If you can hear it, it’s already too late . . .
Alone in the world, Elspeth Swansome takes the position of nanny to a family on the remote Scottish island of Skelthsea. Her charge, Mary, hasn’t uttered a word since the sudden death of her twin, William—just days after their former nanny disappeared. No one will speak of what happened to William. Just as no one can explain the hypnotic lullabies sung in empty corridors. Or the strange dolls that appear in abandoned rooms. Or the faint whistling that comes in the night . . .
As winter draws in and passage to the mainland becomes impossible, Elspeth finds herself trapped. But is this house haunted by the ghosts of the past? Or the secrets of the living?
Release date: May 16, 2023
Publisher: HarperCollins Canada
Print pages: 384
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Listen to a sample
I was one of only five passengers taking the boat to Skelthsea. There were no friends or relatives to wave me off and little comfort to be found inside my good wool coat. Wind blew in from a sea that was the grey of lead and the scream of gulls was harsh on the morning lull. As the boat rounded the rocks and approached the jetty, I picked up my cases and followed the others down the rutted pier.
I was helped on deck, where it began to drizzle; a thin, spitting squall, icier than I could have imagined, and I steadied myself with the rail as the vessel tipped this way and that. My fellow travellers showed scant interest in me other than a passing glance, and why should they? I have the sort of face and figure that is unremarkable – a complexion without bloom and eyes shadowed by sleepless nights.
The final passenger, a woman in her early middle age, smiled at me once before disappearing below.
Deckhands lugged boxes of supplies from the jetty and it was another forty-five minutes before the steamboat left the harbour. As if on cue, the rain fell in earnest, pitting the sea.
‘You’d do well to go down, out of the weather, missy,’ the captain said.
But although gusts lashed at my cheeks, I wanted to hold that moment a fragment longer and did not seek the cabin until a sea mist fell and the land was finally lost from view. Until then, I believe I had not fully realized my decision. Even as I had packed and laid my clothes carefully in the cases, it had seemed that I was in some dream. My friend had watched me from the bedroom door, and shaken her head with something like pity.
‘Are you sure it’s wise, Elspeth?’ she had pressed. ‘To leave all your friends behind? The only life you know?’
But I had held tight to the letter – and to the way it lit a candle in a dark place. My friend had sighed. And meanwhile, I envisaged Skelthsea, its crags dotted with gulls, how waves might crash and break on the rocks, and a tide that washed the sands endlessly new.
My fingers went to the locket which held my sister’s image. Of all my losses, it was hers that I thought of most, and as we drew further from the mainland the pain came again and stung as hard as it had in those early days.
I scarcely recall the journey, only that, as we neared the island, I climbed from the cabin to watch our approach.
I had been told that Skelthsea was beautiful but the reality stole my breath. Here was the hulk of cliff, the sweep of valley and, high up, a curving ridge that caught splinters of the dying sun. The beach was crowded with people waiting for the boat’s arrival, chests and parcels ready for transport back to the mainland.
Sitting atop a hill lay a house larger than the others. Smoke rose and wound about the gabled roof. I surmised that this must be Iskar, the place that would now be my home. Leaded windows framed many rooms and with the setting sun behind it, the house cast a long shadow beneath which gorse and scrub shivered in the autumn chill. I tried for a smile but my face was frozen. The boat drew up to the pier and the engine fell to silence.
* * *
‘Are you Miss Swansome, the new nanny?’ A man came aboard and took my cases. He did not smile.
I nodded and, without a word of introduction, he carried my bags from the boat and waited as I was helped on to the barnacled pier. It was warmer on land but afternoon had begun to pool in the curve of the bay. The villagers’ attention turned to me with nods and tentative looks whilst the children regarded me with open curiosity. In spite of the temperature, most were barefoot. '
This way.’ The man walked ahead.
I tried to keep up, my feet slipping on shingle as we began the steep path to Iskar’s grounds. Rose bushes blackened by frost grew wild and spilled over crumbling walls. Borders that had once, no doubt, been colourful and abundant had been reclaimed by sea grass and saplings and I became conscious of the smells – fish and peat smoke and a thread of sweetness: heather or gorse.
‘Have you lived here long?’ I asked.
‘All my days.’ And his eyes wandered to the beach, where fingers of orange were spreading across the horizon.
‘And are you in service to Miss Gillies?’
‘Aye, since I was thirteen.’
Birds circled the ridge and I looked up; a woman stood, curly hair and skirt flying. For a few moments, I felt her eyes upon me, and then my companion’s feet began on the path once again.
