Unhallowed Ground, page 2
‘Even people I’d trusted as friends turned their backs on me,’ she wailed, tormented by an alien self-pity. ‘Can you honestly imagine what that’s like? Ringing people up—oh yes, feeling bad enough about ringing people up—so damn needy, hands in a sweat, heart aching, so desperately wanting reassurance, and being told by quiet, polite voices that they weren’t in, they’ll ring you back, they were away when you knew they were not.’ She played with Lola’s soft ears as a child might play with a comforter. The dog opened one eye. It was soft and brown and liquid with love. ‘And all the while, to add to the horror, the newspapers crucify you.’
‘It could have happened to any one of us.’
‘Don’t tell me that one more time! I can’t bear hearing that! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know it could have happened to anyone, but it didn’t, Suzie, did it, it bloody well happened to me!’
And Georgie wanted to shout that, above all, she needed time on her own to mourn for the child with the wise grey eyes who had ended up in a grainy frame with shaggy hair on the front pages of all the papers. The child that had depended on her for its life. The child she had, through her own ineptitude, betrayed and allowed to die. But such a protest would have been unnecessary because Isla and Suzie knew that very well, and yes, as social workers, it could have happened to either of them, and it would happen, again and again as it seems to, every few years, and every time it would be equally terrible…
‘What should I have done,’ had become such a wizened old question that she had stopped asking it, even of herself. If only she could have taken time back. But what was the use of any of this? She had known there was violence at that wretched flat, it oozed out through that cold yellow front door with the thin metal letter box through which she had stuffed note after note, time after time, through which her lips had called so often. Hopelessly. Tiredly. Fearfully.
And back then, as she leaned forward from her sunken chair that even in late summer smelled of damp, wringing her hands and sharing her feelings with her friends, aware of her secret resentment, she would have liked to have screamed, And I am grateful for your continued friendship, can you sense that, dear God? Because that meant that their friendship, once on equal terms, once as honest as friendships could be, was flawed, even though they would have received this as an affront and answered, ‘That is absurd.’ Yes, that resentment, that bitterness, it was there now and nothing could alter it. And what would they have thought if Georgie had screamed across their cosy pink drunkenness, as she longed to do, This outrageous, diabolical thing did not happen to either of you, but my God how I wish that it HAD. I wish it was me sitting where you are giving advice and sympathizing. I wish I was you and that either of you were over here in my position.
Yes, she was giving them too little and they were giving her too much.
She re-embarked on her train of thought. She said, ‘I wish I’d been able to go to court and stand trial. It would have been fairer, and they were trying me anyway.’
Wretched. Despairing. And guilty.
‘No, they were not. The inquiry never expected to find you guilty, Georgie. Nothing is that simplistic. You did all that was humanly possible. You are not a fortune teller. The inquiry found you blameless.’
‘Blameless? Jesus Christ! A child is murdered and how can any of us be blameless? And I could have done more. It is always possible to have done more.’
Isla removed her dramatically circular spectacles and rubbed the lenses on the arm of the sofa, as if to polish them and study Georgie simultaneously. ‘You can’t stop dwelling on all this, can you? Punishing yourself over and over? I can see you doing it. One minute we’re talking normally and the next you sink into yourself, clam up, your expression changes, you go miles away.’
During this terse exchange Georgie attempted a stoic smile, her teeth must have looked like false ones, clenched so rigidly, in a jar. She tightened her hands in her lap. ‘How the hell can I get this out of my mind? Five minutes is the longest time I’ve been free of it so far, and at night I have such nightmares about it.’ She might as well admit it. Yes, yes, punishing herself over the smallest details, all those ifs and buts and if onlys, any device to add to the torture.
‘What on earth is that rank smell?’ Thank goodness the subject was changed.
‘There must be a dead rat in the wall.’
‘Last night, in bed, I thought I heard scratching. Maybe one of your more experienced neighbours could put some poison down.’
