hope that one day you will come to your senses and come back to me – I shall not leave this final place that you left me. You have broken my heart over and over, and it cannot take anything more. You and Jones have, as always, all my love. Please, darling, come back to me. Sophie.
Next was a bill, from Palatial Petcare, for twelve months of deliveries of peacock feed – unpaid. The wording was stern.
The next paper was the oldest – browning, crumbling. All but illegible. Alex grasped it – but there was a clattering noise downstairs. He picked it up, and the others he had read, his head reeling, and looked quickly across the piles of paper. There was so much – it would take weeks, months, to go through. The peacock symbol recurred, the name Fenton; letters, bills, manuscripts – even a music score.
The door to the attic opened, and Alex jumped. It was the policeman from downstairs.
“Please, sir, there’s been a report come through the radio. Something to do with the boy. Thought you should know.”
When Alex had left, a car, inconspicuously expensive, drew up, and a man, completely dressed in black, got out.
The woman was on the train. She hadn’t thought she would make this journey again, not alone. She stared out the window. Could it be true? Be real? It was so far in the past that the people involved, let alone their beliefs or actions, hardly seemed believable. But the pain was still there. She turned her head away.
It had been a false alarm. Or, to some extent. Reports had come to the police of a man dressed all in black asking after a small boy with a peacock cage, all around the courtroom, on the bus, around the house. Alex and other cars hard searched for him, but could not find anything.
The next day, Alex returned to the office, discouraged. It hardly felt as though he had got any further. He took carefully out of his pocket the papers he had got from the attic, and placed them on the desk.
He was about to study the last paper, when a policeman put his head through the door, looking considerably less cheerful than usual.
“Sir.” Alex looked up at him and nodded, briefly. “Sir, the house. The Fenton house. It’s ruined. It burned down in the night. Possibly arson.”
It shocked Alex more than he would have thought. The house and the papers were gone. Just gone.
But as he turned to the final paper he had brought from the desk, it became evident that it was exactly the right one to save, and his heart began to beat faster.
The Fenton Curse
This document is the product of my, Fenton Arguile’s, extensive research into the long and bloody history of the curse that has haunted my family these past three hundred and forty seven years. I intend to lay out as concisely as possible the origin and effects of the curse for the edification of those, if any, who survive me. I had once hoped to discover a way to break the curse, but have become increasingly resigned to it’s inevitability. I do not expect to last much longer.
349 years ago a man named Fenton Bradley, my ancestor, eked an existence in the vicinity of this very manor house. He had a large family to feed, and that day he was walking after a meagre meal, when he saw the peacocks of the manor house walking through the gardens and was filled with anger at the unfairness, and before he knew what he was doing, he crossed the lawns and took one.
When he arrived home, the Lord of the Manor, a usually fierce and tempestuous man, was waiting for him. He was surprisingly calm, and said that he could see that the man was poor, and offered to swap houses and fortunes with him.
Fenton was ready to agree with him, but smiling from the side of his mouth the Lord of the Manor held out his hand. He told Fenton that nevertheless stealing the peacock would have consequences. If Fenton refused the manor house, he would surely die that night – but if he did not, in three hundred and fifty years time all of his descendants would suffer the consequences.
Like any reasonable man, Fenton shrugged of thoughts of the curse, and readily took the manor house.
He lived prosperously for many years, but one year before his death he was walking in the grounds when he saw a peacock. These birds had abandoned the house years before, and the bird’s appearance caused him to fall to the ground. He lived his last year in his bedroom, with the lights turned down. The peacock, captured, lived in a gilt cage by his bed.
Throughout the years the various Fentons despised or obsessed over the curse, weaving stories to their children, proudly displaying peacocks – the descendants of the one seen in the grounds.
I am of the latter type, of obsession and yet I have the most reason, for it is now the time the Lord of the Manor spoke of. It is my generation that has suffered from the curse, and my life will not continue much longer.
I keep the peacock close.
February, Fenton Lanley. Dead.
May, Fenton Yates. Dead.
April, Fenton Handley. Dead.