Rounding a bend, we came to the house itself and I could see now the rot in the timbers and the crumbling of stone. The carvings on the gabled door were worn nearly flat like ink lines on an illustration.
Once inside, he placed my luggage in the hall, home to a smouldering fire, and nodded to one of the two straight-backed chairs that framed the hearth. I duly sat and his boots rang out along the corridor until the closing of a door signalled that he had gone.
I took in a dull gleam on the furniture and the hovering of dust. Stags’ heads with blind gazes hung above hunting prints and the flickering lamps dropped pools of yellow light to the floor. On one of the walls was a small portrait. I got up and saw that it was a painting of Mary, the child I had come to look after. Here she was, a little younger than in the photograph I had been sent.
Beside her stood her twin brother. A face I was destined never to meet.
As I studied her features, I recalled the contents of the letter; she, like me, had lost all those closest to her. I listened then to the immense quiet, imagined Mary in the web of rooms, left to the mercy of her aunt. Her aunt and now me. I felt then not just the strangeness of the unfamiliar house but something else, a quality to the quietness that seemed unnatural, and experienced the tiniest nibble of some doubt.
The silence was broken by footsteps.
‘Miss Swansome?’ The woman who came into view had a broad island accent and the first full smile I had received that day. ‘I’m Mrs Lenister, I keep house here.’ Her wiry hair was held tightly beneath a cap and she had bird-like eyes that were sunk in the lines of her face. But for all that, her eyes were kind and a pretty shade of blue.
‘Trust Angus to leave you all alone here. I bet he didn’t even introduce himself, am I right?’ And I felt my edges begin to thaw as she beckoned me along one of the long halls, where our shoes echoed on the tiles. A smell of meat and baking drifted on the passageway and I realized that I had not eaten since a small breakfast
As we walked, she kept up a constant stream of chatter.
‘Miss Gillies is sorry not to be here to meet you, but she had urgent business with the tenants and Mary went with her. She’s hoping to see you later, if you’re not too tired. Meanwhile, she instructed me to give you tea and some food after your journey. It’s warmer here if you’re happy to take a seat with me in the kitchen?’
I felt a pinch of disappointment. I was anxious to see for myself what sort of girl I would have the responsibility of. But I said that I considered it no hardship; I knew from my own home that on cold days, it was most likely the warmest place in the house.
The kitchen was vast, with marbled sinks, a huge range, pots and pans hanging from racks and in the centre a table, scarred many times with the scores of careless knives. Salted fish and dried herbs hung from hooks on the ceiling.
The teapot gave off a faint wisp of steam as she poured and pushed a bowl of stew and a plate of cold fare in my direction. I ate gratefully, listening with only half an ear to her conversation.
‘It’s good to have you. Mary’s in proper need of a nanny.’
‘How long since the last one left?’
‘Hettie?’ Her lips tightened a fraction. ‘A few months now, but it’s not always easy to find a replacement. There’s not many would want to leave the bustle of an Edinburgh life for the likes of here.’ Her eyes raked me curiously.
‘Hettie chose a bad time to leave,’ I said. ‘Mary must still have been grieving for her mother.’
‘She was. They both were.’
‘I was very sorry to hear that William had died. How long since they lost him?’
‘Barely weeks after Hettie had gone.’
‘Miss Gillies did not say in her correspondence how he died.’
Mrs Lenister pulled a chopping board towards her and began peeling apples. There was an awkwardness to her manner. ‘Did she not? Well, it was an accident, but the mistress prefers we don’t discuss William, I’m afraid.’
I wondered at that. After Papa had passed, Clara and I remembered him often in our conversations; it brought pain but there had always been comfort too. Perhaps here, the subject of William’s death caused too much distress.
‘You look concerned, Miss Swansome,’ she said. ‘Your post here should be an easy one. Mary is an obedient child.’
I decided I had questioned Mrs Lenister enough. My eyes took in some of the details of the kitchen – the windows and walls running with condensation and a dark patch on the ceiling which grew green spores at its edges.
While I drank my tea, we talked of my journey and a little of where I had lived in Edinburgh. When I had finished, she suggested she show me the way to my bedroom.
Walking a little in front, she guided me through the house and up a staircase to where a mullioned window captured prisms of the autumnal rays. As we went, Mrs Lenister enlightened me as to the geography of the house. The walls were panelled and the carpeting so thin as to show through in places. I had imagined more: a residence with plusher furnishings, brightly lit and welcoming.
