Adam and Zoe should have been idyllically happy when they moved onto Goose Farm. But he soon realised that whereas he felt at home in the Old Dairy from the moment they moved in, it was soon evident she was finding it difficult to settle in. She was newly pregnant, and at first he put her growing preoccupation down to that. Everything had happened at once; both of them graduating from art college, then the house move, setting up their ceramics studio, and then, of course, the baby.
But for some time, she didn’t say anything; it was just a sense he had that she was uneasy in the Old Dairy. Even when they discovered their home had been the site of a murder, her first reactions seemed muted, almost unconcerned.
A century before, Goose Farm had been a vast spread dedicated to raising geese and poultry, but it had become ever less viable, until eventually it succumbed to twenty first century development. Their property, the Old Dairy, was one of several barns on Goose Farm that had been converted to domestic dwellings in an idyllic setting. They were on the edge of woodland; and the village was walking distance away, and at first it seemed to be everything Adam and Zoe wanted. Sudden and violent death certainly did not seem to have a place there.
The pair of them were potters, just out of art college, and trying to make careers for themselves. Adam made pots for the domestic market and ceramic sculptures for the art world, and taught at the local college to back up his meagre earnings, and Zoe made tiny porcelain figurines which sold fairly well in the village gift shop. The Old Dairy with its outhouse for their studio, was ideal for their business. The neighbours who lived in the adjacent converted barns were friendly, but not intrusive. There was even a gardener, old Tom, to take care of the communal gardens, though increasingly Adam found his presence somewhat irksome. It seemed to him that wherever he looked, he would find Tom lurking behind some bush or another, wandering out of one of the woodland paths, or even peering into the studio whilst he was working.
“I suppose its his job to keep an eye on the place. ” Zoe said when he complained a few weeks after they had moved in. “To be honest, I’m rather glad he’s around. When everyone’s at work and you’re away teaching, it can be very… quiet here.”
That was the first time she had admitted any uneasiness. But after that, he noticed that she had developed a habit of getting up and opening a door suddenly as if she thought there was someone outside; or would look behind her as if something had caught her eye, but she had never said anything.
It wasn’t long after that he saw her touching shelves and inspecting her fingers with an odd little frown on her face.
“Is it clay dust?” he asked. “I try to keep the door to the studio closed.”
“It isn‘t clay.” she said, puzzled. “It’s like – very tiny feathers.”
“Feathers?” he repeated, with a smile.
“Yes. Fluffy like … goose down. They must be coming from somewhere.”
Adam laughed. “You’ve got goose on the brain. It‘s been over a hundred years since there were geese on this farm.”
“But they’re everywhere .. You must have noticed.”
But he hadn’t.
She was deadly serious, and Adam was not.
“I’ll have to ask Tom about it,” Zoe said with a frown. “He knows all the history of the farm.”
A few evenings later, he came home from school to find Old Tom and Zoe at the kitchen table surrounded by albums and photographs. Tom looked up and nodded but with some reserve, as if he sensed Adam’s irritation with him.
“ Tom’s brought his photos of the farm just as it was a hundred years ago.” Zoe called out. But despite her lightness of tone, he felt that her smile was rather fixed.
“And guess what … we’ve had a murder here.”
Which was, he realised instantly, the turning point.
It was odd that she could announce it so gaily, as if it didn’t matter. But he sensed from the start, that it did.
Adam’s frown took in Tom, sitting with his elbows on the table, cradling a mug of tea. Tom did not smile. And Adam, looked intently at Zoe. She added with a giggle: “Not recently – it was 1919. Long ago.”
But there was something forced about the giggle and the way she lightly tossed a photograph at him. He looked at a line of unsmiling village women in long dresses seated in a stiff row, piles of dead geese at their feet, and formally jacketed farm foremen posed behind them.
“They look like a beefy lot of wenches,” Adam commentated. “Arms like navvies and hands to match.”
“They had to be strong for throttling and plucking the geese,” Tom told them.
“Ugh,” Zoe said with a shudder.
“So which one was the murderer?” Adam asked lightly.
“Not a man, “ Tom nodded at a face on the faded photograph. “Ellen Dribar. “
They both looked at the pale, plump face. An unattractive face, Adam thought, with no smile in her eyes, but a kind of set intensity as she stared at the camera, her big arms crossed defensively across her chest.
