Unhallowed ground, p.18

Unhallowed Ground, page 18

 

Unhallowed Ground
 


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  And Georgie would try to deter her. ‘Please don’t bother, Nancy. I’ve just had a drink and something to eat. I only came across for a chat, to see how you are on this lovely day.’

  But it was hopeless. Excited and overwrought, Nancy had already gone in. So Georgie would have to wait as instructed, sometimes for longer than twenty minutes, before Nancy returned with a tray all neatly arranged with a cloth, laden with unwanted food. Horace would eye Nancy ruefully from under the shade of his Panama hat. The man worked stolidly behind his wife, his rolled-up sleeves exposing his massive forearms, huge as the hocks of a cow, finishing off the various jobs Nancy had started but would not finish. They were forever digging up old things and replacing them with new, or a hammock would arrive by special delivery and have to be assembled, or a set of pine tables and chairs, or a new garden umbrella, or a complicated lawn-watering system. At the end of the summer they took delivery of hundreds of pastel patio slabs and Georgie watched while poor Horace carted them off the road, over his little private bridge and round into his back garden. No wonder their house was perfect, they were constantly working on it, and clearly, to the Horsefields, money was no object. Happily Horace could afford to pander to Nancy’s manic whims.

  And Nancy was harmless, wasn’t she? There was no malign side to her illness?

  But gradually, so gradually it was almost unnoticeable, Georgie’s many visitors retreated to their tents and pulled up their zips at night. Campfires began to feature as more of an event and folk started gathering indoors in the evenings. They began lighting fires inside the cottage again, and Georgie had time to marvel at how much they had already accomplished. Furze Pen was almost unrecognizable. Fresh and clean, neat and tidy, even the spartan shower room began to look almost tempting. They’d fitted a new lavatory so that people felt they could sit on the seat and spend some time there without getting wet or being watched by the lurking hairy brown spiders that used to fill every nook and cranny.

  The staunch, sensible fence at the end of the orchard kept out the Buckpits’ sheep. The stream had been cleared and now ran freely without slurping over onto the grass. The apple trees had been pruned and sprayed and the docks had been dug out of the grass. The brambles and nettles were all gone. The chickens had broken out of their run and now they roamed about freely. Between them they had managed to decorate the cottage both inside and out, the rotten woodwork had been replaced and most of the electrics had been rewired. The old plumbing had been replaced by new plastic piping, and when Georgie saw the rusty tangle of stuff that came out she wondered why Stephen had not been poisoned earlier.

  ‘There’ll just be you and me soon,’ said Donna in her soft, fierce voice.

  One morning as Georgie walked out she smelled autumn. She also smelled a rank decay. It came on sharp little breezes, it came with the most minute turning of colour and a slight squelchiness of the ground. The domes of the horse chestnuts were crimson and amber and green, like the cheeks of ripened apples, and their nuts littered the grass beneath them. The tangled hedges were bright with the scarlet berries of dog rose and thorn and the blue-black fruit of bramble. As ever it brought a sadness with it, and a yearning, for Georgie, as it always did. With a cold shiver she realized that she had not settled into this small community at all, she had merely rubbed shoulders with it. She had watched it go round her for the last six months, from the safety of a familiar world which she had deliberately created. And what is more, it had watched her. It had never ceased its abominable watching. It was there, a silent presence over the laughter, over the music, over the sun. This valley was dark. This valley was accursed. Once the last of her visitors had left it would encroach upon her and there would be no way she could draw herself in tight enough for protection from it.

  Weird and sinister as it was, Wooton-Coney was Georgie’s reality now.

  So what? This was her own choice. She could change her mind at any time, and go back to London and her flat. There was absolutely no need to winter here all alone. But she could not back out now, not now the cottage was so perfect and everyone had worked so hard to make it comfortable for her. Georgie had convinced all her friends, even if she had failed to convince herself, and now, reluctantly, they’d accepted her decision. They had stopped all attempts at persuasion. So they carried on just the same for as long as they could, working as long as the weather held good. That is how Georgie wanted it and that is how it would be. She was feeling better, saner, freer, she had left the depths of despair behind but was terrified of slipping back down.

