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Authors: Jo Baker

The Telling

Jo Baker

Jo Baker was born in Lancashire and educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University Belfast. She is the author of
Longbourn, The Undertow
, and of two earlier novels:
The Mermaid’s Child
. She lives in Lancaster, England.

Also by Jo Baker


The Undertow


The Mermaid’s Child


Copyright © 2008 by Jo Baker

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Ltd., Toronto. Originally published in Great Britain by Portobello Books Ltd., London, in 2008. This edition is published by arrangement with Granta Books.

Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Baker, Jo.

The telling / Jo Baker. — First Vintage Books edition.

pages; cm. — (Vintage original)

1. Haunted houses—Fiction. I. Title.

PR6102.A57T45 2015 823’.92—dc23 2015008304

Vintage Books Trade Paperback ISBN 9780804172653

eBook ISBN 9780804172349

Cover design by Stephanie Ross

Cover photograph © Galleries/Offset



For Glenn

with thanks

The light was fading
. I was pretty sure I was lost. The car wasn’t used to that kind of driving and had started making a nasty whining sound on the bends. I hadn’t reached the Hall yet, hadn’t passed a house in miles. I pulled in at the side of the road, bumped up onto the grass, switched off the engine. There was a breeze, a bird singing; it was so quiet.

I rifled through the junk on the passenger seat for the directions, snapped them straight and peered at Dad’s crabbed handwriting. The car ticked as it cooled. If I’d gone wrong, I couldn’t see where. I’d come off the motorway at the right exit, taken that turn, passed the lake and the farm. The next landmark was listed as Storrs Hall, a grand old house with a tower, in woodland,
off to the right of the road. The village would be shortly after that.

I slipped another chip of chewing gum into my mouth, crossed my fingers, and turned the key in the ignition. The engine started first time. Another ten or fifteen minutes, I told myself, pulling out onto the empty tarmac, bothered by the low-level whine from somewhere down and to the left. After that, I’d have to think of something else, find someone, ask for directions. But that was easier said than done: I hadn’t seen a soul, hadn’t even seen another car, since I left the motorway.

The tarmac spun on between stone walls and patches of hedge. Wide scrubby fields sloped up towards the sky; trees stood torn and twisted by the wind. A building blurred past. I glanced back in the mirror. A square-fronted house, its windows blank, and a vast stone barn standing in the blue twilight. It made me notice the dark. I flicked my headlights on.

The road ahead became a tunnel, and I hurtled down it far too fast. Any minute I would catch up with the sweep of my own headlights and blunder on into the darkness beyond. The road dipped into woodland. Branches broke the sky into a flickering craze. I eased my foot off the accelerator as the road swept in smooth bends downhill. Glimpsed in passing, a crenellated tower stood against the evening sky. Then flash of wrought-iron gates, a curve of gravel. The Hall: it must be, at last. I felt as if I’d been driving forever. Even so, I wasn’t keen to arrive.

A terrace of stone cottages first, and then a crossroads. A shop, a pub, a school, a parish hall, none of them open. According to the
directions, it was half a mile down the village street, towards the church. I made the turn, and drove on about half a mile, slowed to a residential-area crawl. And there it was.

The cottage stood elevated and set back from the street, six stone steps leading up to the front door. I pulled in at the side of the road. Whitewashed walls glowed in the twilight; four front windows reflected back the evening sky. It looked like a child’s drawing of a cottage. I’d seen it in a photograph, but then it had stood flat against a blue-summer sky, and Mum had been sitting on the top step in jeans and a print blouse. Now it loomed solid, stony. I got out, took a lungful of clean, cold, wet air. Reading Room Cottage. The place they chose to be.

The front steps were worn into hollows and the handrail was skin-smooth. The clutch of keys weighed heavy in my hand, the old leather key fob pressing against my curved fingers, folding back on itself.

I turned the key until it clicked.

The door opened into the living room. I saw the faded blue sofa-bed, sagging in the middle, the arms worn shiny. Next to it, the smoked-glass coffee table from when I was a kid. Stuff that could be spared from home. Stuff that would do for summer holidays and Easter breaks, while they did the place up. Stuff that would do until they retired, until they lived here.

I went in and dropped my holdall. The carpet was flattened and tracked with grey. A breakfast bar corralled off a stark kitchen extension. To the right of it there was a staircase, modern, with separate planks whacked into the wall and a banister of cheap dowel and unsmoothed wood. The smell of the place hit me: a smell like forgotten Sunday dinners, damp, long emptiness.
I wanted to be home, stepping over toys, the flat smelling of coffee and baby and drying laundry.

