Unhallowed ground, p.10

Unhallowed Ground, page 10

 

Unhallowed Ground
 


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  ‘The ones I’ve got are all soaking wet.’

  The girl was a pathetic dead loss. She stared helplessly back at Georgie as if pleading to be cared for and looked after. What was she doing buried away here, living with this coldly dishonest and wicked bugger who didn’t care a jot if she stayed or went? How had she got herself in this mess with nowhere else to go? Georgie led the way back to the sitting room to find Cramer lolling by the fire as they’d left him, but this time his gun was on the floor and now his eyes were closed. He was snoring lightly, mouth open, exposing his yellowed uneven teeth. Georgie had no compunction about waking him up.

  ‘I have looked over my brother’s belongings.’ She was gratified to see him jump into wakefulness. His ferret eyes narrowed as they focused upon her, and one grimy nail rasped on his bristly chin. ‘And I have decided that I want everything back, put back just how it was, and as quickly as possible.’

  ‘But there’s nothing frigging worth…’

  ‘Really? It might be worthless in your eyes, Mr Cramer, but in mine it is all extremely important,’ said Georgie sternly, wondering how he would take this arrogant tone.

  ‘Ah, that might not be quite so easy,’ he started to say, pulling himself out of sleep, aware he might be losing out.

  In their absence Cramer had allowed the fire to die back dingily to a few sad puffs of smoke. ‘I don’t see how returning my rightful possessions could prove more difficult than moving them out in the first place. They’re all stacked up out there quite neatly, apart from the electric gadgets. It would be a simple matter to load them onto the back of a trailer and drive them back over. We are only talking about a few hundred yards after all.’

  Donna, still with chattering teeth, trailed into the room behind her. The man was a bully and Georgie could sense the girl’s nervousness.

  ‘I’ll have to see what can be done,’ he growled ungraciously, and his eyes whisked over her, mean with temper.

  But Georgie remained standing there glaring down on him. ‘I want the job done today, Mr Cramer, while I’m around to supervise.’

  He smiled then, a thin-lipped smile full of pleasure. ‘That won’t be possible, I’m afraid. It’ll be bleeding dark in a minute.’

  Georgie drew herself up, hands on her hips. ‘If the contents of Furze Pen Cottage are not returned to me today, and all of them, then I shall report them missing to the police at Bovey Tracey in the morning.’

  Cramer pulled himself as high as he could from the depths of his unsavoury chair. His eyes darted over Georgie, testing for sincerity. ‘That’s being bloody stupid, that’s well over the top.’

  ‘That might well be. Good,’ said Georgie. ‘Just so long as you realize that. And there must be more pictures than the few I saw outside. I know that Stephen was prolific, there must be more paintings about somewhere. The police, no doubt, could also help me solve that small problem, Mr Cramer.’

  She could feel that poor Donna, behind her, was holding her breath with tension. There would be all hell to pay if Chad discovered her gaff. But Georgie could not spare the girl, if necessary she would say what she knew and she would insist on searching upstairs. Cold, tired and irritated now beyond endurance by the attitude of this surly scoundrel, Georgie had taken enough. She was not prepared to play his games, or be intimidated by the man, by his size or by his insolence; she was sure he enjoyed abusing women. Georgie, with no intention of coming to live here in Wooton-Coney, didn’t give a damn if she fell foul of this disagreeable neighbour or not.

  Luckily she was not forced to betray Donna’s thoughtless indiscretion because, unsettled by the word ‘police’ and speaking with lazy indifference, Cramer said, ‘You’d better show her the rest of the rubbish if she’s so bleeding determined.’ So they left the room to Donna’s palpable relief, and the girl led the way up the twisting stairs to the freezing cold of the bedrooms.

  Stephen’s paintings were stacked in piles, up-ended along walls, balanced against broken tea chests, in a bleak, distempered bedroom with nothing else in it save packing cases and cardboard boxes. There must have been fifty pictures in all. With Donna’s help Georgie counted, and some were good, very good.

  ‘You stood up to him back there. That’s daft. He can be wicked, can Cramer. And he carries grudges about for years.’ She sounded like a weak old woman, tired, dulled and defeated.