  ‘It’ll be good when it’s just you and me, won’t it?’ said Donna. ‘All those people gone at last. We’ll have some fun. We’ll have a good laugh. And we’ll still drink wine and play cards, won’t we?’ She sounded quite exultant, but there was something baneful…

  Could Donna be playing some mischievous game?

  And this recurrent fear, this weakness of Georgie’s, annoyed her. It frightened her, she had to tackle it and overcome it once and for all, because she was never the nervous type, the weedy, neurotic, self-obsessed sort of person, she’d always been proud of her calm self-assurance.

  Isla and Suzie were the last of her visitors and they came for one weekend. Last weekend. They had been lucky. There was nothing too arduous to do so they lazed around in the warm, they could sit and talk and play Scrabble. They could enjoy the fruits of their previous labour with no sense of guilt.

  They tried one more time to persuade her. By now custom seemed to demand it. She realized they had been put up to it, probably by the motherly Helen. That was when Georgie kept repeating, ‘But I am not alone. I have neighbours. And in a perverse sort of way I am looking forward to the experience.’

  ‘Oh yes, Donna round here all the time staring at you with adoring eyes, demanding constant attention. She’s got you sussed out. She’ll be moved in here before you know it.’

  She waved this nonsense away. ‘No chance. Donna’s OK. Donna’s no problem.’

  Georgie was lying, of course. But she could not bear them to know her need. Donna did not bother her, Donna she could handle, but the fear of loneliness did. The whole Angie Hopkins affair had so undermined her that she had collapsed on her friends, she had shown them a vulnerability that she preferred to deny. Their very concern and kindness had erected a barrier between them which Georgie found hard to deal with. She was the strong, dependable one, she was the one who could cope with anything life threw at her… but now look…

  ‘I am back to normality now,’ she told them, resting her head on her hand with a weary gesture. ‘Surely that is obvious. I am back to my old self completely.’ It was annoying to have to keep saying it, it felt like they didn’t believe her, they were always probing the sorest places, the wounds that were fresh and that she didn’t want touching.

  Isla pretended the weather concerned her. ‘Georgie,’ she insisted, stabbing with her spectacles. ‘The winters here must be diabolical. The sort of cold we’re just not used to with our centrally heated lives, sheltered streets and warm shops…’

  ‘If the cold becomes too much for me then I’ll jack it in,’ Georgie sighed and repeated. ‘I am not on an island, you know. And I do have a car and a phone.’ It wasn’t the cold that worried Georgie, why couldn’t they see that? Why couldn’t they tell? From the pernicious presence of Mrs Buckpit to the lamentable misery of Horace, from the dull brutality of the Buckpit brothers to the loathsome Chad, all posed an obscure, subconscious threat, all watched, all listened, all speculated in their own way.

  Suzie said, ‘I’m just bothered that it’s your stupid pride that’s making you obstinate.’

  ‘Since last December there’s not been much of that left.’ Georgie poked hard at the innocent fire. ‘And you of all people ought to know that.’

  ‘So there’s nothing we can say to dissuade you?’

  ‘Nope.’ She looked up belligerently. ‘I am grateful for your concern. I am grateful for all sorts of things, for so much, but I am determin
ed to stay. Hell, we’re only talking about a few months.’

  ‘That’s that then,’ said Isla, swigging down the last of the wine like a hard-drinking boozer and banging the glass down on the table.

  ‘Yep,’ Georgie said with her heart in her mouth. Why oh why did they give up on her so easily? They ought to know her better by now, she was all mouth, she was all defiance. ‘That’s that.’

  Was she the only one who could smell the maleficence, like a wild beast crouching?

  So the following morning she waved them off with that same stiff smile on her face, with Donna standing, grinning beside her, a box of tissues in her hand.

  EIGHTEEN

  GOOD. AT DEAR LAST we arrive at the present. It is so much more immediate.

  After Isla leaves, Georgie endures five days on her own, and it’s then she sees the figure on the hill, and approaches him, and frightens him away, or at least that is what she thinks she has done.

  The devil walking the valley again?