I headed straight back out to fetch the rest of my stuff from the car; it seemed to have got much darker already, as if I’d blinked, and afterwards something of that internal darkness lingered. I opened the boot, lifted out Sainsbury’s bags, and glanced up the village street.

The tarmac was slick as graphite in the moonlight; windows caught a gleam here and there. There were no lights on in any of the houses. And beyond the street, the darkness seemed deep, and somehow absolute. I knew that out there, the M6 was streaming with light and fumes, strip-lit service stations were selling coffee and cigarettes and travel sweets, that there were towns and cities and hospitals and people, teeming people; but it didn’t quite seem possible, didn’t quite seem real. Not beyond this blue-black night, a tree’s bones, the call of some bird or other.

I shivered. I slammed the boot shut, scooped up the bags and scrambled up the steps. When I flicked on the light, a latticework of shadows scattered across the room. The lampshade was one that Mum had made in a craft class, out of string and glue and a now long-burst balloon. It was way off-centre. It gave the room an uneasy feeling, as if everything were slipping sideways, as if it were sinking.

I dumped my groceries and took my bag upstairs. Here and there I could see traces of something real and beautiful in the building. Smoke-stained stone, ancient wood. Clues to what they’d seen here, what they’d wanted to realize. They must have thought they had years to peel all this away; the stained carpets,
the greyed woodchip, the varnished plywood. That they would be able to uncover something.

I glanced into one of the bedrooms. Two single beds lay draped with white candlewick. The curtains were thin and drooping. A dressing table, varnished thickly brown, stood underneath the window with a primrose-yellow kitchen chair pulled up to it. None of it was familiar, it must have belonged to the previous owner, and there was a smell, a faint lingering sourness that I couldn’t identify. I pushed open another door: a box room, stacked full of boxes; shoeboxes, cardboard boxes, a tangle of wire coat hangers on the floor. An old brown suitcase trimmed with aluminium that I remembered from childhood airport carousels. Laundry bags full of books, carrier bags stuffed with objects wrapped in newspaper. I lifted out a papery bundle, weighed it in my hands, instinctively knowing the cool heaviness of it. I peeled back the paper: the pewter jug, for big bold flowers, for daffodils in springtime, long-stemmed roses in summer, dahlias in autumn. The sleek curve of the metal sucked the warmth from my hands. I could smell news-print, and the jug’s metallic tang. The room felt cold; it was as if the shadows had taken a step closer.

I could just go. I’d be home by midnight. The flat with its night-time smells of baby bath and milk; I’d sneak into Cate’s room and kiss her head, her hair curling into sweaty ringlets, and pull the covers up over her shoulder, and slip down the corridor and out of my jeans and into bed beside Mark. He’d mutter something, not really wake; I’d listen to him breathe. The alarm would go at half past six, and we’d lurch awake, and I’d be there, where I shouldn’t be, and that would make him right. Right about me, and about what should be done about me.

I pushed the final door.

As it swung slowly open my mobile rang.

I remember that moment, the sense of pause. Even though I was looking down into my bag, rifling for my phone, there was something about the space in front of me that brought back a memory of my Mum’s jewellery box, with its interior padding of pink baize; a memory of picking through her bits and scraps of jewellery, laying them out on her counterpane. The room felt absorbent, somehow, containing, as if it would take in sound and light and warmth and hold it.

My hand closed around the phone. Mark calling. I flipped it open, stabbed at the buttons with a thumb, the other hand reaching around the doorjamb to fumble for a light switch. The room seemed spacious and high, a reservoir of dark. The call connected.

“Hey there,” I said.

“Hey. How is it?”

My hand brushed the inner wall.

“Y’know,” I said.


I could hear the shift in tone. I should have been more careful.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Get it sorted, get home. That’s what we said. I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty.”

“You’re just tired after the drive, Rache. You’ll feel better in the morning.”

After sleeping here, in one of those sagging beds, absorbing the sour smell and the damp into my clothes and hair, waking in the morning to walk the worn grey tracks across the carpet? I could feel myself contract, like a touched snail: I couldn’t face it. At the same moment the back of my hand brushed against a light-cord.
I caught it, and tugged. The light came on. I saw the bookcase. I went towards it.

I was opening my mouth, and drawing a breath to tell Mark, when the phone bleeped, and went dead. I glanced at it; connection failed. I slipped it into the back pocket of my jeans.

