Unhallowed ground, p.17

Unhallowed Ground, page 17


Unhallowed Ground

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  The morning brought companionship once again, the sun removed those hopeless yearnings. The sun shone, the stream gurgled, birds sang, and mercifully Mark’s eyes were quite clear. They fetched the hens and the materials Georgie would need, they bought the Sunday papers for reading later, after a proper Sunday lunch, because Mark always insisted on that, and began work on the woodshed. It all began to feel rather homely, and the clucking sounds of the plump brown hens were rurally enthralling. How Isla would adore all this. Georgie wouldn’t mind whitewashing the woodshed alone, that job was one she looked forward to. She just needed someone to clear it out for her first. Completely. Particularly the corner where that macabre doll had been. She hung around outside, watching Mark, feeling guilty for all sorts of reasons and making frequent cups of coffee.

  ‘There’s been a fire in here at some point,’ Mark called, his voice hollow where it came from the darkness now that the shed was half empty. He backed out to let her in. ‘Look, you can see where the smoke has marked the wall.’

  Georgie pretended to look. By now Mark’s overalls were satisfactorily dirty and there was quite a pile of rubbish outside, alongside the logs. Georgie lugged the rubbish round to the front in the wheelbarrow, ready for the dustmen to collect on their fortnightly visit to the hamlet. A worn-out broom head, the mop bucket with the hole in the bottom, half an iron leg from a missing mangle, a rusty piece of galvanized iron, a set of broken snow chains, an old metal suitcase, badly battered, ‘and then there’s this,’ said Mark, backing out, a line of sweat on his brow and, to Georgie’s distress, a child’s make-up case in his hand.

  The sort of cheap and cheerful thing you might buy from Woolworths. Pink plastic with a silvery sheen running through; there was a mirror inlaid in the lid, and various compartments for tubes and jars. Any little girl would adore it. The tiny baby-doll lipstick was tight in its flap, and a powder compact fitted beside it. Mark held it up to Georgie with a baffled frown. ‘Rather an odd thing to find underneath all this junk. And used, up until lately, I’d say.’ He squeezed a half-empty tube and a blob of brown make-up oozed out. ‘Good as new.’

  The smell of roasting lamb reached the woodshed. This was an ordinary Sunday morning. Washing hung on the line in the sun. There was mint sauce in a jug in the kitchen and white wine cooling in the fridge. This was no time to play the neurotic. But Georgie stared, distraught. There was something inexplicably horrible about this latest find, but was that because Georgie knew about the doll? Was that what made her shudder so? Mark was not particularly interested in the unlikely article, he merely put it to one side and went back to his task, good-natured and uncomplaining so long as Georgie was around to bestow some praise every now and then.

  But Georgie was repelled by the thing. The plastic was warm when she picked it up to balance on top of her barrow. The heat went out of the sun and she shivered when she asked herself the obvious question, ‘Why would this be here? What would Stephen be doing with something like this?’

  She had spoken out loud, but Mark was too busy to hear her. He thought she was asking if he wanted a drink and he called out, ‘Yes, something long and cool.’ So she left the make-up case where it was and went into the kitchen, where she poured him a large glass of lime juice. She filled the glass with ice. She moved unthinkingly, unseeingly, yet angry to be so badly affected by so innocent a find. Up until then she’d been feeling strong. She was not dreading more time on her own until the next visitors arrived. Not this time. Georgie had decided how she would fill her time. There was plenty for her to do, and now she had the materials at last she could make a proper start.

  She wandered back outside and gave Mark his drink. She watched his overlarge Adam’s apple bob up and down and wondered weakly if this was the reason she could never feel right about him. She tried to ignore the make-up case as she wheeled the barrow round to the front. She stuffed it deep into the dustbin, trying to avoid handling it too much. She picked it up between finger and thumb and dropped the thing inside, then covered it with the rest of the rubbish and rammed the lid down hard.

  That night, Mark’s last night, she let him sleep in her bed because she felt so lonely.

  ‘Perhaps we should get married, Snuffles.’

  ‘Yes, Brillo, perhaps we should.’

