Once upon a time, it is said, the Devil walked in this valley. His progress was marked by a straight line of hoofprints, black two-legged tracks on a light dusting of snow over shippen and stable, stone wall and stile, through graveyard and frozen furrow.
Legend has it that Millie Blunt, a silly wench, recovered his codpiece from the bough of an oak while searching there for mistletoe. The hapless girl spirited it home believing it held all manner of powers. She slept with it under her pillow one night -- it must have been uncomfortable -- when the moon flooded her attic room through her little casement window, and never spoke another sane word from that day on until she died, poor soul.
Though why the Devil should choose a valley such as this for a survey of, or a gathering of souls, was always far from clear; there were such few souls, even then no more than twelve, in the hamlet of Wooton-Coney, and the few there were were undoubtedly Christian and safely hidden behind shutters on howling nights such as those. As pious and God-fearing a community as any. The church itself, and the graveyard through which the Devil walked, collapsed way back in the seventeenth century, and only rubble and lichened old gravestones remain to mark the spot. At some unrecorded moment in history, the weathervane from the crumbled church spire was rescued from the debris, and for the last two hundred years that bent tin cockerel has swung round on its rusty perch on the gabled end of the Buckpits' barn.
Centuries later, and Georgina Jefferson is as opposite in character to the blighted wench in the fable as it would be possible to get. Educated and cultured, she is sane, she is sane. Where Millie Blunt was free with her favors and considered something of a half-wit from the start (the preacher rapped hard on the pulpit and disclaimed her in church, called her child the Devil's spawn), her teachers wrote in her term reports that Georgina could go far. There is nothing melodramatic about her, unlike the troubled Millie with her wild tangled hair and her flashing eyes and her lies. When her child died, she swore that the Devil had come in the night and smothered it. In character Georgina is solid as a rock, not morbid or sentimental, not given to the flights of fancy in which so many of her friends indulge. So when she first heard this devilish tale, it certainly did not unnerve her, although she did think, as a professional, that poor Millie's predicament would be more mercifully dealt with these days. She would not recognize a codpiece if she saw one; she would probably think it was some piece of saddlery. Practical and sensible, Georgina does not overindulge. She sits and watches while lesser mortals get rat-faced and make prats of themselves at parties; she is the one with tomato juice and the dab of Worcestershire sauce, the complete one, the one who drives.
Boring perhaps? A shade too cautious?
Certainly not. Not a bit of it. She is glad she is not one of these irresponsible folk; their lack of control shocks her, for she cannot bear to relinquish it except in the bedroom and in the kitchen and so both rooms lean toward the exotic, with pure silk sheets, copper saucepans and strings of French onions; she is a great lover of wine in her gravy and dangerous spicy sauces.
So, apart from these two small hiccups, we can see that Georgina Jefferson, forty-two, slim, dark and attractive, who shops for her clothes at Marks & Spencer, sends Lifeboat cards at Christmas, is a solid, dependable person, concerned, right-thinking and busy. She knows who she is, believes that virtue carries its own reward and is satisfied with that.
And that is why it is such a worry for her to believe, like poor Millie before her, that she is gradually going insane.
And, like Millie, there is no help to be had.
It was autumn, a thick juicy one, when she first saw the figure on the hill. The air was rich with the smell of fungal decay, and winter had started to breathe on her mornings. She walked straight toward him and frightened him away, or that's what she thought she had done.
Amused by her own curiosity and living where she did, she found it easy to forget the world outside and that everything wasn't strictly her business. She saw him through the softly stirring curtains of her opened kitchen window, through a blue pall of bonfire smoke, between the crooked branches of the ancient apple trees twisting and heavily hung with clumps of crab apples, bleeding with wasps.
A rural encounter. At first she thought the Buckpits must have put up a scarecrow, so still and so stark did the dark figure stand. But hang on a minute, it was more substantial than a scarecrow, and why would they put a scarecrow on a small, triangular flag of a field which was only good for grass, and poor grass at that?
Georgina stared on meditatively, inhaling watery lemon, and her Marigold-gloved hands were foamy with bubbles. A few towels flapped fresh on her line and tugged at her ears with the sounds that they made, and the old wooden wheelbarrow half full of logs eyed her muddily from a tangle of grass, a reminder that she had not yet finished the first task of the morning.