The bookcase was massive. Maybe eight feet tall and five feet wide. It was completely empty. It stood in the middle of the gable wall, the ceiling sloping away to either side; it was the only point in the room high enough to accommodate its size. It must have been built to fit. In all her talk of this place, she hadn’t once mentioned the bookcase. She’d been keen to discuss her growing list of books for retirement-reading, the books she hadn’t had time for in her thirty years of teaching; the books she’d worn to shreds in rehearsing them for A levels. Living here, she’d binge-read, she’d gorge on these books; that was why the place had seemed so fitting, with its unusual name. She’d talked about all that, and their plans for renovation and refurbishment, but she never once mentioned the bookcase. The wood was dark and old, and there was something about its crafting, the way its parts were shaped and finished and fitted together that gave it an almost archaeological feel. No lines were ruler-straight, no edges precision-angled: it was as though the wood had been split along its fault-lines, smoothed and considered and pieced together in the only way the grain would naturally allow. I laid my hand on a shelf. It was silky, ridged with veins, and my own pulse beat back at me.

Behind the bookcase, I could see the gable wall was bare unplastered stone. Underneath, the floor was uncarpeted. It must have stood where it had been built. The whole house had
morphed and changed around it, covered itself in woodchip and magnolia and varnish, but this had remained here, darkening with the years. A kind of gentle heaviness descended on me, like thick fog. It was as if I had been waiting to feel like this, as if I had just been holding it off till I reached this moment, this room. I thought, I can stay here, if I just stay here it will be all right.

I noticed the rest of the room bit by bit, in a tired way: the bare worn wood of the boards, the last blue evening light spilling in through the window beside me, onto the varnished surface of a dressing table. Over to the left, in the back wall of the house, a door stood open: the bathroom, on the top floor of the extension, directly above the kitchen. The light was soft through the window that overlooked the street; it caught on the dark blue satin quilt on the bed underneath, silvering the bulge of each pocket of down. The wardrobe door stood open: clothes hung darkly inside. I walked over to it and pushed the door shut; empty coat hangers chimed against each other.

I lit the fire and emptied out the bags of food that I’d brought with me. I ate straight from the packets; breadsticks, hummus. I swigged wine from half-remembered petrol-station tumblers. I checked my phone. There was a signal, so I phoned Mark.

“It just went completely dead,” he said.

“Yeah, the signal went.”

“You didn’t call me back.”

“He-llo? Calling you back now?”

“It’s been ages. I thought you’d fallen through the floorboards.”

“You would have heard the crash.”

There was a smile in his voice. “You over your wobbles, then? You okay?”

“I’m fine. I’m tired, like you said; it’s a hell of a drive. And I miss you both.”

The smell of woodsmoke, the taint of garlic and wine, and a feeling that was like nostalgia, but not quite: it was all somehow unexpectedly familiar.

“We’ll be up to see you at the weekend, take back the first load. Don’t kill yourself over it, Rachel, you’ve got plenty of time.”

“A fortnight. There’s not that much to do, really.”

“You can always come home early. But take your time. Don’t overdo it.”

“How’s Cate?” I asked.

“She’s brilliant. She keeps telling me ‘Mummy back soon,’ like she’s trying to reassure me. Mum bought her a new toy lion; she keeps shaking it and pretending to growl and you have to be scared.”

“That’s great,” I said, my throat thick. “That’s really great.”

“Yep,” he said. “Don’t you worry. Just you get the stuff sorted, and take care of yourself. We’re doing fine.”

I couldn’t settle after that. I had one of Mum’s comfort reading books—
Pride and Prejudice
—but even with that I couldn’t get comfortable. The top of the breakfast bar was only slightly wider than the base; my legs were twisted around to one side. I fished around for a toehold, glanced down, saw that the bottom of the breakfast bar was formed out of the old back wall of the house; where I was sitting had originally been the garden. The wall was a good two feet thick, made of great big undressed
stones. It looked like a tree stump; rooted in the earth, organic, cut abruptly off.

I felt it for the first time then. A faint electrical hum in the room. The fridge, perhaps. The cooker. The TV.

I turned a page and took another sip of wine. It was sour and dusty on the tongue. The hum continued, and I ignored it, but it soon became intrusive, irritating. I slipped off the stool and crossed the kitchen to check the fridge. I switched it off at the socket, and there was a kind of wet, settling rattle, but the hum didn’t change. I switched it back on again. The cooker was off at the wall. The little portable TV was off, no standby light glowing. I was puzzled. I stood a moment, breath held. The hum was still there: if anything, it had grown. It wasn’t even a noise as such; it was a tingling, an agitation; it teased the hairs up on the backs of my arms. I switched off the downstairs lights. In the sudden dark, my eyes swam with coloured amoebic plaques. I stood and listened. The room seemed to soften in the darkness. The fire’s glow took on a new intensity, and I was aware again of the old smell of the place; of damp and someone else’s cooking and the faint sour greenish smell. It was not a scent I associated with my parents. It must, like the carpets, the wallpaper, and half the furniture, come from the time before, from someone else.

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