  It is only a couple of days after this that this sensible, well-adjusted woman feels she must be losing her wits. The spectre of insanity dogs her in all sorts of nagging ways. She has adopted the habit of taking Lola for a walk over one particular field and, beside the hedgerow of this field, a lane runs down the other side. There’s this special oak tree with sofa-like roots and a wonderful view, the tree is the turning point of her twenty-minute walk. She sits there and contemplates airily while the dog goes rabbiting, ears flapping wildly, nose deep in the hedges.

  There are times, as she sits here, admiring the changing colours, flaming bracken and chocolate leaves, an earth of red and gold, carried away by the drama of the skies, that she is certain someone is standing on the other side of the hedge, down in the lane behind her.

  Some silent watcher.

  This time the thought is so real she is forced to investigate. She gets up to see, but everyone knows there is nothing more fatal than pandering to this type of imaginary fear. Reaction reinforces it. It is so much wiser to dismiss the irrational and concentrate hard on something real. But anxiety overrides logic. Georgie creeps towards the hedge like a cat stalking a mouse, she creeps behind her oak tree and stands on tiptoe, peering over the straggly hedge and down onto the dusty lane. There is quite a drop in the levels. Hell, was that a scuffling sound? Heart stops beating. Ears start pounding. Lola appears, tail wagging, eyes all excited, so Georgie hurries on, careful not to look behind her but whistling the dog to come quickly. Is that an answering whistle? No, she must be mistaken. She blames Lola because it is more convenient, she is furious with the dog for escaping into the lane and causing this unnerving feeling. Was it Lola? It must have been. Dammit, dammit, in future she will take a different route.

  Such a feeble, puny fear, caused by nothing but her own paranoia, hardly the kind of thing you can discuss with anyone sensibly.

  Somebody out there is watching her.

  ‘I have chopped as much wood as I can but there’s nowhere near enough to last me through the winter.’ There is no sign that Lot Buckpit hears her as she stands there feeling silly on this chilly October morning. The sound of her own voice seems strange, these days she hears it so little. She carries on, insistent, interspersing her sentences with the falling of the axe, trying to peer into the milking parlour, to check on the rumour of the old man’s ashes, but it’s no good, the door is closed. When the silver thud is over, when he starts to tug at the wood, that is when Georgie says again, ‘I could ring locally and order a couple of loads from town, I’m sure they would deliver them, but I thought I’d ask you first. I thought you might want the work.’

  Chop chop chop.

  The ignorant pig. OK OK. She is probably being a pain in the arse. We all know what it feels like when you’re trying hard to concentrate, fighting for breath, trembling with exertion, and some jerk expects you to speak. You see it when interviewers try to corner athletes, or footballers straight after the game. You experience it yourself while changing the duvet cover. Lot does not glance in Georgie’s direction. Perhaps the man is deaf. Maybe Mark is right and he is mentally subnormal. But Georgie can hardly drift away without an answer to her question.

  And nor does it seem as if the brute is wrestling with exhaustion. There is not a bead of sweat on his brow and his heavy breath is coming remarkably smoothly. The mighty axe splits the wood as if it’s as fluid as water. His pot belly flops with every stroke. He picks up the logs effortlessly and flings them onto the growing pile. Georgie’s pile is not growing, Georgie is extravagant with her enormous fires, she has watched her precious stock dwindle to nearly nothing at all. Fires are not just for warmth, they provide some living company with the sounds they make and the moving feeling of another life besides Lola.

  ‘Whaddya want?’

  Georgie jumps, so sudden is his hatchet-faced mother’s arrival. And so silent. Mrs Buckpit slyly creeps forward in her slippers, somehow making Georgie feel guilty for being discovered in the yard, perhaps she should have gone to the door and approached the woman first, rather than come here behind her back? She almost feels like she’s been caught stealing, it really is as awkward as that.

  Donna, who loves a gossip, had told her, ‘She’s a bad-tempered old slag. Just as rude to everyone. And vicious, Christ! She wants to flog and hang, draw and quarter. She won’t even speak to me, she thinks I’m a fallen woman. She goes round with that rotten smell under her nose as if you’re after jumping in bed with one of her precious boys, as if she believes some slut is going to steal into her filthy yard and screw them. She can’t see what slobs they are and that no woman would look at them twice. And anyway, they stink of shit. They’re worse than bleeding animals. Someone who knew them when they were little told Chad they used to throw baby rooks in the stream and throw stones at them for a laugh. Baby rooks which fell from their nests. That’s the sort of kids they were.’