Although oil lamps stood on tables, their hesitant light barely licked at the gloom. It was tomb silent, as if even the air did not dare make a sound, and with each step I imagined the twins’ laughter flying down the corridors and ringing in the stairwells, their faces flushed, figures racing in a game of chase. And all the time I thought of the boy who was no longer alive, who lay in some fresh grave upon the island.
The hush was profound, as if weighted with shock.
Finally, we came to the end of the hall, where ahead, a narrow staircase led up to another floor.
‘What’s up there?’ I asked.
‘They were the old nurseries. It’s where Hettie and the children slept.’ She made a vague gesture with her hand and then paused for a fraction. ‘We moved everything downstairs after she left.’
‘And where is William’s room now? Has it already been packed away?’
‘William slept in that wing,’ she said, indicating a door. ‘It’s kept locked now.’
‘Locked?’ I echoed.
‘It’s an old building, the floors are beginning to rot in places,’ she said by way of explanation, ‘but you are here and must be keen to rest.’ She led me to the room opposite.
She must have caught my expression of shock and shook her head. ‘That was not the cause of his accident, Miss Swansome.’ But it was clear from her look that she was keen not to say more.
In my bedchamber, the surfaces shone and peat was stacked neatly for a fire, my cases already placed at the foot of the bed.
‘Greer has done a nice job for you here,’ she said, and I was overcome suddenly with exhaustion.
‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘and thank you for the tea.’
She hesitated, and after a beat, she came in further, closing the door behind her.
‘Miss Mary,’ she picked her words carefully. ‘She’s been through an awful lot. Did Miss Gillies tell you? She’s not spoken since her brother’s death.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Not a word. Not one word since he died.’
‘She’s mute?’ I felt a stab of dismay. Miss Gillies had not mentioned this.
I could sense her awkwardness. ‘But don’t take her silence personally; it is how she is with everyone.’
‘I imagine she’s still grieving.’
‘That’s it exactly. Exactly,’ Mrs Lenister said with relief. And, as if satisfied, she tucked her apron tighter and gave me a quick smile. ‘I’m downstairs if you want me. We eat at seven.’
When she had gon
e, I sat on the bed, limbs weighty with fatigue, and tried to anchor myself to the moment; but my skin felt half-empty and I thought of Edinburgh. I did not know any more who or what I was, only that I had left behind, forever, the person I had once been.
I stayed where I was in the half-light that heralded the passing of the day and breathed in the strange new air of Iskar.
From my bag, I took out the photograph that Miss Gillies had sent – a little curled at the edges – and peered into its image. The picture was of the twins and Hettie; none smiled for the camera. I had spent so much time over the past weeks in examination of their faces that I knew them by heart, but it was to Mary’s that I went again and tried to paint the information that I now held on to her features.
My gaze went to the mouth where her silence gave it new shape. Behind them stood Hettie, her eyes dark and intelligent, a twist of hair falling against a cheekbone. Peering closer, I saw that the surface of the picture was spoiled – that some flaw in the development had left William’s likeness slightly darker and more blurred than his sister’s.
I shivered – it was as if the photo itself foreshadowed the coming tragedy.
I was woken the next morning by the sound of waves rushing against shingle and the cry of gulls. Sun slipped in through a gap in the curtains. It took a few moments to orientate myself but checking the clock, I leapt from the bed, anxious that I had slept through and failed to emerge for supper. I washed and dressed quickly and made my way to the hall, where a maid I hadn’t seen before hummed quietly as she worked.
‘Good morning. Which is the dining room, please?’ I asked although the aroma of coffee already signalled the direction.
She ceased her tune and looked me up and down without a smile. ‘This way.’
Downstairs, Mrs Lenister was already dusting crumbs from the table. ‘I hope you slept well, Miss Swansome. Miss Gillies said that she will see you in the drawing room after breakfast.’
‘I didn’t mean to sleep through –’ I began, but she waved a dismissive hand.
‘Miss Gillies is always tired after visiting day; she said it was a blessing that you could both meet fresh this morning.’
I helped myself to bread and fish. The coffee was hot and welcome and I ate and drank quickly, keen to meet my new employer.
When I had finished, I brushed nervously at my skirts and knocked at the drawing room door.
She called for me to enter and I stepped inside. The corridor had been chilly, but here the fire warmed the air and caught in its glow the polished edges of occasional tables and elegant desks. Two large windows let in the autumn light, and my eye was drawn to a glass case of brightly coloured birds standing on a lacquered table.