“I wouldn‘t like to cross her,” Adam observed.
“Aye, and you wouldn‘t have been the only one to regret it. She fell in love with the farmer, who owned Goose Farm at the time,” Tom told him pushing another photograph towards him. “Norman Gant, he was called. This fellow on the end. Led her a dance, he did.”
“Big chap,” Zoe commented touching the faded photograph thoughtfully. “Looks as if he might have put up a good fight, even if she was built like a tank. ”
“Or was it poison?” Adam asked, intrigued despite his concerns.
“No, it wasn’t him she killed,” Tom shook his head. “It was poor Rose Gant, his wife. When Norman refused to leave his wife for her, Ellen reckoned that if she couldn’t have him, Rose couldn’t neither.”
After a moment, Adam said: “Suffering all round; no winners there, I think.”
“She must have been caught?” Zoe asked, frowning.
“Aye,” Tom said sadly. “I don’t think she cared what happened to her after she lost Norman. But she escaped the hangman; she wasted away and died in prison.”
“And Norman? He must have felt terribly guilty for his part in this?”
“ We’ll never know now. He sold the farm and moved on. A wealthy man, so it was said though no one ever knew what became of him after.”
Zoe was staring intently at the photographs. “ He looks a very ordinary chap. I can‘t imagine committing a murder for HIM.”
“Well, it was 1919,” Adam said. “So many young men were killed in the Great War. Perhaps the girl was desperate to get any man.”
“This photograph was taken outside the Dairy House,” Zoe commented with a happy smile. “It looks quite plain. It didn’t have roses round the door in those days.”
“It never was a dairy, lass, ” Tom said quietly. “This barn was where they killed and hung the geese ready for plucking. What they called the Killing House.”
For a moment, Adam wanted to punch him; at the very least, to throw him out. Instead he glanced at Zoe.
Zoe’s eyes had veiled with something like horror. “Our house?”
“They renamed it when they converted the barns.” Tom began to gather up the photographs, and finished, almost offhand –
“If course, there’s some say that Ellen Dribar is still here, at Goose Farm, still looking for her man. Determined to get him, in death as in life.”
Adam tried to laugh it off. “So if we see someone in a bloodied nightgown brandishing a carving knife, that’ll be Ellen, will it?
Tom answered quietly: “ She didn’t use a knife, son. She suffocated poor Mrs. Gann in a vat of goose feathers. Right here, where we are sitting. Held her down until she breathed her last.”
“Feathers.” Zoe whispered. Now her horror was almost palpable.
Zoe was even more on edge now.
“I’m not so sure I like living in a place that was once a slaughter house – “ she said unhappily. “Especially with Ellen Dribar still haunting it.”
“Come on, ” he said silently cursing Tom. “I’ve never noticed a thing.”
“We are the third set of owners in as many years; what made the others move out?” she burst out. “And what about the feathers?”
“ Birds in the eaves.” he said mildly.
“Think I’m imagining things, do you?”
There was no answer to that, because the truth was, he did truly believe that was exactly what she was doing. These stories of Tom’s, however fact based, had only fuelled her imagination.
He was working in the studio the next day when he saw Tom walk by, pausing to look in through their front window. Suddenly angry, he went out and called him.
“You shouldn’t have told Zoe those things. You know she’s pregnant.”
Tom paused, taken aback by his anger. “I’m sorry, son, but it was no more than they’d tell you in the village.”
“She didn’t need to know any of it. It’s all speculation of the worst possible kind.”
Tom stared at him for a moment, then said, almost sadly: “Look out for her, son. ”
Adam was not quite sure whether he meant Zoe, or the ghost of Ellen Dribar. Whatever, he was horribly convinced that the old man had delivered a warning, which, as he didn’t believe a word of it , made him nothing but furious.
“You stay away from my wife with your scaremongering,” he told him furiously.
But the damage was done. Zoe wasn’t sleeping well; complaining of a dry throat, coughing on and off all night and blaming feathers in the air. He had been firing the kiln, and thought it was the fumes from the studio; but she was convinced it was feathers, which she clearly believed were a manifestation of Ellen Dribar stalking her.
“You OK?” he asked one evening, as, unusually quiet, she made coffee after their supper. There were signs of strain around her eyes.
“Why ask?” she countered. “You don’t believe anything I say.”
“You shouldn’t have taken those stories of Tom’s to heart.”
