Unnerving riddle of the phantom peacock...

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They had lived a happy and pretty tranquil rural existence until something had happened a few months earlier which changed all that. It seemed that the Lady of the Peacocks moved in — apparently to stay.

"Come down for the fishing," wrote my friend Henry Woodcock, one of the few  people I know who still sends hand-written letters. "And while you're here, investigate our ghost!" The invitation was irresistible. A week later I arrived in the Devon town of Newton Abbot and was met by Henry in his dog-filled Land Rover.

The Woodcocks have lived for generations at Cadhay Court, a thatched country house in the hills between Newton Abbot and the coast. Henry sells agricultural machinery, his wife Helen is a part-time watercolour painter and they have two young sons, Mark and Richard. They had lived a happy and pretty tranquil rural existence until something had happened a few months earlier which changed all that. It seemed that the Lady of the Peacocks moved in — apparently to stay.

The first evening after supper I sat in the low-ceilinged sitting-room in front of a glowing log fire as Henry, at first reluctantly, told me a strange story. "It was last November when Helen told me: 'Richard said something strange to me today. He said that last night, about seven when he went into the garden to put his bike away he saw an old lady walking along the back path. She was followed — and don't laugh — by a peacock.'

"I said that, as far as I knew, Richard had never seen a peacock and Helen replied that he had described the bird in detail and there could be no doubt that was what he had seen. I said I thought he was a bit old to be making up such stories and forgot about it. I don't think Helen took it seriously either.

"Then, a week later, the business came up again. This time both Mark and Richard said they'd seen this old woman followed by a big bird with a fan-shaped tail.

"When I asked Mark about it he said they had been about 30 yards away and watched the woman and the bird walk slowly along the path. Then when they reached an oak tree at the corner of the garden they simply 'faded away'."

The following morning I tactfully broached the subject with Mark and found he took it very seriously. He took me into the garden and showed me where the women and bird had appeared and where they were vanished.

Strangely he was not alarmed by what he claimed to have seen, just accepted that it had happened.

Two days later, on a Wednesday evening, Mark ran into the kitchen shouting: "It's out there again!" Henry and I hurried into the garden but could see nothing but branches swaying in the chilly north wind.  "Well, it was there..." Mark said defiantly. "But it's gone now."

Not to be outdone, Richard claimed he had actually seen the apparition in the house — walking past his parents' bedroom and upstairs into the attic. Nothing else happened during my stay but about a month letter I received a long e-mail from Helen Woodcock reporting some apparently dramatic developments.

She wrote: "Two nights ago Henry and I were woken up about 2am by awful screaming from Richard's room. We rushed in and found him sitting on the floor, crying in absolute terror.

There was blood on his face from long scratches on his cheeks. I immediately thought the cat must have done it, but it was nowhere to be seen. The child was shaking with fright. I had never seen him in such a state — but I managed to comfort him, and eventually after we had patched up the scratches, he fell asleep.

"In the morning he refused to say what had happened but finally told me: 'The bird did it. It was horrible...' He said he had woken up in the night to go to the bathroom and as he walked along the corridor 'the woman and the big bird suddenly came in front of me.

"'I was frightened and the bird scratched me. When I started to cry they both vanished.' Later I took him to the doctor, saying he had got the scratches in the garden. The doctor said they looked like claw-marks of some kind although it would have to be a pretty big bird. I must confess we are getting very concerned that whatever it is could do some serious harm."

In fact Helen needn't have worried. The Lady of the Peacocks has not been seen again. But when the story got into the nearest village, people said that years ago someone living in Cadhay Court had kept peacocks but no one could remember the details. So what was the truth about the incidents? Were they the result of feverish childish imagination? Having met Mark and Richard, who seemed sensible young chaps, I found that hard to believe. Nor did any logical explanation come any nearer when I received a recent letter from Henry Woodcock in which he wrote: "We have been taking up the floor of the upstairs corridor to lay pipes for new central-heating and found something. I enclose it in case you're interested."

As I shook the envelope, a faded peacock feather fluttered on to my desk.


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