Unhallowed Ground, page 5
What an overwhelming relief.
Georgie shivered as the warmth returned to her hands and feet, burning. She shared the rug with Lola, who sat beside her and watched the flames, the same glazed look on their faces. She would sort out some food in a minute.
But what sort of man would chose to spend his life here, hidden away from the world and contented with the most meagre of comforts, without the reassurance of family roots or possessions, not even a radio, TV or books? But his paintings, his easels, his brushes, where were all those? Where was Stephen? Most people leave at least some ghost of themselves behind, and Helen had suggested, quite reasonably, that Georgie might find the brother she’d lost.
But this was the home of a squatter. Abandoned save for the most basic essentials. As long as she sat by the fire and wondered, noticing every bulge in the wall, every nail, every empty socket, she began to realize with growing concern that he had never lived this way at all. She knew without doubt that somebody had been here before her and taken his things.
Hey, what’s going on? Because you don’t knock nails in your walls unless you’re going to hang something on them. You don’t paint carefully round your sockets unless you intend to plug something in. And what was that aerial socket doing poking out of the skirting?
What is more, if you have a large open fire like this you are forced to own some sort of poker, and a basket in which to carry the logs.
If someone had stripped Stephen’s cottage after his death, then who? And why hadn’t she been told? And where did they put his paintings?
You could easily go mad living here, sitting, listening to the cold north wind. She unwrapped a Kit-Kat and ate it. This was all wrong, nothing like she’d imagined. She should not be worrying about the minutiae of life, she should be celebrating her newfound solitude.
But who the devil…?
The solicitor must have the answers, Georgie told herself, fighting down her concern. That’s if it doesn’t snow again. That’s if she could get out in the morning.
THAT FIRST FATAL NIGHT she stayed at Furze Pen, as she heated up her tin of baked beans, grated a little cheese and rattled the grill to hurry it up, Georgina thought about Stephen. He was always disappearing.
She still remembered the shock she’d felt on being told she had a brother. She’d been lying to the girls at school—she lied about everything in those days, lying came almost more naturally than telling the truth—finding it so intolerable to be a boring only child, no-one to blame or admire or laugh at as most of the others did. She prayed that her parents might divorce so she could be more interesting. She’d found an awful old picture of Daddy when he’d been a boy, dated and faded, a brown and pink carefully posed picture with a rubber plant setting the scene. How had she ever believed she could really get away with her lie? Her father’s hair was slick to his head, stuck there with varnish, and that wide brow, those round staring eyes, that touch of colour they’d applied to the cheeks to give the figure some semblance of life. Well, they stopped taking photos like that years ago.
She had packed it at the beginning of term, hidden it away in the cheesy-smelling newspaper at the bottom of her school trunk, ashamed of it as well as of what she was doing. So pathetic. She’d been writing to this imaginary brother for a couple of terms now. ‘Tom is at Cambridge,’ she bragged to Gloria Butts, her catty, slant-eyed friend who came from a family of six. ‘I went to the student ball in the hols.’
Well, other people made up boyfriends so why should she be denied a brother?
‘Why does he never write back?’
‘Oh, Tom’s always been like that. He doesn’t have time for writing, he’s so busy playing rugby and rowing…’
‘So why doesn’t he come to visit?’
‘He is coming. After half-term.’
Why had she compounded the lie, knowing she had trapped herself in a net which would lead to more complications and eventually, probably, the most humiliating exposure? The fear of that alone was dangerous and exciting. And what is more she kept up the bluff until it wasn’t just Tom who was coming but a group of his friends as well. ‘They’ll take me out for the day, I should think. Lunch at a pub by the river. Maybe a ride in a punt.’ Those who believed her were impressed, those who did not nudged one another. She would have given everything she owned, even her right arm, in order to make this dream come true. The photograph of Tom she kept on the locker beside her bed, third by the door in the spartan dorm, next to the compulsory double-framed parents and the family pet. And if there was some vague resemblance to Daddy, well, why not, the boy in the gilt frame was his son, so no-one should find fault with that.
Half-term. Georgie’s bags were packed and she waited at the large double doors in the hall for Mummy to come and collect her, hanging around with her friends, all of them eager to be gone before embarrassing introductions, dreading those awful stilted questions which other people’s mothers ask. Ashamed of their families.
‘You’ve forgotten your dressing gown, it’s waiting at the end of your bed,’ announced Miss Hiller, the matron, at the very moment Mummy came rushing from the car. Kisses. Too many kisses, and fussing, and ‘I’ll come with you darling, I’ve forgotten what your dormitory looks like…’
‘Please don’t bother, Mummy.’ But Georgie was anxious to keep Mummy in tow, to stop her loitering round her friends.
‘What on earth is this quaint old picture of Daddy doing beside your bed?’
Gloria Butts looked up, she must have forgotten something, too, her eyes were slyer than ever but her voice dripped sweetly when she said, ‘Well, Mrs Southwell. How strange. Georgie told everyone that was her brother.’
‘How very peculiar, darling. What a very odd thing to do.’