August, Fenton Arguile, my brother. Dead.
And below that, a different handwriting, painstakingly neat. That of a child.
September, Fenton Arguile, my father. Dead.
Alex checked the names on the system, the dates. All were real, all these people had died in the last year, all unnaturally. He let out a long breath.
Miles away, and hours later, a small boy sat in a bus shelter, on a roadside. He was warmly dressed, snuggled in a blanket – but alone. His face was set, resolute, determined. He was doing his very best to ignore the thoughts of hunger, of loneliness. Of grief. Time enough for that, time enough, after.
Alex splashed his face with cold water. It had not been a restful night. People, flesh and blood, he could deal with. Revenge, love, hate. But not curses and ancient documents, scripts and superstition.
He had read the paper of the curse, over and over, as though a fresh reading would bring understanding but instead it had merely added layers upon layers of confusion. A curse, of course, could not be real (could it?) and so behind this all there must be something – there must.
And all these men were dead. And the boy. The boy must be saved, somehow, against something.
He had started a search for the ancestors of this Lord of the Manor, into the story of the curse itself, but his were police officers, not historians, and he could not bear to wait.
He was looking into all they knew about Fenton Arguile. The results of the autopsy were inconclusive. Fenton Arguile had had a heart attack whilst stood at the witness stand, which had killed him quickly. He had no history of heart troubles, but still the doctors could not tell if it had been natural or provoked. There was nothing in the courtroom. No observers or family. Only Fenton Jones, who sat outside.
He had had various careers through his life but had spent the last five years alone with his son, out of employment. Neighbours said he rarely emerged, that little Fenton seemed quite self sufficient. That when he did, he had been scruffy and distracted.
Usually there was a person to catch. One that could be identified by their DNA, their weapon. A patch of mud on their shoe. It wasn’t boasting for Alex to say that he was a good detective. That he noticed things that others ignored, often could find leads that others couldn’t. And now this. His mind raced in a million directions at once, more stimulated than it had been ever before in his life.
The house had been burned. There was a real, living peacock. There was, apparently, a curse, and there were four dead men, four dead Fentons.
A woman – not The woman – had stopped her car, and had seen a boy in a sleeping bag in a shelter – and next to him, a peacock in a cage. She shook him awake.
“You, boy, you waiting for someone?” The boy looked at her in a state of absolute terror, his eyes wide – remember, he looks younger than he is. He didn’t answer.
“Are you? You look awful cold. You want something to eat?” The boy looked around him, for the peacock cage. It was still there, the bird inside.
It was stupid to accept food from strangers, he knew, and especially now, but he was cold, tired, and hungry, and so Fenton Jones nodded, and ate the food of a stranger.
But after his food, he found a voice, and let the woman know in no uncertain terms that he was waiting for a bus, and that she should get on with her journey, he would be fine. He was older than he looked, and when he spoke this time it was with a quiet gravity and authority that suprised this woman (not The woman) enough to make her leave him alone, to pack up his sleeping bag and take up the peacock cage once more.
Alex had come to a conclusion, finally, that could spur him to some real action. The woman, Sophie, from the postcard. The mother. He must find her, she would know more, would know of the curse, of the details of what was going on. She would provide some answers.
And then the door swung open, and the woman walked into the room. The woman was beautiful, and not at all tragic looking, as he had perhaps expected her to be. For the woman was, of course, Sophie Jones, mother of Fenton Jones.
He had imagined her younger, perhaps. Less frantic.
“What has happened to my son. Where is he?”
“I wish I could tell you, ma’m – is it Sophie?”
“I am and I do not want police talk, I want my son. What do you know?”
At least she was straight talking. Alex sat down, pen to paper.
“Very little. What can you tell me?”
Sophie looked at him, exasperated. He motioned towards a chair, but she shook her head slowly, then spoke. Concisely. Passionately.
“Fenton is a strange boy. Or, at least, if he is not, he should be. His father was a wonderful man, but became slowly more obsessed with the curse. He stopped sleeping, would pour over and over those precious documents, trying, I think, to find a way out.
