Unhallowed Ground, page 9
Cramer continued his poking and rubbing while eyeing her craftily. ‘Yeah?’ He spat his fag end into the grate unpleasantly.
He thought she was after money!
With gathering annoyance Georgie continued, ‘I never knew Stephen, you see. And that’s why these paintings are so important to me. But I would like to know if you did remove the stuff from the cottage, and why you felt you had the right to do that.’
‘The legal blokes had finished with it. That bleeding stuff was worth nowt, they’d have thrown it out if I hadn’t got it. I don’t like to see things go to waste.’
‘He’s got a stall, see,’ chipped in Donna in her reedy, catarrhal voice while starting to roll a fag of her own. She licked the paper with deep concentration and poked at the flakes of tobacco sticking out of the end with a match. Her flaxen hair touched the floor and she peered up through it. Every so often she delved into the box for a tissue with which to wipe her peeling nose.
‘They wouldn’t have brought me owt, hardly worth the bleeding petrol.’
‘But it might have been more prudent to wait. To get permission, perhaps. It was a bit premature.’
Cramer raised one dark eyebrow. ‘As I said, I thought it was bleeding done with. I didn’t think there’d be anyone.’
‘But have you still got the furniture or has it already gone? Have you got anything I could look at? And what about the pictures? What has happened to those?’
‘They’re all out in the bleeding shed. I hadn’t got round to loading it all up. What d’you want me to do then? Cart the bleeding lot back? Like hell.’
Georgie wasn’t sure until she’d seen it. Outraged to be made to feel such a nuisance—a right pain in the bleeding arse—Cramer was making out she should accept without question his right to Stephen’s belongings, should be almost grateful that he’d gone in there and removed almost every last stick. There was nothing in the man’s attitude to suggest shame or guilt. No, only annoyance that she’d come asking.
‘Chad’s got his own business, see,’ said Donna with a snuffle of pride, striking a damp match several times on the chimney in order to light her cigarette. ‘That’s why he needed the stuff. But you’ll hear nothing good about him in this bloody hole. He doesn’t get on with them at the farm, nobody does round here. He rents the cottage off them, pays them the rent each week, and that’s as far as it goes. They want him out now,’ she added, puffing hard, ‘that’s why the place is going to rot around us. They want us out so they can do the place up and let it for grockles at fancy prices.’ She dragged the smoke deep into her lungs and threw the match onto the fire. The flame from that tiny piece of wood almost outdid the fire itself. ‘We keep telling them the damp’s coming in, but that old cow don’t take no notice. Serve them right if the place falls down.’
If they took some small trouble themselves they could make quite a dramatic difference. They could clear up the rubbish for a start, they could hang the dragging curtains back on their hooks. They could wander outside and pick up any number of broken branches to make up the paltry fire, but they’d rather sit here and freeze with their grievance. Georgie was glad she had kept her coat on. But she wasn’t here to criticize. Just as important as his belongings was any information that might be gleaned about the elusive Stephen. She might as well ask immediately in case she got thrown out. ‘And what about my brother? Did you get on with him? Did you know him?’
‘He kept to himself,’ muttered Chad Cramer. ‘We all do round here,’ he accused Georgie with a thrusting, bristly chin.
‘But Stephen must have had some friends? Did nobody ever call on him here? Did he go out anywhere local?’ And she wanted to scream, Did nobody know him for God’s sake?
Donna rubbed her chilblained fingers. ‘I only moved in with Chad last year, so I dunno what went on before that. But since I’ve been here I never seen anyone visit that cottage ’cept old Horsefield with his bleeding magazines, nagged into going by batty Nance. And I dunno that Stephen was that grateful or friendly with Horace.’ She flicked ash onto the grate. It added to the pile there, along with the hundreds of old dog-ends. ‘Was he, Chad?’
Chad shook his head while continuing to rub the barrel of his gun. He cocked it and stared down the barrel with one dark eye.
Donna went on, ‘And he was ill, see, so he couldn’t go far, could he? Not in the year that I knew him. If he did go out it weren’t for long and it was only to do his painting. Well, there’s sod all else to do round here unless you’re into hunting, like Chad.’
