Granny Ower The Green (Part Three)
She considered this for a second, then said vehemently, ‘I don’t want to go to the bastard’s funeral.’
‘No one would expect that. Why don’t you come back to town now, instead of burying yourself away down here?’
‘No, that won’t happen. I’ll stay here until I die.’
She was surprised to hear herself say this, but it made sense in some back corner of her mind.
Davie grunted. ‘Bang goes our engagement, Helen. No way would you catch me moving to this midden. Good night.’
Next day she had the feeling that she had transformed into a minor celebrity. No-one said anything about the police, her dead ex-husband, or the fracas she had been part of. But she found herself being spoken to in the street by people who had just moved in. Maybe it was the strain of recent events, but these incomers seemed sadly drab. They reminded her unfairly of those haunted nonentities who were a prevalent minority in the housing estate where she had been raised. These people seemed tainted by an indefinable element, and the closest metaphor she could find in her mind was that they all seemed washed out, bleached by the sea.
The only two people she knew better than acquaintances reacted quite differently. Old Miss McDonald shrugged off her thanks for having Tiny, but by roundabout means made Helen aware that she knew about Steve’s death. It was only after leaving her little doll’s house that Helen pieced together the lady’s subtle allusions. Over tea, Miss McDonald had spoken gently, as Helen thought, about Steve, saying that it was still true that people got by and large what they deserved. Helen, who had seen plenty evidence to the contrary, but politely chewed over the lady’s next few vague allusions, which were possibly biblical in origin. Then Miss McDonald had spoken extremely tangentially about something she tried to disentangle at home later. The best, inadequate summary she could find for that part of the conversation was that one should be selective what one wished for, especially if one framed that wish in a specific case.
‘Well, Steve certainly got what he deserved,’ she said to Miss McDonald at the time, misunderstanding her.
‘I was not referring to that unfortunate man,’ Miss McDonald corrected her. ‘But to you.’
‘I didn’t wish him dead,’ Helen objected.
‘Did you not really, dear? Well, he’s dead all the same. It’s all of a piece, surely?’
Mr McIlwraith was delighted to provide a distraction from her troubles. For him, Helen’s local celebrity was a marketing opportunity not to be overlooked. So he had her front of the house so that all the local ghouls could come in and gawp at her. Meet and greet; more like meet and weep. This went on for a dizzying few days and Helen was exhausted by being constantly on guard. Business was dismayingly brisk, and a week later there were still tidal waves of customers at odd times during the day. There was a regular bus service which she could see coming and going several times a day. But few people seemed to get on or get off. The new people came in strange little clumps, silently stared, milled around, acted peculiarly, stared at her, buggered off. At first she thought it must have been new people arrived in the village. But the vacant houses remained vacant and she never saw any of the unbidden customers going in or out of any of the cottages.
McIlwraith was delighted by the continuing upturn at the till. He even suggested that he could use her John on a casual basis to help him with runs to the cash and carry and other things. Helen laughed out loud and had to explain that her eldest was semi-permanently relocated in town and seemed reluctant to adjust to village life.
‘Well, it depends what village,’ Mr McIlwraith said. Then he admitted that he did not actually live here, but in the next village. His family came from here, back in the day, he admitted, but he wouldn’t stay here himself, not for anything.
Helen’s new local pride was bitten by his comments.
‘Why did you choose to open a shop here then?’ she asked.
‘Captive audience,’ Henry said cattily. ‘In more ways than one.’
In the next few weeks the developers began to resurrect the village green. The work advanced fairly quickly, as if the contractors considered it an effete project which had to be rushed through. A huge square waste area on the west side of the tower was levelled and half turfed over in a hurry. The lushly laid grass looked absurdly alien in the surrounding environment. Tiny took great interest in this development, partly to stay out her way, since he was still wary of her following the slapping incident. Each day he went and stood on the edge of the reformed green, watching the diggers and dozers prepare and level the site.
‘Does he think they’ll unearth buried treasure and he’ll get first shout at claiming it?’ Henry asked, looking at Tiny attentively waiting on the roadside across from the shop.
