So Mary McDiarmid died and left behind her inexplicable mementoes of her being, which lingered long after her death in about 1980 and may still be present in Geddes Village: the once-pungent scent of her udder-salve chilblain ointment, the sounds associated with her bedtime routine. These had disturbed the people who moved into the house next door, where we had lived for years until just before Mary died. They had called an exorcist in, to no avail, which didn't surprise me at all. If the spirit of Mary still hovered about her end of Geddes Village, it was anything but evil. In the end they left, and a family called Scally moved into what had been our old house.
Diane Scally (above, standing with her daughter Laura in 1990 outside No. ½ Geddes Village), an excellent cook, turned it into both the Scally home and a little eatery which she called The Woodland Restaurant. The dining-room, with room for about 20 covers, was our old sitting-room. Our family thought it would be suitable place to hold my mother's 80th birthday party, and it was during the organisation of it that I first met Diane.
I told her that we used to live there. Very guardedly, she began to ask certain questions. Had an old lady ever lived there? Or a soldier?
I told her that the dining-room we were then standing in had once been home to an aged and very slovenly woman called Jessie Ross, who must have died twenty years before. Then, of course, there was Mary, who had lived next door.
Did either of them ever come into this house? Diane asked.
Jessie, never, I replied. But Mary did, often. Every day, practically, for some reason or other. Just to know the time, or whether the postman had called yet, or to bring us the local paper, that sort of thing. She chatted freely, but never outstayed her welcome. She just liked it in our house, especially in winter. It was warm and light, there was always a cup of tea, and so on. She used to bring little presents for the children that they weren't terribly interested in, a couple of Rich Tea biscuits or a few imperial pan drops. She used to babysit sometimes. We didn't ask her often, because generally we would be back well after her bedtime. She went to bed quite early.
Diane asked what Mary looked like. I said she was small, neat, apple-cheeked with a healthy complexion, had her grey-to-white hair gathered back into a bun, and almost always wore a dark blue overall.
Then that's very strange. In fact it's uncanny, Diane said. She said she'd known about the noises next door, but this was something different. When Laura was four or five she seemed to be having some kind of relationship with a little old lady in a rocking chair up in her bedroom. "I didn't put much into it at the time. There was no reason to. You know how children invent things. She told my son Nicky - he's much older, and in the Navy - more than she told me, about her hair in a bun and her blue overall and keeping on talking so that Laura couldn't get to sleep."
Diane had mentioned a soldier, and I wondered what this was about. She said he came occasionally when she was alone in the house, so she was reluctant to tell anyone about him 'in case they thought I was stupid'. He was always by the window. She couldn't say what he looked like, apart from having dark hair. Otherwise he was indistinct. She thought from his uniform that he came from the First World War. What was most obvious, however, was not only the smell of his cigarettes but the sulphury smell of matches when you strike them. He wasn't in the least threatening or frightening. He was a gentle person and she was always pleased when she knew he was there.
This meant very little to me, until my mind went back to Mary's house in the old days, while she still lived there. She had practically no decoration, but I remembered that on the wall she had a double page spread colour photo torn from a 1930s magazine like Picture Post of the two princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose (i.e. the Queen and her late sister) and, in a card frame on the mantelpiece, a sepia photo of a soldier in puttees and a flat peaked cap.
* * *
I make a sentimental journey back to Geddes whenever we're in that part of the world. Geddes Village hasn't changed all that much. No. ½ Geddes Village has been gentrified and is now called Mary's End. Maybe this is commemoration enough, as all other vestiges of her seem now to have disappeared. Others can attempt explanations of all these things, if they want to. Count me out. The only conclusion I've come to is that hauntings, if that's what they were, don't always bespeak evil.
(I've had particular fondness for this story for the best part of 20 years. When I came out of education - long, long before retirement age - and moved to France intending to scrape a living by writing, this story was the first article I sold, to a monthly called The Scots Magazine. Thank you, Mary. One of their staff artists added the illustration below. Mary's features weren't nearly so sharp, she was shorter and plumper; Laura (who later became a close friend of my nephew Mark) didn't have curls. But the dormer window is reasonably accurate.)