‘But he must have gone somewhere to sell his paintings.’ Georgie had to know. She couldn’t go home with nothing, dammit. ‘And if he didn’t do that then he must have gone somewhere to claim his benefit, even Stephen couldn’t have existed on fresh air,’ she wheedled. ‘And what about a doctor? Didn’t the doctor ever visit him? Towards the end? When he was so ill?’
Chad Cramer’s contribution was grudging and unexpected. ‘He didn’t hold with no doctors an’ I wouldn’t know about his bleeding dole. That hag, Buckpit, might know more about that. She might have cashed cheques for him. It was her who fetched his shopping. But you won’t get much out of that bleeding bitch.’
‘But… what did Stephen look like?’ It was more of a plea. If nothing else, his reticent neighbours could surely tell her this, soften her childish vision of the moody, wild-eyed artist who couldn’t give a toss for the world or the people in it.
Donna brightened up to be asked such a simple question. She sniffed, ‘He looked exactly like you, you know. Scruffier. Bigger. But you. There was nothing odd about him. He was just quite normal. There’s a self-portrait he did somewhere with all the junk in the shed. Isn’t there, Chad?’
‘You’ll have to look for yourself,’ said Cramer, casually leaning forward and claiming Donna’s half-smoked fag from her fingers. He dragged on it himself. ‘I don’t take no bleeding notice.’
Donna asked disinterestedly, ‘What will you do with the place? Sell it?’
‘A nice little scoop,’ leered Chad.
Georgie ignored him. ‘I think I’m going to have to. There’d be no point in me keeping it up. I wouldn’t be able to use it enough to make it worthwhile.’
The girl blew her nose sorely. She enquired, between tissues, ‘You wouldn’t want to live here then?’
‘I couldn’t,’ Georgie admitted. ‘I work in London.’ And please don’t ask me what I do. I don’t want to talk about that. I don’t want to think about that.
‘I don’t blame you,’ said Donna with a painful wheeze. ‘Who’d wanna end up in a shit hole like this? It’s the end of bleeding nowhere. The arsehole of the world.’
‘You were keen enough on it once,’ said Chad unpleasantly. ‘You couldn’t get enough of it once.’
‘Huh, there wasn’t much bleeding choice.’
‘You didn’t say that then. You was all pleading and begging then. And you know what you can do if you feel that bleeding way, you can piss off. That’s what you can bleeding well do.’
Donna softened immediately, her voice turning into a wheedle. She stretched herself out and tried to reach Chad’s knee with her hand, but he pushed her off roughly, having none of it. ‘It’s just that we never go anywhere, Chad, and it’s so bleeding cold.’ The girl gave an exaggerated shiver and adjusted the serpentlike scarf. ‘You could maybe move into town somewhere and use a garage for the stuff, or a yard. Save on petrol.’
‘You know bleeding well why we stay. To leave here now’d be playing straight into their hands.’
Georgie felt uneasy, the atmosphere between them was hostile. She would have to remind them why she was waiting or these recriminations could well go on all night. ‘Well, maybe I could take a look at the bits you’ve got while I’m here. I go back to London tomorrow so I’m afraid this just can’t wait.’
Chad nodded to Donna, who huffed and puffed as she got off the floor, tucking in bits and pieces of clothing, pulling her socks over her knees as if preparing fo
‘I could give you a few bob for the stuff,’ said Chad Cramer gruffly as Georgie got up to follow Donna out. ‘Save you finding somebody else. Some bugger had to clear it.’
Some chance. She gave a frosty reply. ‘I’ll have a look at it first and I’ll let you know before I leave.’
He was a nasty piece of work, and what was the miserable Donna doing living here with this oaf of a man? A girl her age? She’d do better to hitch herself up with some travellers, from whence it looked as if she’d come. At least she might be treated with some semblance of respect. At least there might be a decent fire and some lively young company. Cramer might sell furniture, he might get the pick of the goods on his stall, but as Georgie followed the girl’s stooping figure through the hall and out to the outhouse, she eyed the patches of seeping damp, the depressing, uncarpeted passage, the miserable, unshaded light bulbs, and thought it strange that the fellow did not use his scavengings to improve standards in his own sorry home.