“He would have liked to cast it aside, but something in him couldn’t. And he drew the rest of the family into it, too. The few remaining Fentons.” She shook her head. “And like all the others, his son must be named Fenton. They are a strange family.” Alex noticed she still wore a wedding ring.
“You sent this postcard.”
She nodded. “I am glad he kept it, I suppose. It was when Jones – I called him that, defiance and ease, I suppose – was three years old. And Fenton’s obsession was getting serious. He wanted me to leave him, for my own safety.
“But I could not take the boy, for apparently he, too, was cursed, and it had to be away from the house, as the house was involved too. So he took me places – wonderful places – and left me.” She paused, and Alex could see her grip the car seat. “I came back. Of course I did. Again and again, though it was harder and harder. But eventually, I had enough.”
Alex said nothing, and for a moment there was silence.
“But now I am back. And now we will find my son.” Alex showed Sophie the writing at the bottom of the list, what must be Fenton Jones’ writing.
“Where would he go?”
And then the telephone rang. A small boy with a peacock in a cage had been spotted, on a road on the other side of the country.
And then the telephone rang, again. A small boy with a peacock in a cage had been spotted, in a car, with a man in black.
Sophie and Alex drove. Sophie’s hand gripped the door, knuckles white, unconsciously ready to leap out of the car the moment she saw her son. Alex’s mind turned questions over and over. Was the man in black the same? Was he the curse, had he put all of these things in place? Could it be a conspiracy, a grudge held throughout the ages? A man still incensed by the crimes of the past?
Had he burnt down the house? Who was he?
It wasn’t clear. The mystery was deepening, thickening.
And finally they saw it. A black car, and silhouetted against the grey, flat landscape that so often surrounds big roads, a man, a boy, and balanced on top of the car a peacock in a cage. Almost before Alex had pulled over Sophie was out of the car, running towards her son, who accepted her embrace in a kind of confusion.
Alex was out too but ran towards the man in black, the man who at that second was climbing into his car. And so Alex dived back into the driving seat and swerved the engine into life, as the car ahead pulled out into the fast moving traffic, the peacock cage swung off the roof, the boy, followed by his mother, ran into the road to save it, and were both hit by oncoming traffic and killed, instantly.
The reason I want your help is, I don’t know if I did wrong. I have been a detective many years since that day and before, and yet from this case only am I left with a feeling of unease, distrust. Fear. Guilt.
My career went sadly downhill after this point.
For if the curse were true, or true in some sense of the word, I did the right thing. I tried to track down the perpetrator with the only tools I had available. I pursued justice, truth.
But if not, perhaps my intervention, my interest and care for the life of a small boy and his distraught mother might have saved their lives. You see, it was the peacock, again, the peacock that caused their death.
Or perhaps you do not see. I will give you the rest of what I found out, that you might be as well informed as possible. I do not want to bias your opinion, though I do admit that a favourable answer would give my heart ease it has longed for.
I searched with an almost inexhaustible fervour for any more clues or information. I poured over libraries, archives, I searched for the witness accounts that have given me the scraps of information about the other characters in this story, though I do admit attributing them with some thoughts that I cannot verify completely, though I think you will find them probable.
I found only one mention of the Fenton Curse, as a joke in a footnote of an essay on a topic totally unrelated. I never traced nor identified the man, if indeed it was only one man, in black. Palatial Petcare knew nothing, and asked me to pay the bill for the peacock food.
I still have the documents, though I know them by heart, each one, by now. I searched, too, for any more Fentons. Any more of their family that might survive, but I could not find any. I researched the deaths of the others. All inconclusive.
I suppose I searched for evidence that there was a curse. Evidence that nothing I could have done would have stopped the last of the Fentons being killed. Evidence that my eagerness to solve the riddle, to be right one more time, hadn’t left two innocent people dead.
But I cannot convince myself. What I am asking you, I suppose, is this. Do you think that there is any way such a thing could be real?
Or was it real only in that it consumed us, Fenton Arguile and I at the least, to concentrate on words written on paper hundreds of years ago instead of the living, breathing and feeling people before us?