  ‘What do you suggest I do? Let him get away with it? He’s a bully, Donna. There are lots of men like him, leftovers from the old days. Dinosaurs, really. And some can be flesh-eaters, can’t they?’ But Donna, blinking blankly, looked as though she couldn’t possibly be held responsible for anything that happened in the whole of her life.

  ‘He wasn’t a monster when I first knew him.’

  ‘No,’ Georgie smiled. ‘They never are. But I can’t see Cramer as a Mr Wonderful.’ Out of her habit of caring, perhaps, or because she was merely interested, Georgie asked, exasperated, ‘How did you get mixed up with him, Donna?’

  ‘He’s OK most of the time. And it’s a home.’ There was little expression in the girl’s voice.

  Georgie looked round her and crossed her arms against the bleakness she saw. ‘Not much of a home. Not many comforts to write home about.’

  Donna brightened and looked through the cracked window into the gloomy daylight. ‘I might go this summer. I’ve been thinking of pissing off out of here for a while now. I’ve just got to wait till the time is right.’

  Georgie knew she wouldn’t go in the summer. She wouldn’t go in the spring or in the autumn either. Donna would not leave Cramer until he decided to chuck her out and move on to the next sad cow, and even then the lamentable Donna would probably beg to return. Georgie had seen too many Donnas in her day, damn the job, it soured too much of the world. Too many victims to remember and far too many to count.

  And yet Gail Hopkins had not been a Donna, she was far too sparky for that, and Ray Hopkins had not, on the surface, in spite of his gruff hostility towards the social services, been a Chad Cramer either. How easy it is to set up stereotypes just because it is simpler, no, to hell with it, let’s be honest, without stereotypes nobody could survive. At the end of the day it is simply a way of sorting the unacceptable, the unspeakable, out.

  There were no words of wisdom Georgie could say to the girl with the bright-blue eyes, this overgrown child who stood so inadequately, so hopelessly before her, but she tried all the same. Once a meddler always a meddler. Maybe a good discussion with somebody with her welfare at heart might spur her on to take action. ‘Perhaps, after Chad’s moved my stuff back, you’d like to come over and have a drink and a chat, help me sort the place out.’ She hesitated, afraid she might sound patronizing. ‘I need a friend.’

  Donna, filled with dismay, explained, ‘Oh, I daren’t, Chad wouldn’t like that.’

  ‘No?’

  ‘He doesn’t like being bested you see, especially by a woman.’

  ‘No, I understand that.’

  ‘Perhaps tomorrow, when he’s gone out.’

  ‘I won’t be here tomorrow, Donna. I’m leaving in the morning. I have to get back to London.’

  And then Chad was calling from below. It was a cup of tea he was wanting and Donna hurried down to oblige, apology in her backward glance, an appeal for understanding.

  When Georgie had finally finished she went downstairs and confronted Cramer. ‘The sooner you make a start the better, while there’s some light left. I’ll expect the first load in about… what? …An hour?’

  Cramer did not look her in the eye. He glowered into the fire, one eye closed against spiralling cigarette smoke, then he answered sourly, ‘That brother of yours couldn’t paint a bleeding fence, not with a brush and a tin of whitewash. The lot together aren’t worth fifty.’ And he spat the dog-end angrily into the hearth.

  ‘The canvas alone is worth more than that, as well you know, Mr Cramer. So, as I said, I’ll be waiting. And there might be a few bob in it for your troubles if you’re lucky.


  He missed the insult completely for he was a man without shame. If she’d slapped his face he’d have understood. And Georgie heard him cursing some clumsiness of Donna’s as she briskly and triumphantly showed herself out. In these difficult circumstances, she congratulated herself, she thought she had done rather well.

  TEN

  NOT ONLY WAS GEORGIE aware that Cramer was slyly eyeing her departure, but that several other hostile stares were following her from the other two lonesome habitations that made up Wooton-Coney. She looked for the twitching curtains, but saw only vague reflections on glass. Not a woman given to dramatic imagination, nevertheless she could not dismiss the certain feeling that her every move was being watched and had been watched, carefully watched, since the moment of her arrival. But why?