Whatever window she chooses to look out of, Georgie is forced to look up, because Furze Pen Cottage is down in a dip, a small coin dropped at the bottom of a coarsely woven patchwork purse, an envelope of moorland. Her skyline is unfailingly interesting; copses and boulders and low scudding clouds make vibrant color changes and act as barriers against the outside world from which she has fled. Her horizons cast nothing but gentle shadows.
Has she fled? Everyone, including Mark, seems to think she has fled.
Or has nothing more interesting than fate brought her here?
Certainly, in her sensible, practical way, she was glad of the bequest when it came.
But back to the figure. It was the stillness of it that grabbed her attention. Nevertheless, she finished washing up, taking pleasure in the sparkle of the glasses...her life was solid enough, composed enough at that time to allow for pleasure from simple things so that even changing the sheets on the bed was becoming a kind of sweet-smelling joy. She had been right about coming here. The effects of her rural retreat were already beginning to work.
Was it the distance that made him so dark, or was he wearing black? It is rare for tourists to stray this far; mostly they miss the lane or see it and consider it far too steep, so they carry on along the road across the top toward the village one mile on where they can have lunch at the Blue Bull Inn and peruse the slate etchings and metallic bird engravings in Mrs. Morgan's gift shop. The lane, with its scatter of reedy grasses and its manure-splattered, rutted appearance, gives the impression that it leads to a farm, and people are nervous of finding themselves trapped by a pack of sheepdogs.
And what if the farmer is unfriendly?
The figure was not a Buckpit, not a Horsefield or a Cramer, because none of these would stand still for so long and there was no gun on its back.
So Georgina went to the back door and sensibly slipped on her boots. She walked through her acre of rustic garden, ducking and bobbing to avoid the branches, ignoring the rush of her pecking hens. On reaching the fence at the end she hitched up her skirt and stepped over. Wading through her own small stream, looking back from her place on the boulder, she whistled softly for Lola.
The spaniel with careering ears, dewy wet on the fringes, outwitted once again because she likes to announce such outings by barking, preferring to lead from the front, snapped at a few drunken wasps as she set off after her mistress.
There must have been something very wrong, because the man had been standing for half an hour.
A diminutive figure, head down, arms crossed, Georgina started up the incline, no threat to man nor beast, just a slender woman in a flowing skirt and a cotton smock with a hood. The sun was a hazy yellow as it came filtered through corn chaff. Every now and then she raised her eyes to check how far she had come. She'd grown used to climbing by then; wherever she goes she is forced to climb, and it had taken a while to acclimatize after living so long on the smooth, flat streets of London. To climb properly and with purpose means adjusting the breathing, so that it doesn't run out. There was no fear then -- nothing to what came later -- merely interest and a slight unease. A reporter who had managed, somehow, to dig her out of her hole? To expose her? To drag her back to the tabloid pages? The past sliding into the present? God forbid! Maybe he was lost and needed help. Maybe he was a hiker, or an artist, or a man from the Ministry of Agriculture come to do something about the water?
And yet she knew he was not.
Screwing up her eyes against the sun, Georgina felt the lines in her tanned skin pull and imagined she felt her age coming through. The figure (she could not see his face from here, no definable limbs, no neck, no hair) was no more than a smudge, a dark, stunted tree trunk, and yet she could sense the furtiveness of him.
He must have been able to see her coming, and Lola was charging about, driven wild by the scent of rabbits. She would be friendly and polite, she would ask him what he was doing, that's all.
She stopped when she heard the sound of the whistle. It was soft, on two notes, like sailors piping a captain aboard or how a shepherd might whistle to his dog. It was after she moved her eyes away, just for a second, while she eased herself through a crumbled gap in a wall, it was when she looked up after that that she saw the figure had disappeared...into the copse...there was nowhere else. No other cover. No hiding place.
A feeling of outright panic gripped her. He must have moved very quickly.
An orange shadow came out of the clouds, swinging from one horizon to another and casting a horribly accurate spotlight over Georgina's fear. Because it was at that moment that she first sensed the violence, and yet pushed it away from her consciousness -- oh God, was she so in tune with violence that she could smell it from five hundred paces? Surely her reaction was nothing but imagination, and imaginations can become vivid when you live all alone, buried amongst such desolate, lonely countryside. Even for someone as sensible as she.
The shadow of a buzzard followed her home, and the sound of a distant tractor. Lola followed sorrowfully; the walk had been too short for her liking, and made an attention-seeking pass at a hen as they strolled back through the garden toward the silence of Furze Pen Cottage.