Driving away, Georgie looked back to see Gloria Butts in deep and giggly conversation with Hannah Murphy, watching the back of the car as it went.
‘Why did you tell them that, darling? Why on earth did you tell all your friends that Daddy was your brother?’
It was painful to speak about something so deep and shameful, a secret need which she couldn’t express and certainly could not discuss with Mummy. She did not want her mother to know, and Mummy, despite the questions, did not want to know either.
Scarlet-faced Georgie changed the subject. ‘Is Daddy home?’
‘Yes, and he’s looking forward to seeing you.’
‘I could have spent the weekend with Daisy.’ It was half a threat, half a plea.
‘You spent your last half-term with Daisy. You can’t always be at Daisy’s. And why don’t you bring your friends home for a change?’
She hated her mother then, she’d refuse to discuss the photograph. But Sylvia Southwell, unperturbed, clicked on her indicator, peered right and left at the junction and pressed on. Then she announced very coolly, ‘You had no need to invent a brother, Georgina, because you already have one.’
She stared at her mother, startled and embarrassed, not liking the guarded tone in her voice. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘You had to know one day, I suppose. Daddy and I both knew that, but it has always been so difficult to judge the right time. It was always important we waited until you were old enough to understand.’ In the heat of the freezing-cold moment Sylvia’s perfume cloyed the silence.
The spray on the road rose like steam. The wheels hissed along. Georgie’s legs were stuck to the seat and she let them stay stuck, shifting them only a little, she liked the oozings of her own skin. On a layer below the perfume, on a subterranean layer deep down, her mother’s fur coat smelled of stale cupboards and formal outings, disliked places and difficult times.
Sylvia Southwell gave a short laugh. ‘His name is Stephen.’ She closed her lips round the statement. ‘Or we christened him Stephen, Lord knows what he calls himself now.’
Georgie stared rigidly before her. She did not comment, afraid of this secret they were sharing. To her, Mummy was a stranger. She played more gam
Off the phone and Georgie knew that Sylvia spoke about nothing real.
‘He is twenty-one years older than you. He left home at sixteen.’ But she spoke in the tone of voice she used for the ill-bred and the vulgar.
And Georgie was eleven, so that meant Stephen was now thirty-two. Not even exciting, not a dashing young man with which to impress her friends but an adult, a fully grown man, more of an embarrassment. With a toe-curling name like Stephen. She stared angrily out of the window. Her mother had shared the secret but not given her daughter her wish. And that would explain why Georgie’s parents were so much older than everyone else’s. But why had they waited so long to have her? Twenty-one years was a gap too wide. But she supposed they only wanted one child, and they waited until they lost that one before deciding to try for another. This made sense. Sylvia Southwell did not like children.
She cast around in her mind then, searching for all the clues she had missed—pages torn from a photograph album, old tin cars buried in the garden, careless references to times and events, the sudden frown, the unexpected silence covered by a cough. But she could remember none of these things. They had covered the secret absolutely and not one glint of it remained.
‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner? What did he do?’
Sylvia’s words were beaten out harshly like twangs on a musical triangle. ‘He caused Daddy and me all sorts of terrible grief, and when he left home it was merely the end of a long and anguished period for us. From the beginning he was a difficult child, we lost him long before he went.’
‘Don’t you ever hear from him?’
Sylvia’s lips tightened. She changed gear with a black-gloved hand and Georgie saw the bulge in her sleeve where she kept her white lace handkerchief. Mummy was always immaculate, with her pearl stud earrings, black patent leather bag and shoes, a shade too perfect perhaps? She must have been pretty once, before she got lines on her face, with her slim figure and her gracious smile, with her brown hair shot with expensive gold. ‘We are grateful for his continuing silence.’
‘And you never tried to find him?’
‘We heard once, from an acquaintance, that he was an artist living in London doing quite well for himself. That he lived alone and had no interest in contacting us or renewing the relationship.’
Georgie hesitated. ‘Perhaps he might want to know me.’
Sylvia gave her a sharp look and the car swerved slightly. ‘I doubt that, darling. I doubt that very much.’
Georgie squirmed on her seat. She didn’t want to ask questions, she didn’t want to appear too interested, but fascinated as she was, she badly needed to know. ‘But what was he like, Mummy? And what sort of trouble did he cause?’
Her voice was artificial and strained. ‘It is painful for me even to remember, let alone discuss it with you.’
‘It might have been better if you’d never told me.’
‘You had to know, Georgina. You couldn’t have grown up not knowing.’
‘Why? Why couldn’t I have?’
‘Because you have a right to know. It would have been very wrong for you to find out from some other source.’ Whatever the cost, the rules of life must be observed.
‘But only so much and no more?’
‘He was dark. Dark like you, dark like your father.’
‘But tell me what he did wrong?’
Sylvia Southwell took the top of her tongue round her lipstick to lubricate a passage for the dryness of the words. ‘He was wilful and moody from the beginning. Stephen was never an ordinary child, never placid or amenable. Every single thing he did was either for attention or to cause trouble.’
Sylvia seemed to surprise herself, to stumble over the possible discovery that she had never loved him.
‘I’m amazed that you took a second chance after that. By having me.’