  ‘We could have a conservatory,’ he murmured as he went off to sleep.

  It was an uncomfortable night, as well as undignified, and sleepless for Georgie because of his snores and his long dangling legs. She wriggled her feet from under him. Perhaps she ought to have woken him up and told him to turn over, perhaps she should have said something like, ‘Are neither of us capable of any serious emotion? Now listen, if you want a relationship with me, a real relationship, then we must be prepared to be honest. We must learn to talk about all sorts of difficult things, like bodies, like hearts. At the moment we are empty together, and I am very frightened by something I can’t understand.’

  But she didn’t say that. What was the point? And Mark would be appalled. She just lay there, feeling like a dead thing beside him, and knowing, suddenly, that a real relationship was the very last thing she or Mark wanted. And Georgie also knew that this was exactly how Stephen had felt when he lay in this same bed. Alone and frightened, craving safety. But Stephen had gone, for love, into the arms of a green bottle of sickly smelling liquid, while Georgie, the whore, searched for the same thing in the arms of a man she could not love.

  And they must both have known, as they nuzzled in the darkness for comfort like blind, soily-nosed moles, that they were slowly destroying themselves.


  SHE WOULD NEVER FORGET that hectic summer. She had never experienced another one like it.

  The natural tan suited Georgie, that particular labourer’s brown as opposed to the forced tan of the sunbedder. She was brown and sinewy as a navvy, with hard, shiny hands. She kept her hair short and it went very curly. She was lean and weathered. She went round in jeans cut off at the knee.

  Of course there was a drought, every day the sun shone, hardly a shower of rain. Mrs Buckpit reported dourly that there was drought here every summer, no matter what the weather did, and Georgie saw the Buckpit brothers labouring away, filling the water troughs in the fields from a tank on the link box. She asked her scowling neighbour, ‘But surely there’s something that could be done if you suffer like this every summer? Because of the farm I would think a good water supply is essential.’

  What a know-all she sounded. Not at all what she meant.

  The Buckpit woman gave a hard stare. ‘We are only tenants, you know, Mrs Jefferson. It’s not up to us.’

  So Georgie suggested sensibly, she thought, that they should put pressure on the Duchy, but Mrs Buckpit’s mouth gave a tweak and she stalked away stiffly. It was a surprise to hear that the Buckpits were tenant farmers, Georgie had imagined Wooton Farm to be family owned. The rent they charged Chad Cramer would probably be passed on, or perhaps the Buckpits were entitled to let the cottage as part of the deal.

  There was still no sign of Cramer giving up the tenancy, as required, or moving out.

  The fierce Mrs Buckpit and Georgie enjoyed these cryptic exchanges when Georgie went to pay for the milk. She knew the farmer’s widow would have preferred her to leave the money on the step in a bottle, to save her the bother of conversation, of cracking her face, of polite interaction, but Georgie resolutely refused to behave in this unsociable manner. She was buoyed up in her bravery by her amused guests. She wondered if she’d be quite so careless about confronting the gorgon every week after they had gone. There was something about her quietness that was almost malignant… Mrs Buckpit could probably stand still for hours, watching, waiting, ill-wishing.

  Communication on any level with the sons, Lot and Silas, was out of the question. Mark kept trying, he even helped bring in the hay in a posh pair of padded dungarees that could well have come from Harrods and quite unsuitable open-toed Jesus sandals. He was obviously unhappy when he was
forced to replace these with boots. He took to wandering about with a straw between his teeth and leaning, arms crossed, against gates. He stayed with Georgie on four occasions that summer, and shamefully she slept with him every time. Lot and Silas, that moronic couple, were preoccupied with their work and with their strange, silent, bovinelike watching, while they drew on their bent cigarettes or scratched their heads beneath their caps. When Suzie came to visit she considered them mentally retarded, but Georgie could not agree. There was a depravity about them which had nothing to do with natural affliction.