The incident was over. That first sighting was as strange and as simple as that. But frozen by the experience, for the first time since they had left the previous weekend, Georgina wished that Isla and Suzie were still there because she would have liked to discuss the matter. Isla and Suzie were the last of the summer visitors who were all trying kindly to put off the awful hour when Georgina must adjust to her new life and endure, alone, the oncoming winter.
"But I am not alone," she used to tell them all, wearing that brave wooden smile of hers, attempting to reassure herself with that well-rehearsed argument. "My neighbors live close by, almost within calling distance when the wind's in the right direction."
"Neighbors!" Isla gave a derisive snort. Her lips curved mirthlessly. "You might live next door to them, Georgie, but they're freaks, from some other planet. They are hardly going to provide you with the most stimulating company during the long evening hours."
"Isla. This isn't fair. You're supposed to be trying to cheer me up."
"I'm just wondering how you imagine you can depend on them for anything."
"They're polite enough."
And here Suzie smiled in the same disbelieving way as Isla. "Oh yes, they mutter the odd miserable good morning when you meet face to face and there's no avoiding it."
"Oh, that's silly," Georgie snapped. "They just believe in minding their own business, they probably think I don't want people nosing, prying into my affairs. They probably think I'm like my brother, a recluse, an artist, an eccentric who wants to be left alone. I bet he bit their heads off in the past." And she could feel the annoyance that itched whenever the conversation got too close for comfort. "Anyway, what choice do I have? I've made my bed, as my mother would say."
Isla met her stare, sifting through a dozen responses to find the most suitable one. In the end she said in a weak, troubled voice, "You should never have come here in the first place. Out of the frying pan..."
"You think I'm a bloody fool, don't you?"
Isla looked away and picked up her drink. She lay on the messy sofa, surprisingly comfortable despite its amorphous outline, next to the crackling fire that winked on her overlarge tortoiseshell spectacles. "I think you overreacted, yes. I think you are punishing yourself as usual. God said, 'On all their heads shall be baldness and every beard cut off,' and you, my dear Georgina, secretly want to be bald."
Not funny. Georgie wound a curl around her finger and rubbed her sloppy socks together -- curiously nervous gestures for her, as she stared thoughtfully into the flames. She suddenly felt an urge to lean forward and arrange a few untidy sticks in the enormous hearth. A cold draft spun down the massive chasm of a chimney. Crossly she reminded them both, "There wasn't much time for thinking! Not then, dammit. This place felt like a refuge then, a friendly lair in a hostile world, but why am I wading through this shit again? You know how it was. You were there, for God's sake. You know what it was like for me then."
"It was bloody hell," agreed Suzie, as frizzy-haired as a freshly gathered fleece, her complexion smooth as a china doll's, with cheeks painted a soft pink and a cold nose bright and shiny. The evenings were already chilly, and Suzie was almost entirely cocooned in a baggy, knee-length purple fleece. "But even so, you could have used the cottage as a temporary hideaway and put it on the market in the meantime. Nobody dreamed you'd end up living at Furze Pen, Georgie. Nobody thought you'd take it this far."
No, neither had Georgina, but she'd never dreamed it would get that bad.
"If I'd put it on the market, I would have had to be here all the time to show the punters around. And I couldn't have faced all those strangers. I couldn't put that sort of false smile on my face or cope with anything so fake. Hell, Suzie, I couldn't put my mind to anything like hoovering or dusting or sorting out the garden."
"That is ridiculous." Isla, on the sofa, pounded the limpish cushions and rearranged them behind her back. A feathery aura of age and dust floated into the atmosphere. "The solicitor would have sold it for you. You had an offer right at the start. They'd have had no problems selling this as a holiday cottage, bang in the middle of Dartmoor. It would have made a fortune -- untouched, original beams, original windows, flagstone floors..."
"No central heating," Georgie interrupted, shivering slightly as she crossed the small sitting room to the even colder, more primitive kitchen to add mushrooms to the stew. She felt like a piece of lettuce walking into the salad crisper, the broken compartment in the fridge. Perhaps she should not have chosen whitewash; a warmer shade might have done wonders. The cheery rugs did help a tad, and the paintings that covered the walls, of course.
From her place by the fire, Lola snored loudly and woke herself up.
