Unhallowed ground, p.15

Unhallowed Ground, page 15

 

Unhallowed Ground
 


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  They had been misguided to protect and support her.

  She was guilty. She had fooled everyone.

  Claire Bettison was right. She had known something was wrong and she should have done something about it.

  When Georgie failed to reply it was left to Isla to say softly, ‘Don’t you think you’ve punished yourself enough without taking this step, locking yourself up and throwing away the key?’

  ‘It doesn’t feel slightly like that.’

  ‘From where I’m sitting it does.’

  ‘I thought you’d decided not to argue?’

  Isla slumped. ‘OK, OK. I can see it’s useless. So when are you off?’

  Georgie, relieved the heavy stuff was out of the way, was happier with practicalities. ‘A local agency is letting the flat, you won’t believe what they’re charging…’

  ‘Oh, I would.’

  ‘And they say they’ll let it easily. People are actually prepared to pay these exorbitant prices. So I’ve promised to be cleared up and out of here by the first of April.’

  ‘An appropriate date,’ Isla said witheringly.

  Georgie raised her eyes and said tensely, ‘Don’t give up on me, Isla. Not after all we’ve been through.’

  Isla gazed vaguely round. ‘You’re hiring a firm for the job?’

  ‘No need. The cottage is already furnished. All I need are my clothes and a few bits and pieces. I’m locking my personal stuff in the wardrobe, so I reckon one car load will do it.’

  ‘Are you going to let us come with you? Help you get sorted? If I followed you down in my car the whole move would be much easier.’

  It was such a relief to laugh. ‘You’re just nosy. But OK, I’d love you to come.’

  ‘Nosy and jealous,’ said Isla. ‘Don’t forget the jealousy bit. Good heavens, I wouldn’t mind a year off, burying myself in the country with a few crates of wine and some Fortnum’s hampers. Think of the books you’ll be able to read. Think how fit you’ll get with all those long walks.’

  ‘I’m going to be working most of the time.’ Georgie smiled haughtily. ‘But it would be really good if you could come down and help me out sometime.’

  ‘Oh, I’ll have to think about that,’ said Isla. ‘How about two weekends in the summer and a fortnight in September? But seriously, have you told Mark yet?’ she asked with sudden anxiety. And she gave Georgie a confiding look.

  Mark the conscientious. Mark the English gentleman. Mark the responsible. Poor Mark. ‘I’m telling him tonight. But I don’t think he’ll be particularly surprised. And we’ve never been that close, you know that.’

  ‘I’m not sure Mark sees it that way.’

  ‘Mark’s very laid back, and he’s got his sailing and lots of friends. He’s got that boring old car to work on.’

  ‘You’re always too busy to bother with him. Maybe this lazy year of yours will change all that. Who knows?’

  ‘Mark will never be right for me. Stop trying to match me up. I’m more contented on my own, now that I’m used to it. I’ve missed Toby more just lately. I could have done with him around, but I don’t see Mark as a substitute, never have.’

  ‘Or any of the others who beat a pathetic path to your door?’

  ‘No. None of them.’

  ‘We shall have to see,’ said Isla, refusing to admit defeat.

  And so they relaxed, drank more wine together, made their travelling plans and managed to forget about Angie Hopkins for as long as five minutes at a stretch. Isla left before midnight. And after Georgie went downstairs to let Lola out she returned to a silent flat which felt doom-laden and uneasy. She had to take two sleeping pills before she felt safe enough for bed.

  And that night she slept with the light on.

  FIFTEEN

  ISLA PERSUADED HER TO buy the hens, acting out some country fantasy of her own, Georgie supposed. Given her head she would have filled the cottage with blue and white striped jugs full of primroses, but Georgie was happy to trail along because it was her fantasy, too.

  She felt an odd stab of fondness and pride when she saw Furze Pen again, and she watched through her mirror as Isla, in her battered old estate, juddered to a halt behind her. In her short absence the cottage had changed, now it was quite mysterious, hidden there amongst growing things, damper, darker and tinged with green foliage.