  So startled by the sudden emergence of the venomous Mrs Buckpit, and with Donna’s dark stories fresh in her mind, Georgie pulls herself together to explain.

  ‘We will deliver your wood, Mrs Jefferson,’ the dragon tells her frostily. ‘But it might be damp. It won’t be seasoned.’

  What is Mrs Buckpit so scared of? Could anything but fear cause such needless aggression? Is it fear of outside influences that frighten the woman so? It is an open secret that she will not allow TV, newspapers, or even radio into her house. If so, how does she think she will cope with letting Chad’s cottage to strangers? But hell, it’s not as if Georgie is a stranger, she is here at the door every week, has been for months, paying her bill, but the two women are still no closer. Her stare is invariably exactly the same, she acts as if she loathes her neighbour. She is rarely out in the fields with her sons, but stays inside the farmhouse like a vixen might stay in its lair, lurking inside shrunken cardigans. Mrs Buckpit deals with the reps who call, but Georgie has seen no other visitors, and Lot and Silas never go out, not even to the Blue Bull of an evening.

  At the beginning Georgie had taken a selection of visitors to that local hostelry, but it was basic and depressing, designed for darts and pool, designed for men after work, no carpets, just lino. Mark, a real ale freak, was disgusted. The heavy smell of grease in the air had yellowed the menus which boasted chips with everything, but the Buckpit brothers had never showed up. The only place they visit as a family is the nearby chapel every Sunday, and their only concession to any dress code is a couple of faded jackets over their dungarees, and shoes instead of Wellington boots. Their mother disappears once a week in the battered truck to fetch groceries from the cash and carry. She wears a belted old mac, wellies and a headscarf, a selection of string bags over her shoulder reminding Georgie of fairy-tale witches kidnapping children in forests. Georgie longs to ask about Stephen, but Mrs Buckpit remains unapproachable, it is glaringly obvious that the woman dislikes her.

  Perhaps, in the past, Stephen had upset her.

  Objective achieved and Georgie leaves the oxlike Buckpi
t to chop away at his wood undisturbed. At the farm gate she passes his spindly brother, small, restless and perky. Silas scratches his head and draws on a battered cigarette. He coughs and spits on the ground behind her as Georgie passes by, and she thinks he is probably leering. Ugh!

  The hapless Donna is now in the habit of coming over for coffee each morning, and Georgie is not quite sure if she approves of this arrangement or not. She remembers Suzie’s warning. The girl is getting too dependent. Donna stays all day until just before Chad is due home. These endless counselling sessions involve the relaying of every single sad event in Donna’s lamentable life, with Georgie encouraging her to put her past behind her. Uneasy in her old social worker role, she is more than frustrated to be thrust back in it by this defeated girl. Apparently Chad picked Donna up in some dowdy second-hand salesroom more than a year ago. Gradually he had acquired, it would seem, complete domination over her. She had run away from home and was homeless, trying to sell some plates she had found while rummaging through a skip. The hackneyed story of step-father abuse. The friends she’d travelled with had abandoned her with no work, no money and nowhere to go, and Chad the masterful offered her a roof and some measure of safety.

  ‘He exploited my needs,’ whines Donna, her lanky hair trailing over the marmalade jar, fiddling with a teaspoon as always.

  ‘Poor Donna,’ Georgie says wearily, ‘I do wish I could do something to help.’ The girl smells of damp, of Chad’s railway carriage.

  ‘But I needed somebody strong and masterful,’ Donna moans in her maudlin manner. ‘I needed someone to own me. Don’t you ever long to be owned?’ She peers at Georgie through watery eyes. ‘Don’t you ever long to be mastered?’

  ‘Not in the way that I think you mean.’

  ‘But it’s horrid to be alone in the world.’

  ‘But lots of us are alone, Donna, aren’t we? And I think there are probably more lonely people in relationships than by themselves. But you could find somebody else, Donna, I’m sure you could, if you really tried. Somebody who would respect you for what you really are. You’re a pretty girl, you could get a job…’

 
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