The Whispering House extract

This episode takes place early on in the novel. After her first, mysterious encounter with Byrne Hall, Freya feels drawn to see the place again: 

I nearly missed the entrance to the drive. It was only because I stopped to shake a stone from my shoe that I noticed two mossy gate-posts, half hidden in the undergrowth. On top of each post there was a stone raven – one headless; both badly pocked and weather-stained – and to one side, underneath a fringe of ivy, a shabby sign that read, BYRNE HALL. NO TRESPASSING. 

Ravens on the gate-posts and an encroaching thunderstorm: Stella would have laughed. I would have laughed too, if I hadn’t been alone. 

The thunder sounded strange as I set off into the woods, like a bass note coming up out of the earth, and nothing to do with the sky at all. The trees that arched over the driveway met in the middle, so I was protected from the rain when it began spotting the leaves with fat, heavy drops. The faster the rain fell, the darker and cooler it got under all that greenery, but my jacket was in my suitcase, and I’d left my suitcase by the gate. 

It seemed silly to turn back, when the snaking lane kept luring me around another corner, and another, until the house began to appear through the trees in flashes of white, and the woods began to thin, giving way to shrubberies and lawns. I kept imagining I was being followed, and with every little noise – the snap of a twig, the chuck-chuck of a pheasant, the clatter of wings in a beech tree – I would turn and wait a moment, half hopeful, half afraid, just to be sure. 

What of the family that occupied Byrne Hall? What would they make of me and my questions? I hadn’t given enough thought to that; I’d spent too much time fantasising that the house would be vacant. It was a long shot – I knew it was a long shot – but what if the owners were away? What if they only lived at Byrne Hall now and then? It was August, after all – holiday season – and it had looked pretty empty, the other weekend, despite all the fuss about privacy. It hadn’t felt like a home. What if I could sneak inside and have the emptiness to myself for one night – maybe two? I could picture myself so clearly in a high-ceilinged bedroom facing the garden, my notebooks spread out on the floor. There would be dust dancing in a shaft of sunlight, and the sound of the sea outside my window, and words would find me in the stillness, the way they always used to do. 

I emerged on to the edge of the gravel, pumps muddy, clothes wet. My eyes strayed from window to window and round the pillars of the porch, and I noticed that all the blinds were lowered, as they had been at the wedding, except for one on the ground floor which was half raised. The pale smudge of someone’s face was visible for a moment, pressed up against the glass, and I swore under my breath. 

There was no doorbell, as far as I could see. The rope with the STRICTLY PRIVATE sign had gone, but the double doors were firmly shut. I knocked, but the sound didn’t resonate. 

‘Hello?’ The doors changed the timbre of my voice, making me sound faint and frightened. 

I pushed the wet hair out of my eyes and looked back across the lawn. The wedding marquee was stark white against the black sky, its ropes and canvas panels flapping in the wind. Some of the fairy lights had come unhooked from the trees and swung in drunken loops a few inches from the ground. 

I knocked again, but nobody came. 

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