  At the cottage she fed Lola, then sat in the damp, distressed chair waiting for the devious Cramer to arrive with the first load. It might be inconvenient for the slob to leave the comfort of his miserable fire, it might be unreasonable to expect such exertions in the snow and in the dark, but there was no alternative. Georgie, determined to get her belongings back, was quite clear in her own mind that if the villain did not return them straight away she would go to the police in the morning.

  Cramer was no lovable local scoundrel. The cheeky poacher. The colourful rustic. Georgie disliked him intensely.

  Half an hour later Cramer arrived. He did his work with sullen efficiency, Donna tagging mutely behind to help him hump his load. The caterpillar tracks left by the Buckpits’ tractor meant that the battered old Land Rover and trailer had no real difficulty grinding their way up the road. Cramer cursed darkly as he worked, grim reluctance in every movement. He was rough with Stephen’s belongings now they were no longer his for the taking, and Georgie watched him nervously while she traversed the awkward stream, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, making sure the breakables, at least, reached the house in one piece.

  Total darkness overtook the horizon and fluttered the valley like a fan. A tawny owl hooted and the churring note of a nightjar tore the stillness of the night. Quite alone with nature in the complete stillness between Cramer’s deliveries, it was easy to think her strange and hostile, busy with her own life, indifferent to the needs of men. Georgie’s taughtened hearing meant that the chattering stream flowed more swiftly and small animals moved in the snow.

  It took Cramer four journeys to finish the job, and by the time the Land Rover rattled away the night sky was pitch-black. She had looked at the mess Cramer had left and decided not to tip him. It was a relief to close the door and make a start on sorting it out.

  Already the cottage felt more comfortable, began to breathe real life. The battered yet comfortable sofa and the second, more reputable, armchair removed the vacant feeling of space. It was a relief to be busy, absorbed in something positive, removed from her normal relentless problems. Already Georgie was aware of the gulf that divided this life from the other. She positioned the lamps and turned them on. Some of the old horse harness she hung on the obvious hooks. She laid the rugs down over the carpet and the eerie echo went out of the place. She wiped Stephen’s books and stacked them in the bookcase, not a great deal to be learned from those, mostly classics, collections of poetry, books about painters and the history of art. She tried the archaic TV and was surprised to find that it worked. She filled the little walnut dresser with bits and pieces from boxes: a portable typewriter, a chess set, music tapes, again mostly classics, a clarinet in a case, a silver cigarette lighter, a camera and several photograph albums filled with nothing but views. And there’s nothing so bleak and empty as a photograph of a view.

  Even the kitchen was slightly improved with the bright selection of tins on the shelves, the bread board, the mat on the floor, the vegetable rack and the small kitchen cupboard.

  Tired by now, she went upstairs where Cramer had thoughtlessly dumped the furniture and boxes of art materials. She tried to sort the bedroom out to look as though someone had once slept there. There were clothes in the chest of drawers, more in the blanket chest. The sweaters and shirts and corduroy trousers, mostly old and unfashionable, the rolled-up socks and underwear, did not smell of Stephen, after their sojourn in that damp old carriage they smelled of decay. And the brown flying jacket was in the process of growing a white and unpleasant coating of mould. Ugh! She would have liked to have made a ‘studio’ out of the second bedroom again, but was frustrated by ignorance. How had Stephen arranged his things? So she left the paints and brushes in their boxes, and only when Georgie was satisfied that she’d done as much as she could did she go downstairs where the paintings were waiting for her excited perusal.

  But along with the ashy smell of wood, now there was something else, something underneath, and pervasive, hard to pinpoint save to say that the smell had not been there before. And then she suddenly had it: the sickly sweet smell of gin gone sticky. It came to the house on her brother’s things and touched her like a troubled hand.

  Savage. Primitive. Breathing on her as she backed away.

  There were many times, after the tragedy, when she’d started out to the Hopkins’s flat to visit Gail and offer consolation on the death of a child, to offer a shoulder to cry on, to try to share the grief in some way, to find out how to do her own mourning. Yes, many times she had started out only to return to her flat, daunted by her own inability to handle her feelings and by the vast impossibility of grasping exactly what had happened to Angie, to Gail, to herself…

  Eventually Georgie chose evening, certainly not the happiest time for a visit to Kurzon Mount Buildings, but a time when she would probably find Gail in. She stood at the familiar door, the door she had waited at so many times, she held her breath as she pressed the bell. She didn’t know what she might find, and she wasn’t at all sure what she would say. She was unprepared for the angry reaction.