She turned away defensively. “ I felt it before he even told us. I always felt there was .. Something here.”
“Maybe … it’s just an atmosphere that we’ll get used to.” he began tentatively. “It’s an old house – “
“She‘s here.” she snapped. “And believe me, she doesn’t like me any more than I like her.”
She lifted the coffee cup to drink – but the next moment, the mug smashed on the floor and she rushed to the sink retching. As he watched aghast, she pulled something out of her mouth and flung it into the sink. Still heaving, she ran the tap full pelt.
“A feather; a bloody feather! If I had swallowed that, I would have choked,” she burst out hysterically. “Now do you believe me?”
It could have been a feather, he thought. But what he could see in the sink simply looked like swirls of milky coffee grounds being sucked down into the drain. He was appalled to find himself wondering if Zoe had invented the whole thing.
“Zoe – don’t get so upset – think of the baby -”
“Don’t give me all that old spiel about being in a delicate condition.” she snapped. “ I don’t want to feel like this. I don‘t want to feel watched, and hated . I don’t want this, any of this… but she does. She wants me out of here.”
“Zoe – what do you want me to do?” he asked, alarmed by the pinched look on her face, her hand protectively on her tight belly.
“Move out.” she begged. “Take me away before she kills me.”
She was ill, he thought, afraid for her mental state now. This wasn’t his Zoe. This wasn’t normal. He was aghast at the thought of uprooting from his new studio, and of having to sell up and move again. But Zoe’s pale face and her enormous eyes defiant with fear, worried him even more.
He said quietly. “Let’s get some rest, sweetheart. If you still want to leave tomorrow, then we’ll go, I promise.”
He settled her in bed, leaving the landing light on, then went downstairs to have a stiff whisky. He hardly knew what to think. That she was truly terrified was undeniable. But she was afraid of something he hadn‘t experienced and couldn’t believe in. The ghost of Ellen Dribar – trying to choke her with a feather? And yet – why would she make all this up?
He pushed the thought away. Whatever the reason, Zoe and the baby had to come first. Perhaps the best thing they could do was move out.
Suddenly and without warning, a scream of pure terror came from upstairs.
He ran for the stairs – appalled to see what seemed like a billow of white smoke welling inside the bedroom. But as he plunged on, he realised it wasn’t smoke. It was clouds of feathers, millions and millions of suffocating feathers swirling in a vortex of improbable power – lodging in his nose and throat and half blinding him, a cloud so palpable it seemed to be forcing him back towards the door. And Zoe was screaming hysterically in the middle of it.
Blindly he threw himself into the room and into the relentless pall that overhung the bed. Coughing and gagging, he caught hold of her flailing arms. He dragged her out on to the landing, slamming the door. They clung to each other, taking great gasping breaths.
“She tried to suffocate me … just like Rose Gann … ” she gasped. “She came at me – her hands! Oh god, those hands… I thought I‘d never breathe again …. ”
Oh God, he thought, will it never end?
He took her downstairs and cuddled her in front of the fire until she stopped sobbing. There were long gouges on her arms where she had scratched herself, and her neck was bruised. He was terrified for her now, really terrified.
“Take me away.” she pleaded in a hoarse voice. “If you love me, take me away.”
“I will.” He held her tightly. “We’ll go to your mother’s tonight.”
But first he would take her to hospital to get checked over, he thought.
He said quietly: “I’ll have to go back upstairs to collect a few things for you. ”
She was clearly panic stricken. “What if she comes back?”
“I’ll only be a moment. I’ll come on to the landing to check on you. Watch me. I’ll only be out of sight for moments at a time.“
He felt as if he were talking to a child.
He held her a few minutes longer, and then made for the stairs. She was really ill, he thought and wondered bleakly where it would end, what would happen to Zoe, and the baby, to them all. Damn the old man who had put these ideas into her head.
He stood for a moment outside the closed bedroom door thinking of the mess he would have to clear up inside. What had she done? he asked himself despairingly. Ripped open the quilt? Slashed the pillows? Torn at her own arms and neck? Misery engulfed him. As the door swung open, he held his breath, bracing himself against the expected onslaught of feathers.
A shaft of moonlight, pale and tranquil, shafted towards him. He stood, rigid with disbelief. The room, apart from a tangle of bedclothes on the bed, was neat and serene. And not a single feather to be seen.