So you see how uncomfortable Georgie felt with her visitors, some of them colleagues from work, some old friends who went back to Toby, others picked up, like most friends are, while thumbing their way along the hard shoulder of life. They came in a steady stream, like memories, so that, incredibly, there had been no complete week from June through to September when she had been alone for longer than forty-eight hours. They kept her busy. They entertained her. But at the end of the day it did not matter how hard they worked with her on the cottage, it made no difference what fun they shared as they laboured in the sunshine repairing the fences, patching the thatch, turning over the rock-hard soil or unblocking the stream. It mattered not what picnics they shared or how many bottles of wine they drank, she could not overcome that grim stumbling block however hard she tried. They were the blessed, she the damned. They brought car-loads of supplies, they worked with a will, paying their way, but they overdid the kindness bit. Their visits were of condolence, of support in her hour of need, just as hers would have been if the boot was on the other foot. They pitied her and her sad predicament. They thanked her for her hospitality, they thanked her for their holiday, but they were being kind and Georgie was grateful. And that put something unpleasant between them, something she found hard to deal with. Poor old Georgina, psychologically standing up while everyone else remained sitting down.
Perhaps she was oversensitive, but she could suddenly easily understand why the troubled resent do-gooders so. And there’s only so much support you can get before you see yourself as a cripple.
In some perverse way their well-meaning presences prevented her from healing herself. And yet, look at this, one week after their departure and already she wanted them back. She feared for the roots of her being. She thought she was going mad.
The shaking first started…
It was Roger Mace who broke the news that Angela Hopkins was dead. Over the phone for God’s sake, a most personal call. The ringing woke her in the morning—a mental alarm in her head—she heard the freezing-cold news in a hot crumpled bed. ‘Georgie. I’m so sorry. I wanted to tell you myself.’
She had to know, shoulders hunched to guard breathless conversation. ‘How did she die?’
‘They’re not sure yet… a blow to the head…’
‘When?’ She hugged the duvet to her stomach. She could feel death’s proximity. Her ankles were white as bleached bones, thin as a child’s, thin as a skeleton’s.
‘And Patsy and Carmen?’ She spoke with deliberate, polite calm.
‘There’s a place of safety order, but no sign of abuse so far.’
‘What will happen?’
‘Well, I’m no expert, but the case will be given a high priority. There’ll be an enormous public impact.’
Her hair fell forward to hide her face. ‘I’ll come straight to the office.’
‘No, Georgie, stay where you are. There’ll be time for all that later.’
A warning kindly given. A glimpse of the scalpel of scrutiny. She hadn’t asked for an explanation. And then it was suddenly déjà vu, she’d always known this was going to happen and what would happen next. Oh God, let it not be true. She had always secretly known and yet done nothing about it. Guilty as that bastard, Ray Hopkins himself, the man with the bullet-shaped head and the earful of sleepers, who lived behind the yellow door and swore blind that his five-year-old daughter had fallen down the stairs.
She sank on all fours, her lips trembling, her eyes welling. S
As if she had never known her.
And that’s how the dreadful story began.
SILVERED WITH AN IMPOSSIBLE beauty, like viewfinder slides of Heidi, and scented by her vanilla car tree, that was Georgina’s first impression of Furze Pen Cottage. It was a chilling sort of beauty, sharp, more like a sound.
It was February, a pearly, tear-stained month, and Angela Hopkins had died that December. Christmas did not happen for Georgie, and nor did new year. All the horror was busy going on so the fact that her brother, Stephen, had died of liver rot added to her total destruction in a way which was quite irrational. Why such a traumatic effect?
Because she had never known him.
A healthy liver was horrible enough, even when dipped in batter, and Georgie imagined his gone brown like those in a butcher’s window in summer. And to hear of such a tragic event in such an impersonal way, by solicitor’s letter, seemed to reflect to Georgie the terrible sterility of her life.