‘We had no say in the matter, Georgina. You came along unexpectedly.’ And then she added quickly, ‘And we were thrilled to have you.’
They drove along in silence then with thoughts too thick to penetrate. Eventually Georgie was forced to ask, ‘So you don’t know where he lives now?’
Mummy cleared her throat delicately. She answered her daughter with cold dignity. ‘No, and we have no desire to.’
This was so unsatisfactory. ‘Why are you still so angry with him?’
‘Because Stephen is still hurting me. You can’t lose a child and forget. Even a child such as that.’
‘You made a good attempt at it.’
‘There is no need to be offensive, Georgina. You know nothing about it at all. You are still a child, too young to understand, I see. And already I am regretting the fact that I told you.’
The conversation was just too awkward. Neither of them could cope with it.
Tall, dark conifers, their heads oddly detached in rows behind the high garden wall. Symmetrical. A square lawn. Chimneys, also detached, and everything in shades of brown. Even the house was a brown one, and the chips in the driveway were fawn.
A house in uniform.
Through the brown study door and into a totally brown hall, banisters leading up, wooden floors with matching rugs, a tall brown settle next to the telephone, and a brown umbrella and hat stand full of walking sticks and brown macs.
When the sun shone through the landing window that overlooked the hall, it glowed russet.
Immediately she entered Georgie wished she had gone to Daisy’s, but the fact was she hadn’t been asked. Not again. Not a fourth time. But what would she do all alone for three days, here, in a house which was full of things, and hung with pictures of her father’s father? And how could she possibly invite her friends?
Mummy was wicked to suggest it, knowing how impossible it was.
She knew every stair that creaked in that house, she knew every giving floor board. Born in it, she was one with it, it and its smell of pipe smoke and polish, and she hated it. She would have half an hour to go upstairs and familiarize herself once again and then it would be four o’clock and the gong would go for tea, splitting the silent house with its summons. She would have to come down for tea, that brown interlude of tea and paste sandwiches and moist fruit cake. Fascinated, she wondered which of the five bedrooms had been Stephen’s. Perhaps this one? Perhaps this very bed she lay on with her arms behind her head, perhaps this had once been his and all his things filled the cupboards?
Georgie could well understand why Stephen had fled. She had always sworn she would leave herself the moment she was old enough. She imagined a wild boy playing in the garden, messing it up, pulling up the flowers and scattering the petals about, cutting the square lawn into circles, smashing the panes of greenhouse glass.
Bravely. Gloriously and mightily. Not in the cowardly way she had broken the flower pots and hidden them afterwards.
An artist in rebellion against the sordid values of everyday life. Free from the tyranny of property and praise.
If Stephen lived here for sixteen years then he must have gone to school. It was awkward for Georgie to raise the subject again, difficult and embarrassing. She could see that, as with the facts of life, once her mother had raised the matter, it was dropped and done with for ever. But over tea, alone with Mummy after Gwyneth the maid had gone, she tried to press her once again.
Sylvia eyed her crossly. Her daughter was breaking the rules. She poured tea from the silver pot and her handkerchief trailed from her sleeve like disappointment. She answered Georgie’s question abruptly, and the bitterness, it was almost hate, crept back into her tone. ‘Stephen went to Grantly House until he was thirteen, and then he was s
Family tradition! Family name! Georgie was tempted to laugh. A military family until it came to Daddy with his poor eyesight and his hip. In spite of family tradition the Army refused him. And yet photographs of men lined up glowered from the walls of Harry Southwell’s study, jutting chins, ruddy faces, ranked in military or sporting rows, which did not matter. Guns replaced cricket bats, khaki berets replaced caps with a smooth indiscrimination. Yet Daddy had not inherited those fat shiny knees, those tuberous thighs or those clothes-hanger shoulders. Oh, he had the rigid stance, the love of discipline, the yearning for rules. Daddy was a walking moustache, twitching and twirling at the edges. Routine. Order. Duty. But courage and medals and mentions in dispatches don’t make for money. Not a generation later they don’t, and the worn leather chairs and the threadbare carpets said as much. It was years before Georgie realized that her childhood was spent in genteel penury.
Daddy, working permanently at home, dealt in stocks and shares not terribly successfully. Sylvia, with her respect for worldly position and wealth, called his projects hare-brained schemes, told her friends he was empty of enterprise. But the lady of a house never lifted a duster, never plugged in an iron, these were the jobs of the live-in maids, and they came and went back to their homes in Wales in regular succession, probably because of the surfeit of work. Sometimes they could light fires in the autumn, sometimes they could not, depending on the market. Cauliflower cheese, bubble and squeak, rice puddings, meat rissoles, brisket and fish pie were regulars at the table, all well browned on top. School uniforms came second hand and Georgie suspected her fees were paid by some kind of military trust. Trimming the sails and making ends meet were constant irritations, but Sylvia kept accounts at all the best local stores while bitterly resenting her restrained circumstances. Such mortification. She had a real horror of poverty, of eventually having to sell the house and lose face in the neighbourhood. Oh yes, at all costs, the image must be preserved.
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