Unhallowed ground, p.1

Unhallowed Ground, page 1


Unhallowed Ground

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Unhallowed Ground

  Unhallowed Ground

  A Novel

  Gillian White

  To Oliver Joe Bamforth with love
































  ONCE UPON A TIME, it is said, the devil walked in this valley. His progress was marked by a straight line of hoofprints, black two-legged tracks on a light dusting of snow, over shippen and stable, stone wall and stile, through graveyard and frozen furrow.

  No detours.

  Legend has it that Millie Blunt, a silly wench, recovered his codpiece from the bough of an oak while searching there for mistletoe. The hapless girl spirited it home believing it held all manner of powers. She slept with it under her pillow one night—it must have been uncomfortable—when the moon flooded her attic room through her little casement window, and she never spoke another sane word from that day until she died, poor soul.

  Though why the devil should choose a valley such as this for a survey, or a gathering of souls, was always far from clear; there were such few souls, even then no more than twelve, in the hamlet of Wooton-Coney, and the few there were were undoubtedly Christian and safely hidden behind shutters on howling nights such as those. As pious and God-fearing a community as any. The church itself, and the graveyard through which the devil walked, collapsed way back in the seventeenth century, and only rubble and lichened old gravestones remain to mark the spot. At some unrecorded moment in history the weathervane from the crumbled church spire was rescued from the debris, and for the last 200 years that bent tin cockerel has swung round on its rusty perch on the gabled end of the Buckpits’ barn.

  Centuries later, and Georgina Jefferson is as opposite in character to the blighted wench in the fable as it would be possible to get. Educated and cultured, she is sane, she is sane. Where Millie Blunt was free with her favours and considered something of a halfwit from the start (the preacher rapped hard on the pulpit and disclaimed her in church, called her child the devil’s spawn), her teachers wrote in her termly reports that Georgina could go far. There is nothing melodramatic about her, unlike the troubled Millie with her wild tangled hair and her flashing eyes and her lies. When her child died she swore that the devil had come in the night and smothered it. In character Georgina is solid as a rock, not morbid or sentimental, not given to the flights of fancy in which so many of her friends indulge. So when she first heard this devilish tale it certainly did not unnerve her, although she did think, as a professional, that poor Millie’s predicament would be more mercifully dealt with these days. She wouldn’t recognize a codpiece if she saw one, she would probably think it was some piece of saddlery. Practical and sensible, Georgina does not over-indulge. She sits and watches while lesser mortals get rat-faced and make prats of themselves at parties, she is the one with tomato juice and a dab of Worcester sauce, the complete one, the one who drives.

  Boring perhaps? A shade too cautious?

  Certainly not. Not a bit of it. She is glad she is not one of these irresponsible folk; their lack of control shocks her, for she cannot bear to relinquish it, not in bed, not in the kitchen, and thus her meals (and her sheets) tend to be dry, with each taste a neat and separate daub on the plate. She would rather do without gravy, or too many dangerous spicy sauces.

  So we can see that Georgina Jefferson, forty-two, slim, dark and attractive, who shops for her clothes at Marks & Spencer, sends Lifeboat cards at Christmas, is a solid, dependable person, concerned, right-thinking and busy. She knows who she is, believes that virtue carries its own reward and is satisfied with that.

  And that is why it is such a worry for her to believe, like poor Millie before her, that she is gradually going insane. And, like Millie, there’s no help to be had.

  It was autumn, a thick juicy one, when she first saw the figure on the hill. The air was rich with the smell of fungal decay and winter had started to breathe on her mornings. She walked straight towards him and frightened him away, or that’s what she thought she had done.

  Amused by her own curiosity, living where she did it was easy to forget the outside world and that everything wasn’t strictly her business. She saw him through the softly stirring curtains of her opened kitchen window, through a blue pall of bonfire smoke, between the crooked branches of the ancient apple trees twisting and heavily hung with clumps of crab apples, bleeding with wasps.

  A rural encounter.

  At first she thought the Buckpits must have put up a scarecrow, so still and so stark did the dark figure stand. But hang on a minute, it was more substantial than a scarecrow, and why would they put a scarecrow on a small triangular flag of a field that was only good for grass, and poor grass at that?

  Georgina stared on meditatively, inhaling watery lemon and her Marigold hands foamy with bubbles. A few towels flapped fresh on her line and tugged at her ears with the sounds they made, and the old wooden wheelbarrow, half full of logs, eyed her muddily from a tangle of grass, a reminder that she had not yet finished the first task of the morning.

  Whichever window she chooses to look out of Georgie is forced to look up, because Furze Pen Cottage is down in a dip, a small coin dropped at the bottom of a coarsely woven patchwork purse, an envelope of moorland. Her skyline is unfailingly interesting, copses and boulders and low scudding clouds make vibrant colour changes and act as barriers against the outside world from which she has fled. Her horizons cast nothing but gentle shadows.

  Has she fled? Everyone seems to think she has fled.

  Or has nothing more interesting than fate brought her here?

  Certainly, in her sensible, practical way, she was glad of the bequest when it came.