Forty-two and what had she got to show for it? That was the way her thinking was going. It wasn’t as if Stephen had left her the cottage intentionally either, a kindness perhaps, a last act of remembrance. No. He had died intestate and, as Georgie was his only family, the cottage and contents were hers if she wanted them. It was as cold and clinical as that.
She wept and then she wept some more.
Alas. Poor Georgina.
She felt bereft, as if something had been forcibly removed from her person. Confidences saved up for too long tend to turn to hysteria so, ‘I never even met him,’ she cried to Helen Mace, the social services director’s wife, as she sat in their Victorian sitting room done out in wood and heritage paint, with paper by Laura Ashley. ‘Stephen was twenty years older than me and nobody ever mentioned him. Black sheep and all that.’ Georgie’s hair stuck to her tears. ‘I grew up believing he was dissolute, a drunkard who turned his back on society and became a recluse.’ She sniffed, wiping her nose unpleasantly with the back of her hand. ‘He ran away from home,’ sniff sniff, ‘when he was sixteen years old, and they cut him off, I suppose, mentally and financially. Anyway, he never tried to come home.’ Sniff sniff. ‘Contact with his family was the last thing Stephen wanted, that’s what they said. I often thought about finding him and writing him a letter, but time goes by and you don’t. I thought one day I might trace him. He might not even know I was born. And yet he was my brother,’ she sobbed, ‘and after Mum died my last surviving relative.’
How she detested behaving like this. So needy. So lacking control. So like poor Millie Blunt when they took away her dead baby. But at least she didn’t stamp her feet. At least she didn’t scream and yowl. She wasn’t chained to the churchyard door, but you could tell poor Helen was taken aback.
‘This is all you need right now,’ she said kindly, looking anxiously at Georgie’s blotched face, the exhausted, dark-rimmed eyes, the wet, shaking hands. This wasn’t the capable Georgina she knew. ‘And it’s no good saying what’s done is done, there’s no point looking back and wishing…’
‘But it’s just one more bloody thing, isn’t it?’ cried Georgie desperately, kicking rhythmically at the chair leg. ‘Just one more bloody thing I wish I’d done differently, but time gets between you and then it’s too late.’ But no words were sufficiently powerful to convey the distress she felt.
Cosy, comforting Helen, with the wooden solidarity and shape of a Russian stacking doll and the plummy public-school accent. Even the air seemed to move slowly around her, so calm and unflappable was the director’s wife, a sporting product of Wycombe Abbey. She never panicked. She could balance two kids on her lap, feed a third, pot a fourth and conduct a sensible conversation all at the same time. Helen was a Grace Darling, the kind of heroic woman who might once have lived in a lighthouse. Helen was an oasis in Georgie’s acrid desert of grief, to whom she went for comfort, humble as a kneeling camel with a large and trembling lower lip.
‘Liking him or not liking him isn’t the point. The point is I never knew him. I never knew my own brother.’ And the sadness and self-pity of that last poignant remark collapsed her like a jelly taken too soon from its mould. ‘Oh God, I do loathe feeling like this! Perhaps this is my nemesis for having life too easy. Perhaps I am facing The Truth at last.’
Helen was not the sort of woman to be dragged into that soul-scarring cul-de-sac. The Truth was not the issue here. Something more positive was needed or this discussion could last until dawn and reach no resolution. She buttered a toasted teacake, automatically spread it with Marmite, and handed it to Georgie who took it. ‘Stephen was an artist?’ she asked slowly and thoughtfully.
‘Yes, that’s what they said.’
Helen shrugged. She went straight to the heart of the matter, created a direction to head in. ‘Well, in that case his paintings must be somewhere around.’
Georgie dabbed at her red eyes mournfully. She stared, perplexed, at the teacake before rotating it in its blackened butter. ‘I have never seen any of them.’
Helen warmed to her topic, sensing a growing interest, a lull in Georgie’s agitating brain. ‘You’d probably find quite a lot down at this cottage in Devon. It might be too late to know the man, but maybe you could understand him, his pictures might tell you more about him than knowing him ever could.’