  ‘You!’ It was a hiss.

  Gail? But so different. No longer the lazy, easy-going veneer; stripped of that lethargic good nature, now she was lean and predatory, her cheeks thin and hollow and her red eyes ringed with tiredness and grief.

  ‘I thought we might talk,’ ventured Georgie, already aware she had blundered badly.

  Gail Hopkins recoiled with revulsion. ‘Me? Talk to you?’

  Embarrassed, bewildered and forgetting why she had come, yet still unable to walk away, Georgie tried to explain, ‘I want to tell you how sorry I am, and how much I am sharing your pain…’

  ‘Piss off, you bitch.’ And yet Gail did not attempt to slam the door in her face. She seemed to actually be gaining strength from this hellish encounter. Her face was thin and hollow, her eyes stared brightly as she spat, ‘You! You interfering cow. You don’t give a toss. You make things happen with your poking and your prying, all your vile suggestions and your bleeding filthy minds.’ She spat on the floor, a bitter taste. The spittle sizzled. ‘You dirty everything up. None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for you and your sick mind. Angie fell down the bleeding stairs! But no, no, you won’t have that, will you! You went and bleeding told them all, you filled their heads with your filthy lies and now they think that Ray did it. You’ve taken my kiddie and they’ve locked up my bloke.’

  ‘But Gail! Surely you can’t believe…?’

  ‘And now you have the nerve to come here and tell me I’m wrong… as if I don’t know my own husband, my own kids…’

  As woodenly unhappy as she could ever remember feeling before, Georgie pleaded, ‘I didn’t come here to talk about this. I came here because of Angie and because I was so fond of her, and I wanted to let you know…’

  ‘Yeah, yeah!’ Gail’s face screwed up, knotted with a defiant rage. ‘You came here for yourself, you bastard. Because of your bleeding guilt. Because you know bloody well what you’ve done to me!’

  Despair blocked every route of thought. It clogged the channels of speech. Georgie’s head worked from side to side as she fought a battle with desperate tears, and she
would never know if she won it or not. Everything she said was hopeless. ‘If I’d known this was how you were feeling I wouldn’t have dreamed of coming here, Gail, and making this any worse for you.’

  Gail stabbed her with her eyes. ‘But I’m glad you came! I’m glad you gave me this chance to tell you how it bloody well is. D’you really know what’s happened to me? D’you know what’s been going on with me and the kids? They can’t go out to play in the yard and they’re too upset to go to the playgroup, people are so bloody vicious. They tell them their dad’s a killer. The other kids, yeah, that’s what they say to Carmen and Patsy. I’ve had insults daubed on my sodding door. I’ve had broken windows. I’ve had shit shoved through my letter box, and all the while this crap is going on, while I’m breaking my heart over Angie, where’s Ray? You tell me, Mrs fucking Jefferson. Where’s Ray in all this? He’s shut up inside, that’s where he is. And if I get one half-hour with him a week then I’m lucky, if I can get someone to mind the kids, ’cos I’m not taking them to that place…’

  ‘Gail, listen! Perhaps the social services would be able to help you…’

  And then Gail Hopkins threw back her head and laughed in Georgie’s face. Patsy, a tiny figure in a dressing gown, crept shyly along the passage and tugged nervously at her mother’s hem, then backed away into the room on the right. Gail’s laugh grew more hysterical, shaky. ‘Oh, that’s right! That’s right! Say what you’ve been trained to say. Come out with all your glib answers. Move us? Is that it now? D’you think there’s a place left in London where they won’t soon know who I am? The wife of the killer! The mother who let her kiddie die! She did it! She did it! That’s what they’re really saying and that’s what they’re really thinking.’ Gail stopped laughing suddenly and tried to pull herself together. ‘If you honestly want to help me, Mrs Jefferson, if you really came here with good in your heart, then get down to that bleeding nick and tell them that Ray never touched her, that he’s never touched a child in his life, that he was a good and caring dad and that Angie fell downstairs like he says…’

 
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