  But back to the figure, this rambling will not do. It was the stillness of it which grabbed her attention. Nevertheless, she finished washing up, taking pleasure in the sparkle of the glasses… her life was solid enough, composed enough at that time to allow for pleasure from simple things, so that even changing the sheets on the bed was becoming a kind of sweet-smelling joy. She had been right about coming here. The effects of her rural retreat were already beginning to work.

  Was it the distance which made him so dark or was he wearing black? It was rare for tourists to stray this far, mostly they miss the lane or see it and consider it far too steep, so they carry on along the road across the top towards the village one mile on, where they can have lunch at the Blue Bull Inn and peruse the slate etchings and metallic bird engravings in Mrs Morgan’s gift shop. The lane, with its scatter of reedy grasses and its manure-splattered, rutted appearance, gives the impression that it leads to a farm, and people are nervous of finding themselves trapped by a pack of sheep dogs.

  And what if the farmer is unfriendly?

  The figure was not a Buckpit, not a Horsefield or a Cramer, because none of those would stand still for so long, and there was no gun on its back.

  So Georgina went to the back door and sensibly slipped on her boots. She walked through her acre of rustic garden, ducking and bobbing to avoid the branches, ignoring the rush of her pecking hens. On reaching the fence at the end she hit
ched up her skirt and stepped over. Wading through her own small stream, looking back from her place on the boulder, she whistled softly for Lola.

  The spaniel with careering ears, dewy wet on the fringes, outwitted once again because she likes to announce such outings by barking—she prefers to lead from the front—snapped at a few drunken wasps as she set off after her mistress.

  There must have been something very wrong because the man had been standing for half an hour.

  A diminutive figure, head down, arms crossed, Georgina started up the incline, no threat to man or beast, just a slender woman in a flowing skirt and a cotton smock with a hood. The sun was a hazy yellow as it filtered through the corn chaff. Every now and then she raised her eyes to check how far she had come. She’d grown used to climbing by then; wherever she goes she is forced to climb, and it had taken a while to acclimatize after living so long on the smooth flat streets of London. To climb properly and with purpose means adjusting the breathing so that it doesn’t run out. There was no fear then—nothing to what came later—merely interest and a slight unease. A reporter who had managed, somehow, to dig her out of her hole? To expose her? To drag her back to the tabloid pages? The past sliding into the present? God forbid! Maybe he was lost and needed help. Maybe he was a hiker, or an artist, or a man from the Min of Ag come to do something about the water?

  And yet she knew he was not.

  Screwing up her eyes against the sun, Georgina felt the lines in her tanned skin pull and imagined she felt her age coming through. The figure (she could not see his face from here, no definable limbs, no neck, no hair) was no more than a smudge, a dark stunted tree trunk, and yet she could sense the furtiveness of him.

  He must have been able to see her coming and Lola was charging about, driven wild by the scent of rabbits. She would be friendly and polite, she would ask him what he was doing.

  That’s all.

  She stopped when she heard the sound of the whistle. It was soft, on two notes, like sailors piping a captain aboard, or how a shepherd might whistle to his dog. It was after she moved her eyes away, just for a second, while she eased herself through a crumbled gap in a wall, that she saw the figure had disappeared… into the copse… there was nowhere else. No other cover. No hiding place.

  A feeling of outright panic gripped her. He must have moved very quickly.

  An orange shadow came out of the clouds, swinging from one horizon to another and casting a horribly accurate spotlight over Georgina’s fear. Because it was at that moment that she first sensed the violence, and yet pushed it away from her consciousness—Oh God, was she so in tune with violence that she could smell it from 500 paces? Surely her reaction was nothing but imagination, and imaginations can become vivid when you live all alone, buried amongst such desolate, lonely countryside. Even for someone as sensible as she.

  The shadow of a buzzard followed her home, and the sound of a distant tractor. Lola followed sorrowfully—the walk had been too short for her liking—and made an attention-seeking pass at a hen as they strolled back through the garden towards the silence of Furze Pen Cottage.

  The incident was over. That first sighting was as strange and as simple as that. But frozen by the experience, for the first time since Isla and Suzie had left the previous weekend, Georgina wished that they were still there because she would have liked to discuss the matter. Isla and Suzie were the last of the summer visitors who were all kindly trying to put off the awful hour when Georgina must adjust to her new life and endure, alone, the oncoming winter.

  ‘But I am not alone,’ she used to tell them all, wearing that brave wooden smile of hers, attempting to reassure herself with that well-rehearsed argument: ‘My neighbours live close by, almost within calling distance when the wind’s in the right direction.’

  ‘Neighbours!’ Isla gave a derisive snort. Her lips curved mirthlessly. ‘You might live next door to them, Georgie, but they’re freaks, from some other planet. They are hardly going to provide you with the most stimulating company during the long evening hours.’

  ‘Isla. This isn’t fair. You’re supposed to be trying to cheer me up.’

  ‘I’m just wondering how you imagine you can depend on them, for anything.’

  ‘They’re polite enough.’

  And here Suzie smiled in the same disbelieving way as Isla. ‘Oh, yes, they mutter the odd miserable good morning when you meet face to face and there’s no avoiding it.’