‘He’d be more excited by finding dead bodies than treasure,’ Helen informed him.
‘Well, you never know in this place.’
Tiny was pulled away from sentry duty by the resumption of school on Monday. He was strangely more upset not seeing them finishing off the green than about actually returning to the dread lessons. Tiny and two other mini villagers were packed off on the bus. Their primary school was in Henry’s village and his wife worked there as a teacher. The timing was actually fortuitous as Tiny was absent when the new green got vandalised.
‘Beats me how they did it,’ Big Joe said to Henry in the shop.
‘Who did what where?’ Helen asked, newly arrived, taking off her coat.
‘Didn’t you see the state of the green when you came in?’ Henry asked irritably.
She said she hadn’t seen anything. She had been hurrying, getting Tiny onto the bus, and anyway there was a back of low lying mist hovering over the field. Henry looked at her strangely and Big Joe sniggered.
‘There’s nae mist,’ Joe said. ‘You just missed what was there.’
Feeling stupid, she asked what they were blethering on about. The green had been ripped across with great transverse furrows, with black earth thrown up all over it. ‘Like big mental moles had done it,’ Joe exaggerated. The contractor’s sheds had been broken into: tools thrown about, though nothing had been taken. But Joe said his gaffer thought the sheds had actually been shifted on their foundations.
‘He sounds dafter than I’m supposed to be then,’ Helen said.
While she got on with replenishing the shop shelves, Henry and Joe began a round of banter, which consisted of Henry coming up with a series of outlandish possible causes for the village green desecration and Joe shooting him down with increasing mockery. Subsidence, rabbits, mine shafts, away-day urban vandals, ley lines, and contractor’s incompetence were ruled out with scorn. Helen thought of the stories about the secret bunkers and smugglers, but they were all too muddled in her memory for her to risk saying them out loud.
‘Should have made that patch of ground a car park, never mind a village green,’ Henry muttered when Joe had gone. ‘A village green’s giving this place ideas above its station.’
‘And a car park would also be good for your business.’
‘There is that,’ he conceded.
A few days of half hearted and casual watching the village green brought no results. But the next week there was a hubbub of activity, all of it odd. ‘Ever get the feeling we’re not wanted?’ one of the regular customers said when he came in for his morning newspaper. It seems that a farmer on the south side of the village had erected a huge solid fence to completely block off access to the village. Henry’s mind immediately turned to the publicity value of this new Berlin Wall, but he held off contacting the local papers until he learnt more about the particular farmer involved. He might, after all, be a violent type.
The building of the wall quickly turned into a farcical topic of distraction. Within a day or two it was noticed that the wooden barrier was losing its vertical integrity; it soon looked like a wobbly, upstanding wave. Some people thought the wind had affected it, while others whispered about the mysterious mineshafts causing subsidence. Nobody thought about Hector, who was the unassuming chap who had moved into the terrace next after Helen. Often he was noticed dandering about the village, criss crossing to who knows where, and back again, humming to himself. If you were lucky you would get a nod of the head, but more often he would completely ignore you. No-one thought he could perpetrate an act of banditry against the fence.
Helen heard it from Miss McDonald, who was uncharacteristically amused by a certain turn of events. Hector, she said, had been found by the police halfway through the fence, or rather, he had been stuck beneath it, trying to burrow underneath. Poor, deluded man, he was covered in dew and nearly hypothermic, having been stuck there all night. The authorities had taken him away for psychiatric assessment, and Miss McDonald was hardly surprised. She had heard that his family originated from the Black Isle, and they were a funny lot there. After a week, Hector was back, looking more spry than ever. He seemed shyly pleased by his new found notoriety. Afterwards, behind his back, he was known as Hector the Rabbit. But the strangest thing, Helen thought, was the fact that the farmer did not repair the damage to the fence. It was left standing, holes and all, and gaps in its fabric gaped through every couple of feet, as if other vandalising forces had gleefully joined in its destruction.
More strangeness occurred a week later. Henry had managed to cajole a coach load of pensioners to visit his newly opened cafeteria and was in a state of high anxiety making last minute preparations and gearing up his cash register for heavy revenue. Helen had her arm twisted to assist with the venture, along with two new girls who had just moved into the village.