"And we're just very concerned you're going to feel terribly depressed and lonely, way out of your depths surviving like this in the winter," Suzie called through the narrow doorway with a meaningful look in Isla's direction. "All your perceptions of the world are fuddled. It's not as if it's too late. You could come back to London with us, put this place on the market and start searching for something more practical."
Georgie, chewing on her fingernails, watched the hypnotically floating mushrooms, allowing the steam to caress her face, enjoying the hot smell of the stew, taking comfort from the warmth and the feeling of something well made with love. Since she'd been down here, her cooking had already developed a wetter, more mixed consistency...so much free fruit, so many vegetables...it was easier to use only one pot because of the cramped kitchen. Home-grown potatoes from the farm and a homemade apple pie with fresh cream to follow.
Yet everything Isla and Suzie said made sense, while every argument she put forward fell apart full of holes. And if she was trying to prove something by standing out and being so stubborn, then for God's sake what was it?
She had been so frightened. So intimidated by everything, but most of all by the way she had, in a few short months, been so easily destroyed, shattered, all confidence gone, the confidence she had built up over forty-two years, melted away in a moment. Until she felt, as she lay in bed night after night weeping, that all the time there'd been nobody there, that Georgina Jefferson was a "let's pretend" person from childhood, a face miming with nobody behind it. As unsubstantial as soap worn to a frightening slither, gargling off down the plughole.
Was she so naive as to believe that by enduring life on her own for a while, a hermit existence with only Lola for company, was she really so naive as to believe she would find herself again? Could she grow large and firm again as simply as that?
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures." She wanted her soul restored.
Oh, I am a strong and sensible person...
Well, this was what she returned to her friends in the sitting room and told them. And they said, tipsily, that they did understand her motives, they saw how easily a person could be demoralized and torn apart under such attack from every quarter.
"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 gray 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 though 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 scream, "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 cozy 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 reembarked 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."
"No, they were not trying you. 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."
rd"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 tense 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 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 neighbors 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 her husband, 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 labored 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 carloads 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 resented 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 déja 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 downstairs.
She sank on all fours, her lips trembling, her eyes welling. She pressed one hand to her mouth and squeezed her eyes closed. And she thought, at least it was quick, dear God, at least the end came quickly. She would not let herself think more of the child, no, not at that time. She blocked little Angela out and that was another small betrayal. As if she had never known her.
And that's how the dreadful story began.
Copyright © 1998 by Gillian White
It's about an attractive, fortyish widow, very lively but deeply wounded in her psyche, who inherits her brother's cottage in a remote part of rural Devon. Georgie is a London social worker in flight from unwanted tabloid celebrity when a child who is part of her caseload is killed. The little girl's father has been under suspicion of abusing the child, and Georgie is accused by the press of having ignored all the warning signs and abandoned the little girl to her father's cruel, and finally fatal, beating. An inquiry exonerates Georgie, but the press doesn't forgive her, and she can't forgive herself, so when she inherits her brother's cottage, she is happy to go there and sort things out.
Georgie settles in and takes stock of her neighbors. Chad Cramer, a small-time thief and poacher, has appropriated most of her brother's belongings and lives with Donna, a witless but somehow disturbing waif, who is clearly in terror of Chad; the Buckpits, dairy farmers, a ferocious, brooding gorgon of a mother and two hulking, brutish sons; and Nancy and George Horsefield, a well-to-do married couple whose brightly expensive lifestyle seems to conceal some hidden tragedy, for Mrs. H. is clearly crazy, and Mr. H., though he cares for her, is strangely on edge....
For a while, Georgie gets by restoring the cottage to something approaching livability and cleaning up the garden shed, in which something strange has clearly been going on, and her life seems almost idyllic.
Then a darker note is heard. Georgie sees a mysterious and threatening stranger, who runs away when Georgie approaches; Chad Cramer turns nasty; Donna begins to cling to Georgie; Mrs. Buckpit is openly hostile; and Georgie continues to be haunted by the child who was under her care and died, and by the thought of the child's father in prison now. As the summer ends, the countryside begins to turn savage and threatening, and now real terror creeps in. Georgie's beloved dog is stolen, her attempt at painting is livened up with splashes of blood, an intruder stares into her cottage at night with a baleful eye...
Finally, step by step, the horror increases to Psycho level as a snowstorm isolates the village and cuts Georgie off from the world -- leaving her at the mercy of a killer whose identity she can't even guess as the ax descends on her...