  ‘No clamping here then.’ Isla climbed stiffly out of her car and exercised her shoulders. She’d insisted on wearing that broad-brimmed hat with the wobbly black rose and the full-length coat that resembled a curtain. Once again Georgie knew that although there was no sign of a soul, the hamlet could well be deserted, dozens of eyes were watching.

  This time the cottage recognized her and sent a shy smile from under the thatch. ‘Well?’ she asked Isla. ‘What d’you think?’

  She badly wanted Isla to like it. She was glad that this time it was furnished, she was pleased there were lamps and rugs and coloured mugs on hooks waiting to greet them in the kitchen.

  Typically Isla waxed lyrical. ‘ “I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows…” ’

  ‘I’ve got my own bank,’ said Georgie with pride, ‘and it’s covered with garlic and briar roses.’

  ‘Aha. The garlic to see off the devil and the briars for your own special crown of thorns. No seriously, Georgie, this is absolutely incredible. Marvellous!’ The black rose on Isla’s hat nodded its total approval. She picked her way over the stepping stones, across the stream and to the front gate. She stroked a granite mushroom with awe. ‘Wow! Unreal! What a setting! Harebells, thistles and real sheep droppings. How could you think of selling this? Done up, it’ll fetch a fortune. It’s a dream cottage, isn’t it? They give them as prizes in the Mail on Sunday. But where will you go to get your hair cut? And how will you get your papers delivered?’

  ‘Wait till you see inside.’

  Some of the trees were still mauve with winter. A pigeon flapped across the sky. Everywhere was speckled with daisies. There were daffodils and forget-me-nots, and a faint warmth, heavy with the scent of greenery, rested on Georgie’s cheek. Lola dashed ahead of them as if she’d never been away, as if the cottage was hers and she knew it. Was the burned doll still in the woodshed? This thought had nagged Georgie all the way down from London. In the weeks between she had thrust it aside and its importance had faded, but as she drew nearer Wooton-Coney, as the roads became narrower and the stone walls higher, as the newly budding trees assumed that battered, shrinking shape and the grass grew thicker in the lanes, as the hedgerows flamed with wild flowers, the doll began to loom in her head, began to assume massive proportions.

  So far she had told no-one about it. But some time tonight she knew she would have to tell Isla.

  Isla sniffed. ‘Something dead.’ But her eyes sparkled with undisguised glee like they did when she made one of her famous ‘finds’ at the local flea market. ‘Magic. All magic. If it wasn’t for that repulsive smell. And surely underneath the paint that is a Jacobean chest. You nearly passed over a Jacobean chest for God’s sake! Cramer would have made a fortune.’

  ‘The smell is probably just the damp. It’s been empty for so long.’ And Georgie took Isla on a short tour of inspection, trying to remember to duck her head, trying to remember if everything was exactly as she had left it or if Chad Cramer had somehow gained entry again and removed some tempting item. This time she noticed the cottage was shabby and not very clean.

  Bending to start down the stairs, Isla sniffed again. ‘That’s not damp. That’s something dead.’

  ‘Well, you should have seen it the last time I came, freezing cold, filthy and almost empty.’

  Isla shuddered at the barred lavatory window with its stains and mouldy old drippings. ‘I wouldn’t fancy a shower in that. It has to be rampant with spiders.’ She touched the rusty bars. ‘They didn’t mean anyone to break in, did they?’ She fingered the torn and grubby shower curtain. The plastic was brittle, crispy and speckled like burned chicken skin.

&nb
sp; ‘Years ago it must have been used for storage. Look, meat hooks in the ceiling. Gross.’

  ‘Meat hooks. Ugh! Pig carcasses dripping blood on the floor, their smooth white flanks swinging. Are you going to leave them for atmosphere? If you were tall enough you could hang your towels on them I suppose.’

  ‘It won’t be so dark in here once the windows have been cleaned.’ Georgie saw how the sun was trying to shine on the dusty floor. She moved back into the sitting room and frowned at the tinge of mould on the cushions. She wiped it off before sitting down, but the cotton felt chill on her back and it clung, slightly stickily. ‘It’ll all feel very different after it’s been lived in again, warmed up a bit. Most of this stuff has spent the winter stored in Chad Cramer’s railway carriage and it hasn’t had a chance to air.’