  She lived like a lord, with long periods of forgetfulness and almost well-being. Her fear was hidden behind the full and fresh young green of the orchard trees, and from some of them wisteria hung in garlands like stars of rose, the globes of the trees were overspread with the pink and white of may. Wine every night, rich home-baked fruit cakes, Marks & Spencer chickens and complicated frozen concoctions that visitors felt they owed in exchange for their free vacation. The rent from her flat arrived regularly, but money was not a problem because Isla had managed to sell two of Stephen’s paintings to a gallery in Kensington. ‘And they’ll take more,’ she told Georgie, handing over the cheque, thrilled with her achievement. ‘The owner’s a friend of David’s, they went to school together, or something equally odd, and now they have lunch every week. When you need more dosh just tell me.’ She twiddled her specs round her finger with pleasure, and the tortoiseshell rims flashed with success.

  So that was a nice secure feeling. It took some of the rank taste away.

  And Georgie had the most extraordinary communication from Tom Selby, that old Einstein lookalike. Incredibly, another offer had arrived, almost double the first one. Georgie couldn’t believe her eyes and nor, it would seem, could Selby. ‘You have to accept this offer, Georgina,’ he told her sternly when she hurried to Bovey to see him.

  ‘But I’m here now. I can’t just pack up and go.’

  ‘Of course you can,’ he crackled, the ancient body agitating in rheumatic excitement in a jerky, wavery way. He had made no concessions to summer, like opening the windows or changing his suit, and the smell of cheese and beer in the office was now mixed with pickled onions. ‘You intend to sell in the end anyway. What difference would a few months make?’

  She peered through the dimness to read the letter. The summer made his office more dusty. Every stick of furniture, every file, every cabinet was faded. ‘Who on earth has made this offer? Are we sure they’re the same people who made the original one?’

  Mr Selby’s face crumpled like that of a frustrated child’s. ‘I don’t know. They won’t say. But the offer has come through the same firm, still incognito.’

  ‘If it is the same people they’ll still be interested six months from now. They can make me another offer then, when the work on Furze Pen is completed.’

  He made strangled movements with his head. ‘We certainly cannot rely on that.’

  But Georgie remained firm. Apart from any other reasons, she and her cottage were fully booked until the end of September. She did not want to let anyone down.

  Most of her visitors camped in the garden because of the lack of space in the cottage, and often the nights were balmy enough to allow them to abandon their tents and sleep out under the stars. Often she joined them and they talked for hours around camp-fires, sang to beginners’ guitars, laughed and played silly games while the hens laid their beautiful eggs and some of her straggly, weedy vegetables—mostly lettuce and spring onions—managed to poke their heads above ground and were large enough to include in salads, almost large enough to be seen.

  She felt a glow as she bent over the beds, back aching, sweat dripping, a glow akin to the one that comes when a deep ache is stilled. There was pleasure in the feel of powdery, dry soil in her hands, in the touch of the breeze on her damp brow, and in the sense of tingling health in her limbs and in her breathing. The smell of the turned earth was good, and of the bonfire crackling away in the corner, which she could poke and regulate and enlarge for hours. It was good to tread like a country woman on loose soil in heavy boots, and at the end of the day to scrape the caked earth from their soles.

  The burned doll and the make-up case began to assume insignificance, after all, all sorts of peculiar things find their way into people’s sheds. Georgie was far too busy to be wallowing about in melancholy, nor did she have much time for thought. This physical, active life was obviously the answer to her paranoia, and the tragedy of Angie’s death filtered more gently into her mind, the sort of sorrow that came and went, the kind of sadness that could be dealt with.

  Wooton-Coney and its inhabitants remained a jumble of scattered impressions. Georgie lived in a shell, she peeped in and out at whim like a cockle. With her friends gathered safely around her she could remain aloof. The Buckpits were up first for the milking, clanking and banging, and the soft-footed cows passed by her window, the dungy smell of them wafting up. Then she would hear the tortured sound of Cramer’s Land Rover engine; he would be setting off for God knows where, towing a badly packed, dangerous trailer behind him. Sometimes Donna went with him, but on the days she did not she started to wander across to Furze Pen and join in whatever they happened to be doing. Georgie grew used to her company, she hung around like a lost puppy. Georgie would wave when she saw her coming, but Donna would give a shy little smile as if there was some secret between them. Strange, a little uncomfortable, but then Donna was odd. Donna was needy. Her moods were erratic, sometimes she could be irritatingly rude to Georgie’s visitors, at others she couldn’t do enough to please them.