There was hardly any custom except the habitual trickle of punters buying papers and fags, and a ragtag of kids floating in for sweets and crisps. Tiny burst in near midday, red in the face, and immune to questions about what he had been up to. He seemed excited about some happening about which she could not elicit the details. All he kept saying, about ten times, was that he thought it was going to be a ‘bad day’, drawing out the first word so it sounded like a bleat.
She soon saw what he was getting at. There was an animal cacophony outside, and she heard Henry, looking out of the window upstairs, swearing himself scarlet. Helen ran to open the door, but could hardly get further than the threshold. Her first impression was that the street was full of moving mist. But then she saw that the lane was jammed with sheep running at full tilt towards the shore.
Tiny was laughing hysterically behind her; so much mirth sounded unhealthy. Henry stomped downstairs, armed with a broom, but none of the animals seemed intent on invading his premises. Emily stood beside him and observed that perhaps he had made a mistake and ordered a consignment of sheep instead of old people. In the back room, Effie seemed to be having a minor shrieking fit, by the muffled sound of it. The flock seemed a never ending process going past the door.
‘Try counting them, Tiny,’ Helen said.
But he shook his head and said something sarcastic about not wanting to go to sleep.
When the animal avalanche came to an end Henry, plunged out after them. He was away so long that the new shop assistants made unsavoury comments about what he was doing with the flock. Henry had followed the beasts down to the shore and watched as most of them plunged into the waves. He had to join a hastily convened party of rescuers who pulled them out to save them from drowning. Shortly after he arrived back in the shop, the much delayed troop of pensioners arrived, and though they did indeed set the tills ringing as expected, Henry had to endure a barrage of incontinence jokes because his bottom half was soaking wet. Nor did the event become much clearer in the following few days. It was assumed at first that the stampede was bizarre revenge by the farmer adjacent to the village for his wrecked fence, but this was denied.
The following week Miss MacDonald gave something to Helen that confused rather than cleared up things. It was in an envelope with the old woman’s spidery scrawl on the front: ‘For you’, it said. Inside were two very discoloured photocopies from old books. The first clipping was evidently the transcript of an old witchcraft trial, concerning an anonymous defendant from Brechin. As far as Helen could tell, this poor deluded woman was being accused of a series of various supernatural occurrences, the ‘evidence’ being sponsored by spiteful neighbours. One of the woman’s accusers found her in an apparent trance one day down by the shore. When he asked her what she was doing, she replied that she was ‘tending her flock in the sea’. The phrase made no sense, either to the man or to Helen, but the next day he found he was afflicted by something resembling a stroke.
The second photocopy was of something she vaguely remembered from childhood, a rhyme from a book she could not recall:
When the Goors O’ Gowrie land,
Judgement Day is near at hand.
The rest of the text in the copy had been erased, but Helen trawled through her mind and managed to retrieve some context. She could not remember the book, but the rhyme was supposed to be a saying pronounced by Thomas the Rhymer. The Goors were standing stones some superstitious Pictish Christians had hurled into the River Tay. But their veneration secretly continued, and the pagans said that the stones were inching ashore, a wee bit closer every year. Another name for the stones was the Yowes, or Ewes of Gowrie. Helen felt a cold flush at the connection, though it explained nothing.
When she slyly tackled her about it at their next meeting, Miss McDonald became and said that she would never put things through people’s letterboxes: ‘The very thought!’ She went away mumbling in an alarming fashion, something about she may be an old woman, but she was not the old woman everybody should be watching. Helen decided she would keep a closer eye on her. Perhaps she was slipping into not so gentle senility; or maybe it was the odd effect of this village. Whichever one it was, Helen found evidence of her increased strangeness soon afterwards. Tiny had stopped walking Miss McDonald’s dog, finding that she was never in when he called at her cottage.
‘That’s funny,’ Helen said. ‘She’s not got a car and I’ve never seen her seen her waiting at the bus stop to go into town.’
[To Be Continued]