  ‘Let’s light the fire before we unload the car,’ said Isla sensibly. ‘It won’t be dark for an hour or so yet. No, no, you sit there and I’ll do it. I’d love to do it, I don’t get a chance with the central heating. Just tell me where to find the wood.’

  Georgie sat stock-still after Isla left the room, lugging the broken log basket. She held a pose of absorbed contemplation for what seemed an endless time. She waited for the shout, or the laugh, some exclamation, as her friend noticed the pile of rags and the singed doll staring menacingly out from the corner. Even worse, there might be a scream that would jar the jangling nerves in her head. She was so strung up she actually winced as she waited for some reaction from Isla. But maybe, concentrating on the job, Isla would miss the little cameo; it was dark in that corner after all, and there was no wood there, just bits of household junk. Georgie twisted her hands in her lap, she sat there nervously biting her lip, she hardly breathed, and although it was cold in the cottage she was sweating.

  Isla’s laboured breathing overtook the baskety sounds as she came back through the kitchen, staggering under the load of logs. ‘I’m not used to such heavy labour. Something’s dry in this place anyway. This old wood’s lovely.’

  Georgie let her breath go and attempted to relax slowly. But it was no use, she couldn’t play it like this, waiting for Isla to find it, she’d have to see for herself. If the doll was still there she would have to face it, but if it was gone…

  She got up. She went outside. She forced herself into the woodshed.

  She’d known it would be gone.

  That’s what the terror had been all about.

  And the terrible bedding was missing, too.

  So she described the doll and the fire, and after she had finished speaking her words still hung in the air like fog over water, haunting and gloomy. She was tempted to wave them away and start again, tell it differently.

  ‘Shit. You are telling me that somebody actually started a fire the last time you were here?’ Isla stared nervously over her shoulder as the kindling started to burn. Her shocked smile was uncertain. ‘And you didn’t mention it? You didn’t even mention it to that solicitor of yours, let alone the police?’

  Georgie felt distinctly foolish. ‘I didn’t think I’d be coming back, did I? And I managed to convince myself it must have been accidental.’

  ‘Perhaps one of your God-awful neighbours wanted to drive you out? It must have been that appalling man, Cramer,’ she shuddered, ‘with his looting. It must have been his revenge. God, he must be so damn sick.’

  ‘He’s foul. A bully and a cheat. But I can’t imagine him doing something as childish as this. Such an odd thing for anyone to do. I just feel Cramer doesn’t have that sort of imagination, you know, he’s a sod but he’s not that twisted.’

  ‘Then who the hell?’ Isla sat back, shaken, the leaping flames were some consolation. ‘In the middle of the night it could hardly have been some passer-by. It has to be one of your neighbours.’

  Deep in thought, Georgie tugged at her lip. ‘Nancy Horsefield’s barmy in a mild sort of way. She’s lost her marbles, but she’s not aggressive and she’d never be out alone at night. Horace is far too sensible, he’d never dream of such a thing. I’ve already dismissed Chad or Donna, and I don’t really know the Buckpits. She was pretty surly and unhelpful, but they’re hardworking farmers for goodness’ sake, and Mr Selby told me their family has farmed here for generations. So why would they suddenly break out and do something like this?’ She shook her head in bewilderment. ‘They wouldn’t. They just wouldn’t. So it has to be an accident. Perhaps when I turned on the water pump the electricity shorted and sent a spark into that corner?’

  ‘And what about the tin of chemicals?’ The firelight flickered on Isla’s cheeks, heightening her colour.

  ‘Perhaps it was leaking anyway. Maybe someone dumped it there years ago.’

  ‘But the doll’s gone, Georgie.’

  ‘Yes, yes, I know,’ Georgie answered fearfully.

  ‘And why would Stephen have a doll in his woodshed?’

  Georgie wrestled in her head for an answer. ‘Perhaps he used it as a model for his art.’

  Isla answered wryly. ‘That’s complete crap. We’ve looked through all your pictures and there’s nothing resembling a doll.’

  ‘A passing tramp?’ Georgie tried again. And then, annoyed with Isla for making her more nervous than she already was, she said, ‘Well, it’s gone now anyway and I’m moving in, so it’s best we forget it and get on with the unloading. There is probably a simple explanation and there’s no point in making a thing of it and getting upset. We’re not going to solve it tonight so we might as well let it go.’

