- Published: 4 August 2020
- ISBN: 9780857525604
- Imprint: Doubleday
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 352
- RRP: $32.99
The Whispering House
I’d never have set eyes on the place if my cousin hadn’t held his wedding reception in the grounds. His fiancée had grown up locally, and once she’d discovered it was possible to hire a marquee in the gardens at Byrne Hall, nothing else would do. You can’t blame her. Objectively speaking, it was an idyllic spot for a wedding reception: all those lush, towering trees, and the garden in full-scented flower, and the sea spread out below the cliffs like a sheet of hammered gold. If I were the kind of woman who fantasised about getting married, I’d want a wedding like that.
‘You look lovely,’ my father said, studying our reflections in the pond. ‘A real picture.’
‘A picture of what, though?’ I was doing my best to make light of the whole thing. ‘A picture of misery?’
But Dad wasn’t going to fall in with my tone. ‘You look very nice,’ he insisted gravely.
One of the bride’s hearty uncles had told me off for having a long face – that was all. It wasn’t a big deal. ‘Cheer up, love,’ he’d said, as we were queuing for drinks. ‘You’re meant to be a bridesmaid, not an undertaker’s mute.’
I don’t think he was trying to be horrible. He clapped me on the shoulder as he said it, and handed me a glass of prosecco, but Dad had overheard and steered me away, and we’d ended up here, by the pond. It wasn’t the nicest part of the garden, which is probably why it was deserted. The water flickered with midges and smelled of mud, and there was a stone fountain in the middle – a fat boy blowing on a conch shell – that had gone all black and mossy, and looked as if it hadn’t functioned in years.
‘Bastard,’ said my father, and I laughed despite everything, because he wasn’t one for profanities, not even mild ones. He was too scholarly sounding and well-spoken to carry it off. I took his arm and gave it a squeeze, but he still wouldn’t smile, so I decided to stop trying and accept that this day was a write-off as far as we two were concerned. I watched our silhouettes waver over the water, brownish-green against the glaring sky. My dress, an ‘A-line, scoop-neck, floor-length, chiffon bridesmaid’s gown in Pale Sage’, had looked so airy in the bridal catalogue, but I wasn’t keen on the real thing. Not on me, anyway. It seemed heavier now than it had this morning, and the skirt was damp and wilting round my legs.
‘This ought to be a nice day,’ I said. ‘It’s good to be out of London for a while.’
I didn’t mean to sound irritable, but how often did Dad and I get the chance to step out of our ordinary lives? Here we were in a garden by the sea, tipsy on wine and sunshine and flowers in bloom, and all we could think about was my dead sister. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we’d been able to discuss her in a gentle way – I miss her; she’d have loved it here; imagine if she’d been a bridesmaid too, wouldn’t we have looked a pair? – but it wasn’t possible to think, let alone talk, about my sister in that way.
I pressed Dad’s arm. ‘Stop worrying,’ I said, addressing our watery shadows. ‘That Uncle Whatever-His-Name-Is: he probably doesn’t have a clue who we are. I bet he’s never even heard of Stella.’
There. I’d said her name out loud. It dropped through the space between us, with a whistle and a thunk, and we both flinched. I hated how that always happened. Sometimes I’d say her name accidentally-on-purpose, in the middle of a conversation, just to make us both hear it. One day, I thought, we’d get used to it, and be able to talk about her in a free and easy way, and she would belong to us again. I would be able to say ‘Stella’ and move lightly on, instead of feeling like I’d drawn a curtain across the sun.
Dad poked me with his elbow as he patted his jacket pockets in search of cigarettes and lighter. He was usually furtive about his smoking habit because he knew I’d tell him off, but he didn’t even pretend today, and I didn’t say a word. I wouldn’t have minded one myself. I was still holding that glass of prosecco, and I took a gulp while he was lighting up.
‘Byrne Hall,’ he said meditatively, after he’d taken his first puff.