It was almost as sparse as Stephen’s and there was no love in it.
THE MORE SHE HEARD the more Georgie came to believe that Stephen was no angry young man after all. More of a timid mouse. More like a woman, as if he had discovered a gentle way of screaming.
The old railway carriage, minus its wheels and embedded in earth, sat in the corner of scrub which made up Chad Cramer’s land, a weed-entangled, final siding. Donna, shivering with cold, shoved the door with her shoulder. This precarious shed was so crammed with books, furniture, mattresses and bits of scrap carpet, so stuffed with pots and pans and electrical appliances, that it took a while to notice the windows were painted over in white. This, along with the cold, gave the impression that Chad’s small warehouse was more of a long, low tunnel of ice.
At once Donna, with her scarf trailing behind her, began to climb a hill of soft furnishings. Her bootlike slippers were already soaked from their short trek through the garden. Cushions and rugs fell down like scree behind her and she called back over her shoulder, ‘The bleeding Buckpits don’t approve of Chad using the premises for what they call business purposes. They’re saying they never gave permission for it to be used as a business. But the truth of it is they don’t like to see anyone else doing well. They want him out. They’re just bleeding jealous.’
Jealous? Of this? The climb was fairly hazardous, with a very real danger of sinking into the mess of soft furnishings.
‘How long has he lived here?’
‘Oh, years. Ever since he arrived they’ve wanted him out, but he’s got rights on his side, see. If they go to law it’ll cost them an arm and a leg. He and the Buckpits don’t get on. But then, no-one who lives in this valley gets on. It seems like a condition of residence: you have to hate your neighbours.’
‘But people seem to have tried to help Stephen. Mr Horsefield, for example… even Mrs Buckpit…’
‘They only did what they had to. Chad only stays here ’cos he’s an obstinate bastard. He’d be far better off in town with a garage and a market stall. If the Buckpits’d leave him alone he’d go like a shot.’
Over the first mountainous pile and then they reached the floor behind and the going got easier. They reached the narrow passage through a ceiling-high collection of junk. The smell of mould was pungent. Unpleasant outcrops of fungus massed along some of the rivets and frost made elaborate patterns on the insides of the whitewashed windows. All the exertion made them breathless, but Donna managed to pant between breaths, ‘Most of this stuff’s not decent enough to flog, that’s why it’s still here. Every so often Chad has a fire and gets rid of most of the crap. Now where did he put Stephen’s stuff?’
Georgie felt her annoyance growing. Stephen’s belongings were piled high at the furthest end of the carriage, awaiting transportation through the double doors at the end, under the battered exit sign. ‘It would have been easier to come this way but the doors bolt from the inside. The whole thing’s a pain in the arse,’ said Donna, her breath hanging whitely in the stale, dead air. ‘You can never find anything you want in this bloody lot.’
So these were Stephen’s bits and pieces. Perfectly adequate. Nothing fussy, but nothing particularly objectionable either. Georgie sorted through as well as she was able. A nicely scarred pine table which would fetch a bit at auction, a couple of easy chairs and a dresser, an overstressed sofa and a put-you-up that must have been used as a spare bed. The lamps were good ones, a selection of well-worn Turkish rugs which would have done well on Cramer’s stall, a few eye-catching blankets and cushions along with two gigantic vases. With this collection of odds and sods the atmosphere at the cottage would be totally different, and Georgie felt a dull sense of sadness that she would never see it this way. And by not claiming it now, by allowing Cramer to keep the lot, she felt she was handing over something, something precious she needed for herself.
‘Well, whaddya think?’ Donna viewed her activities with a lack of interest and the odd wet sniff. ‘Whaddya gonna do then?’
‘Some of it’s quite nice,’ said Georgie, ‘it won’t sell for peanuts.’
‘It won’t make a bleeding fortune either.’
‘Storing it here’s not going to help.’
‘The TV and the fridge, like the radio and the heaters, will be over there with the rest of the electrics. Chad needs to check them before he takes them out.’