She clutched at this straw. Helen’s words were an invitation. She walked restlessly to the window, hands cradling elbows. ‘D’you think so?’
Helen nodded sensibly. ‘Yes, I really do. And you know as well as I do, Georgie, that if Stephen had a problem with booze then his inability to contact you was nothing personal at all, it was all part of his illness, poor sod, and by going along with his wishes you were respecting him, too.’
Georgie returned to her chair, fingers of warning tapped the plate. Helen gave her a napkin. The teacake jumped. ‘Don’t patronize me,’ Georgie snapped. ‘The reason I did nothing about him was because I never got round to it. There was no respect about it.’
‘Just because you didn’t plan it doesn’t mean you didn’t do right by him,’ reasoned Helen patiently. ‘You left him alone which was what he wanted. And now he’s dead you can go and find him. A journey of discovery. A pilgrimage to Lourdes.’
‘D’you think I should go?’ Drained of all initiative, Georgie needed gentle prodding. In the state of mind she was in, a journey to Devon might as well be the moon.
‘Why don’t you go this weekend. I’ll come with you, if you like. Roger can mind the kids.’
But if Georgie decided to go, she wanted to go alone. She began to view the venture as a kind of exorcism, holy, in a special way, and the more arduous the journey the better she would feel. For almost two endless months she had endeavoured never to be alone, the thoughts that came in were just too terrible. But this state of affairs could not be allowed to continue, and a journey might be the best way to get used to her own company again. Time was so hard to fill. Given leave from work meant long empty hours, and those which were filled were quick and dreadful. She felt like a prisoner in a cell listening for the torturer’s footsteps. And they came unremittingly, to ask more questions, to listen to excuses, to take notes and make comments as again and again she told her side of the grim story.
The tabloid headlines shrieked out at her. HOW MANY MORE TIMES MUST THIS HAPPEN BEFORE THESE PEOPLE COME TO THEIR SENSES? AND, TWENTY THOUSAND A YEAR TO CALL BACK LATER. MORE FATAL DECISIONS TAKEN. And outside her flat they were waiting, scores of men in black jackets and macs, with microphones, cameras and delighted eyes.
‘Mrs Jefferson, this way, please, how do you feel about…?’
‘Will you stay in social work if you’re cleared…?’
‘Why did you ignore all
‘Is it true that you have no kids of your own?’
She faced them all with steely control.
To begin with, naive as she was, Georgie tried to explain, even though she’d been advised by the union to make no comment at this early stage. But she had to defend herself against the grotesque things they were saying, and why the hell should she keep quiet? They ought to be told how many children at risk she had in her caseload, the shortage of staff in the area and how many hours they put in. They had to be made to understand the atmosphere of that tenement building at night, and what it was like to call back again and again when the vandals had put out the lights, discarded their dirty needles and the place was eerily silent save for the soft sound of TV sets, the occasional bark of a dog, the cry of a child, the curse of a man. They ought to imagine the impact on a child of being removed from home, what happens to the dysfunctional family and how easily mistakes can be made. Before they went on printing their lies they should damn well know that Ray Hopkins and his little wife, Gail, were convincing liars, convincing to even the most professional, and that violence was always a fearful thing and difficult to approach in the daylight let alone in the dark.
Yes, the rat pack on guard outside her flat knew quite a bit about violence.
She spoke to them. She reasoned with them. She tried to explain.
They twisted her words and hurled them back like stones. Georgie had once watched a video which showed a woman in a biblical land on her way to be stoned to death. The horror of that had stayed with her ever since, she wished she’d never watched it, the way the victim clutched at a dagger as she passed a market stall and held it pathetically against her aggressors (she would probably normally go shopping for a nice bit of fish), so hopelessly and with such desperation, knowing the torment she faced. Daggers, words, what difference when your enemies were so determined?
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