  ‘Oh, that’s silly,’ Georgie snapped. ‘They just believe in minding their own business; they probably think I don’t want people nosing, prying into my affairs. They probably think I’m like my brother, a recluse, an artist, an eccentric who wants to be left alone. I bet Stephen bit their heads off in the past.’ And she could feel that annoyance which itched whenever the conversation got too close for comfort. ‘Anyway, what choice do I have? I’ve made my bed, as my mother would say.’

  Isla met her stare, sifting through a dozen responses to find the most suitable one. In the end she said in a weak, troubled voice, ‘You should never have come here in the first place. Out of the frying pan…’

  ‘You think I’m a bloody fool, don’t you?’

  Isla looked away and picked up her drink. She lay on the messy sofa, surprisingly comfortable despite its amorphous nature, next to the crackling fire that winked on her overlarge tortoiseshell spectacles. ‘I think you over-reacted, yes. I think you are punishing yourself as usual. God said, “On all their heads shall be baldness and every beard cut off,” and you, my dear Georgina, secretly want to be bald.’

  Not funny. Georgie wound a curl around her finger and rubbed her sloppy socks together—curiously nervous gestures for her—as she stared thoughtfully into the flames. She suddenly felt an urge to lean forward and arrange a few untidy sticks in the enormous hearth. A cold draft spun down the massive chasm of a chimney. Crossly she reminded them both, ‘There wasn’t much time for thinking! Not then, dammit. This place felt like a refuge then, a friendly lair in a hostile world, but why am I wading through this shit again? You know how it was. You were there for God’s sake. You know what it was like for me then.’

  ‘It was bloody hell,’ agreed Suzie, as frizzy-haired as a freshly gathered fleece, her complexion smooth as a china doll’s with cheeks painted a soft pink and a cold nose bright and shiny. The evenings were already chilly and Suzie was almost entirely cocooned in a baggy, knee-length purple fleece. ‘But even so, you could have used the cottage as a temporary hideaway and put it on the market in the meantime. Nobody dreamed you’d end up living at Furze Pen, Georgie, nobody thought you’d take it this far.’

  No, neither had Georgina, but she’d never dreamed it would get that bad.

  ‘If I’d put it on the market I would have had to be here all the time to show the punters round. And I couldn’t have faced all those strangers. I couldn’t put that sort of false smile on my face or cope with anything so fake. Hell, Suzie, I couldn’t put my mind to anything like hoovering or dusting or sorting out the garden.’

  ‘That is ridiculous.’ Isla, on the sofa, pounded the limpish cushions and rearranged them behind her back. A feathery aura of age and dust floated into the atmosphere. ‘The solicitor would have sold it for you; you had an offer right at the start. They’d have had no problems selling this as a holiday cottage, bang in the middle of Dartmoor; it would have made a fortune, untouched, original beams, original windows, flagstone floors…’

  ‘No central heating,’ Georgie interrupted, shivering slightly as she crossed the small sitting room to the even colder, more primitive kitchen to add mushrooms to the stew. She felt like a piece of lettuce walking into the salad crisper. Perhaps she should not have chosen whitewash, a warmer shade might have done wonders. The cheery rugs did help a tad, and the paintings that covered the walls, of course.

  From her place by the fire, Lola snored loudly and woke herself up.

  ‘And we’re just very concerned you’re going to feel terribly depressed and lonely
, way out of your depth, surviving like this in the winter,’ Suzie called through the narrow doorway with a meaningful look in Isla’s direction. ‘All your perceptions of the world are fuddled. It’s not as if it’s too late. You could come back to London with us, put this place on the market and start searching for something more practical.’

  Georgie, chewing on her fingernails, watched the hypnotically floating mushrooms, allowing the steam to caress her face, enjoying the hot smell of the stew, taking comfort from the warmth and the feeling of something well made with love. Since she’d been down here her cooking had developed a wetter, more mixed consistency… so much free fruit, so many vegetables… it was easier to use only one pot because of the cramped kitchen. Home-grown potatoes from the farm and a home-made apple pie with fresh cream to follow.

  Yet everything Isla and Suzie said made sense, while every argument she put forward fell apart full of holes. And if she was trying to prove something by standing out and being so stubborn, then for God’s sake what was it?

  She had been so frightened, so intimidated by everything. But most of all by the way she had, in a few short months, been so easily destroyed, shattered, all confidence gone, the confidence she had built up over forty-two years, melted away in a moment. Until she felt, as she lay in bed night after night weeping, that all the time there’d been nobody there, that Georgina Jefferson was a ‘let’s pretend’ person from childhood, a face miming with nobody behind it. As unsubstantial as soap worn to a frightening slither, gargling off down the plughole.

  Was she so naive as to believe that by enduring life on her own for a while, a hermit existence with only Lola for company, she would find herself again? Could she grow large and firm again as simply as that?

  I will lay me down in green pastures. She wanted her soul restoreth.

  Oh, I am a strong and sensible person…

  Well, this was what she returned to her friends in the sitting room and told them. And they said, tipsily, that they did understand her motives, they saw how easily a person could be demoralized and torn apart under such attack from every quarter.

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