  Georgie told Suzie that if anyone round here was mentally questionable it must surely be Donna, not Lot or Silas, because of the faraway look in her eye and the way she never followed conversations. But Suzie said she was far from daft, she was clever and manipulative. She had wormed her way into Georgie’s affections using a simple sympathy ploy and Georgie had fallen for it. ‘She wants more from you than you think,’ Suzie warned. ‘She’s a taker. And she’s wound you round her little finger. Watch it, Georgie. That girl is very disturbed and I think you’re getting in too deep.’

  Poor Donna. She would mentally slip away from all of them, following some unconnected thought of her own. She looked much fitter than the first time Georgie had met her. The warmth must agree with her. But her nose was always a sore red and she could never stop sniffing.

  ‘I am definitely going to leave him,’ Donna would creep into the kitchen and confide to Georgie in the middle of some chaotic meal, or after some childish accident which required bandages. These important consultations never came at a good time.

  ‘Well, Donna, that’s up to you, of course.’ Georgie would try to give her attention while she worked frantically round her.

  ‘It’s just that I am obsessed with Chad and I can’t seem to break free.’

  ‘You have to think of yourself, Donna,’ Georgie told her sensibly. ‘And your future. And the way Chad treats you doesn’t do much for your self-esteem, does it?’

  ‘I’ve never thought much of myself,’ Donna would moan, listlessly, floating around in her latest foamy arrangement of second-hand scarves. She smelled strongly of dope and Chad’s railway carriage. ‘I just wish I could be a more positive person, more determined, more like you.’

  Like me? If the silly girl only knew. ‘Oh, Donna, you’re great as you are. You don’t need to change. Just like yourself more. It’s a pity there aren’t any self-assertion courses for women anywhere around here.’

  ‘But you can help me, can’t you?’ Once she started Donna just wouldn’t stop. She would follow Georgie to the loo and carry on behind the door. ‘I can’t do it without you, Georgie. I’ve never known anyone like you before. I’d give anything to be more like you, important, intelligent, cultured like.’

  Cultured? My God, Mark would snigger at that one.

  But Donna always returned obediently to the derelict cottage over the ford before Chad came home. ‘He
d be flaming if he knew how much time I spent over here. He knows how much I like you. You like me, too, don’t you, Georgie?’

  The conversation was getting tricky. ‘Well, I’m fond of you, Donna, of course I am. You know that.’

  ‘We’re friends, you and me.’ She cast down her eyes, embarrassed. For a while they were both silent. Donna stared up under her lashes. ‘Chad’s jealous, see, and still smarting over that bleeding furniture deal. He hates to be seen off like that and he’s the sort of sod who never forgets.’

  Georgie thought hard before she asked her, ‘But he wouldn’t do anything violent, for some kind of misguided revenge?’

  ‘What sort of violence?’

  ‘Oh, I don’t know. I just wondered if he might try to frighten me, perhaps by playing some tasteless joke.’

  ‘No. I don’t think he’d bleeding bother. But if there was ever a chance he’d screw you up he would. He’s like that, you see. And I know exactly what a sod he is, and yet I can’t break away from him.’

  Sometimes Georgie saw Nancy Horsefield pottering madly in her garden, planting the latest sack of roses she’d sent for by mail order. Georgie would see her staring across into the orchard, and if she could she would go over and talk, because Nancy was mentally imprisoned on her own land. Horace informed her mournfully that his wife had not been out for years. But whenever Georgie put down her spade or removed her gardening gloves to go over it felt like a waste of time, because all Nancy would say, with her little head bobbing over the wall was, ‘Wait there, don’t move, I’m off to fetch you a nice cup of tea, or would you prefer a cold drink, and I’ve got some scones fresh out of the oven. Wait right there and I’ll bring them out. I’m a drudge to my kitchen, truly I am…’

  What the loss of a child can do…

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