Violet Gillies sat in a chair with her right cheek to me. She wore a black dress with silver buttons. Pearl-headed pins glinted in her hair which was teased into curls at the nape.
Although she knew that I stood there, she took a while to turn and, when she did, I had to hide my shock. In profile, there was nothing to hint at the scars that she wore on her other cheek.
I was not quick enough to conceal my reaction and for the briefest of moments, something in her irises flickered – displeasure or pity, I could not tell which. She rose and motioned for me to sit.
‘It’s lovely to meet you at last, Elspeth.’
She must have been in her early to mid-thirties with clear eyes and a high, smooth forehead.
With a finger, she touched the burned skin. ‘This is something I have lived with since my sixteenth birthday. I’m accustomed to the response it brings.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
‘It was an accident.’ There was compassion in her tone. She knew the circumstances that had led to my taking the position – the tragedies that had chased me into my own particular corner.
‘I’m sorry I was not able to meet you yesterday. I hope you were comfortable last night.’
‘Thank you, yes.’
She laid her ringed hands upon her lap as if punctuating the end of her enquiries. ‘I can’t tell you how welcome you are. It’s been a demanding time. Mary’s mother, Evangeline, passing early this year, and then William. Their father died a long while ago – there are so few of us left now.’
‘That is very sad.’
‘Sad and difficult. I’m not used to children and their ways. We’ve managed somewhat between us since Hettie left, but I have been keen to fill her position. As I explained in my correspondence, you will find us more informal than on the mainland and we have reduced ourselves to using only as much of the house as we need. All the same, we manage nicely.’ Although her tone was assured, there was a look of entreaty in the tight anticipation of her features.
‘I’m happy to be here,’ I said.
‘At nine years, I know Mary is a little old for a nanny, but her specific needs demand it.’ She picked at the edges of the chair. ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you now – perhaps I should have let you know in m
y letters – but she has not spoken since the day she lost her brother. I had hoped by the time you arrived that might have changed, but regrettably no.’
‘Not one word?’ I did not admit that I was already in possession of this information.
‘Not a syllable. It has been a heavy trial for all of us.’ I could feel the concentration of her focus and I slightly adjusted my impression. Violet Gillies had steel in her marrow.
‘But otherwise, how is she faring?’ I asked.
‘Mary’s taken her brother’s death badly but it’s temporary, I’m sure. There are occasional nightmares and bouts of sleepwalking, but that is in keeping with her loss, so I’m informed, and will pass in time with your kind attention.
‘I still find it hard to take in myself – that such things can happen so quickly – but you are particularly well placed to offer comfort on that score as you have suffered similarly, have you not?’ She eyed me curiously.
‘I lost my mother and brother some years ago, my father in the last two and,’ for a moment I stumbled on my words, ‘my sister only recently.’
‘You took care of your sister after your father passed?’
‘I always had the care of her.’
‘And there was a fire?’
‘Unfortunately.’ I looked away to hide the bolt of pain.
She nodded sadly but there was a flash of relief. ‘We are the same, then. Life can be so cruel, but you must consider Iskar your new home and myself and Mary your new family. I understood from your correspondence that, before she died, your sister had difficulties of her own?’
I did not want to revisit Clara’s face, so pale and round, or the lively gaze that was sometimes so piercing. ‘Clara was never very well. She was called slow by some because she was clumsy with her movements, but her mind was quick.’ With a pang, I recalled the witty retorts and the way her thin fingers struggled stubbornly over a button. ‘Her birth had been difficult,’ I said by way of explanation.
Miss Gillies’ shoulders relaxed and a shaft of sun caught the feathers of the birds in the case, giving them life. For a moment, I could imagine them lifting their wings in flight. ‘I think you are well suited to the position, Elspeth. I believe that you’ll fit us very well.’ She smiled, showing a row of even teeth.
I could feel the weight of expectation; the pressure of the house around me, the air trapped in corridors above. And beyond that, somewhere in this maze of rooms, a child whose mouth captured only silences.
‘And to Mary,’ she continued, ‘she will give you no hardship, I promise. From one to four I will give Mary lessons and you are free to do as you will.’
With such an easy workload, I wondered at Hettie’s leaving at all and felt a sudden dislike for the girl with beautiful eyes.
‘Why did Hettie leave?’ I asked.
‘My sister’s death took her very hard.’ She leaned over and adjusted the fire then changed the subject before I could press further. ‘As to Mary. She is a girl who wants to laugh again, ...
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