  So they didn’t refer to the doll again and spent the next two hours getting Georgie’s belongings unloaded from the cars, sorting them out and putting them away. She hung up her clothes. She arranged the tiny airing cupboard. A product of her education, she made up the beds with hospital corners. She liked to be organized; she’d already made a list of repairs, mostly superficial, and various friends had promised their help through the summer. It is surprising what ordinary people can do in the way of plumbing, pointing, electrics, fencing, hedging and ditching. Once the subject came up the most unlikely characters seemed to nurture a secret skill and no-one needed much tempting. With common sense Georgie could do most of it herself; she would not need a builder. And next spring, when her year was up and the work was finished, she could seal the whole job by getting the thatch professionally done.

  When Isla left she would have five days alone at the cottage before Mark arrived, for the weekend he had said.

  How she dreaded those five days alone. How she dreaded them. And yet getting to know herself had been her prime reason for moving. What odd stories you tell yourself, Georgie thought, ruefully, when she waved Isla away two days later. What crazy scenarios seem normal when you are lonely and desperate. But hell, you don’t expect to carry them out, fate normally intervenes and rescues you from yourself.

  But not this time. Not now.

  She had gone too far. This was it.

  And if Georgie had secretly hoped that Mark would save her from her own stupidity and persuade her to stay in London, she was, once again, sadly mistaken.

  ‘You must do what you need to do,’ had been his first feeble reaction to the news of her departure. ‘And I will support you. You know that.’

  Why was he always so damn reasonable?

  ‘But how do you feel about it? I will be away for a year.’

  ‘Disappointed, naturally. But I assume you won’t be in purdah. I will be able to visit.’

  She wanted to kick him under the table. Shake his shoulders till he wobbled. They were dining at the Old Orleans; they always went there because Mark liked jazz, his reaction to jazz was the only emotion that really lit up his face and made it extraordinary. He enjoyed the informal atmosphere, the sawdusty floor and the jugs of ale, nothing romantic here unless you were into Western culture and the sight of a couple of guns turned you on. Why the hell did she bother with Mark? Why did she bother with anyone when all she felt, when she got home, was that hollow feeling of loss?

 
‘You choose. We will go wherever you want, you know that,’ Mark would say when he saw that look of distress cross her face. But Georgie didn’t know where she honestly wanted to go. It wasn’t the restaurant that distressed her, it was something much deeper than that, a yearning for something so beautiful, so agonizing, so lost to her that she couldn’t express it to this pleasant-faced sandy-haired man with the depth of a character from Agatha Christie, who made love to her when she wanted him to, spent the night when she told him he could, smiled when she smiled and listened when she talked. Small talk. Nothing talk.

  If he was a plant he would be a rubber plant. Tall, cheerful, stoical but dusty. So what would Georgie be? A sharp little heather with dry roots.

  And sex with Mark was embarrassing, far from the familiar, practised gropings and peaceful, experienced murmurings of Toby. Almost foaming at the mouth, Mark went at it like a horse, with arched neck and flaring nostrils, buttocks pumping and veins throbbing in his forehead. She could feel all the bones in his back. Smell his medicated soap. Heaven knows it was hard not to laugh when he gave one of his piercing whinnies during his violent, muscular orgasm. She used to soak in a perfumed bath, she made herself smell very sweet to compensate for her sourness of mind.

  When she was younger, so long ago she had been a small child, a child so used to repressing emotions, it was hard for outsiders to see she had any. There were times, then, when she’d held out her arms, in love with the world all around her. There’d been moments of pure ecstasy, so pure she’d been wading through it, and these intimations of infinity filled her inside so there was no room for anything else. There had been this secret place where she went, full of buttercups, where the sky was blue and the wind was warm. And when she breathed in she drank the whole world, her own small griefs sublimating into understanding and compassion. She had held out her small arms and cried when she realized she could not keep this mental intoxication, this intensification of life. Perhaps that was something you never found once you grew up and knew too much, once you had seen something of the world. Perhaps you just lost it. And some forgot it completely.

 
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