Yes, he probably removes all the plugs to sell separately. ‘Safety conscious, is he?’ asked Georgie sharply.
But Donna began to unfold a chest-high package of blankets. ‘These are some of the pictures, but I think there’s more upstairs in the house. Chad says Stephen never sold them for much, bread-and-butter paintings, he calls them.’
Well, he would say that. She looked at them with interest. None were framed. All were in oils, some so fresh they looked wet. There was no space in the railway carriage to step back for a good impression, and from close up they looked oddly childish, daubed even, with little thought, done on impulse, in a terrible flurry of urgency lest something be overlooked or forgotten, some quick emotion lost in the terrible staleness of life. Staring at them so objectively felt like prying.
Georgie was suddenly too close for comfort.
A little sob jerked in her throat uncontrolled. Why did she think about Angela Hopkins? What aspect of these pictures took her mind straight to that? Donna looked at her curiously.
‘Let’s get them out of here,’ said Georgie quickly, and this proposed plan of action suddenly felt so absolutely urgent that she stifled the urge to hack out a route through the junk in order to let these feelings of Stephen’s get to some space for breath and light.
It was something akin to panic.
‘We can unbolt the doors from here,’ explained Donna, climbing on a rickety pile of kitchen tables to reach the locks.
‘It might have been helpful if Chad had come, too.’ The thought of that surly good-for-nothing stretched out by the fire, toying with his gun while they worked so strenuously out here in the cold to undo his lawless actions, the thought of this drove Georgie wild. So it was then, out of sheer frustration and tiredness, that she suddenly decided, ‘Damn it, and I want the furniture returned, too, put back in the cottage exactly how it was. But I have no intention of doing it myself, that’s up to Chad.’
‘He’ll be well pissed off to hear that,’ remarked Donna matter-of-factly, still puffing, stacking the pictures beside the rusty carriage walls on a piece of cardboard packaging to protect them from the snow. Georgie handed them to her carefully one by one.
‘Well, that’s just too bad I’m afraid. Even if I do decide to sell the cottage immediately, it will look more attractive fully furnished, just as it was, and the buyer should have first option on the contents. I don’t see why I should accept some handout from Chad on the strength of his opinion of its worth. And I certainly won’t let the pictures go.’
‘You’ll have to tell him,’ said Donna uneasily.
‘It’ll be a right piss-off for him to have to return all this. For nothing, too,’ added Donna, wiping her nose on her overlong sleeve. ‘Rather you than me.’
‘Maybe it’ll teach him a lesson.’ Georgie climbed down from the carriage doorway and started to count the pictures. ‘There’s twenty here, now let’s go back inside and see what there is upstairs.’
Donna was more uneasy than ever. ‘Oh, please don’t tell him I told you.’
She might be afraid of Chad but Georgie couldn’t care less. ‘I’m sorry, Donna, but I have to. This is my property and I want it back. All of it.’
‘I shouldn’t have sodding said anything,’ wailed the red-nosed waif, her sparkling blue eyes watering badly.
Georgie ignored her. This was between her and Chad. ‘Now, what can I put these pictures in to get them safely home?’
‘There’s the wheelbarrow.’ And Donna eyed the Christmas card, snow-lumpy barrow that stood, unprotected, on the grass. All it lacked was a robin on the handle. ‘If we cleared the muck out, that would do.’
The prospect was all too much. And why the hell should Georgie be slaving outside here in the cold when the man responsible for this nuisance was taking his ease and, no doubt, laughing at her behind his grimy hand. ‘Let’s get them back indoors and think about this later.’
After much toing and froing across the slippery back garden the pictures were finally stacked safely in Chad Cramer’s hallway. By this time the material of Donna’s inadequate slippers was soaked. The girl was pinched and frozen, on the brink of hypothermia, and the small fire in the sitting room would not come close to thawing her put. You couldn’t help but worry about her, she seemed so pitiful. ‘Why don’t you change into something dry?’
‘I’m already wearing three pairs of socks and I haven’t got any more.’
‘Well put some dry shoes on at least.’
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