We looked up the tiered lawns to the pale, pillared house. Wedding guests weren’t allowed inside – we were under strict instruction not to stray beyond the gardens – but it made a beautiful backdrop, especially on a hot summer’s day like today. It was rather austere, with its three identical rows of windows and the severe symmetry of its columns and chimneys, but the framing trees and sunlight served to soften the effect. I couldn’t have told you what style or era it belonged to, except that it put me in mind of Jane Austen TV adaptations, but I did my research later on and discovered it was three hundred years old and built in the Queen Anne style. I thought about the person I’d be if this was my home – the expansive way in which I’d live, and move and think; the poetry I’d write; the light and freshness that would saturate my soul.
‘I remember that house,’ said Dad. ‘I remember seeing it in the distance, when they took me to the cliffs in the coastguard boat, and one of the policemen said, That’s Byrne Hall, that is; our local stately home, and I said, Oh yes? Nice place!’
I smiled guardedly and Dad took a vigorous pull on the cigarette, as if it quenched a thirst.
‘Funny, isn’t it?’ he went on. ‘Having such an ordinary conversation at a moment like that?’
I shook my head and drained the prosecco to the last drop. It wasn’t my first drink of the afternoon, which was probably why the ripples of reflected light in the pond were starting to look psychedelic. I took hold of my father’s arm again, as much to keep my balance as to make him stop talking.
‘You’d think they would have hesitated, wouldn’t you,’ he went on, ‘before they booked it as a wedding venue? You’d think they’d have had the odd scruple. Or did they just forget?’ A cigarette usually mellowed him, but he sounded bitter now.
‘I’m sure they didn’t mean anything by it. They’re only second cousins, after all; they’ve probably forgotten it happened here – if they even knew in the first place. Anyway, it’s not the house’s fault that Stella died nearby, and it’s a good few miles from – where they found her.’
‘It’s barely a mile.’ Dad flicked his cigarette end away. It landed on the surface of the pond with a hiss and floated motionless, like a dead creature. I watched the last grains of smoke dissolve in the hot air, and tried to concentrate on not falling over.
‘Litter-bug,’ I said with a nudge, still trying for a light-hearted tone. He made no answer, so I turned away.
One of the guests was emerging into the garden from the cliff path, his hair plastered to his head. He must have been swimming in the sea, and the whiff of salt-water on his clothes made me sit on the low stone wall.
‘The sea,’ I muttered into my empty glass, feeling hot and sick. I shut my eyes and imagined ice-cold waves lapping my stomach, darkening my vision, roaring in my ears. There’d been some talk on the coach about skinny-dipping, but I assumed they’d be doing it later, in the drunken darkness, once the formalities were over.
When I opened my eyes, the man was standing at the top of the path, looking back the way he’d come. Nobody else appeared. Perhaps he didn’t belong to the wedding party? He seemed hesitant when one of the waiters approached with a tray of prosecco, and although he took a glass, he just held on to it unhappily and didn’t drink. I wondered whether he’d lost something down on the sand. His feet were bare, so perhaps he’d mislaid his shoes.
The man turned and caught me looking, so I pretended to fiddle with the clasp on my bracelet. He stared at me for a long time before draining his glass and walking away.
‘Who was that?’ Dad appeared at my elbow and I shrugged. The best man came to the top of the steps and waved his arms at us: the wedding breakfast was about to be served, and would we please make our way to the marquee? I waved back. Dad thrust his hands in his pockets and made a little moaning noise, like a child on the verge of tears. He began rustling through the packet for a second cigarette. If I didn’t drag him off he’d stand by the pond all evening, hollowing out his lungs and experimenting with swear words.
‘Come on,’ I sighed. ‘Brave face.’
After more than two weeks at sea to simmer the tension between them, Violet and Daisie Chettle couldn’t stand each other, let alone stand next to each other.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
In that crowded city, she had worked for a haberdasher and presided over the slow death of her mother, after which she’d discovered in herself an unexpected yearning to leave Ireland and see the world.
This incredible story was related by Lance Corporal Sidney Reed, who was a prisoner of the Nazis during the Second World War at Lamsdorf, Stalag VIIIB / 344, in Poland, and at the labour camp E166 at Saubsdorf quarry, Czechoslovakia.
Stella came from over the mountains. From a place battered by the lash of the wind and buffeted by the lifting soil.
Listen. Three miles deep in the forest just below Arnott’s Ridge, and you’re in silence so dense it’s like you’re wading through it.
And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life