The International Literary Quarterly

May 2009

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. An excerpt from The Telling by Jo Baker  

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 on to 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 on to 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 for ever. 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 newsprint, 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 lightcord. 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.

I brushed my hands down my arms, rubbed at them.

The wiring must be dodgy. Or someone was vacuuming in a nearby house. Or it was internal; post-motorway tinnitus. It could be anything, really. The fridge clicked into gear; it hummed a slightly different note, as if in confirmation.

The fire had crumbled down to glowing coals. I dropped on another log and put the fireguard on. I left the lower floor in darkness. It felt quieter up in the Reading Room. Gentler somehow, more welcoming.


I wasn’t really asleep. I was conscious of the space beside me on the mattress, the dint in the flocking where my ankle pressed, the give of the springs beneath left hip and shoulder. I was listening to the darkness. Amazing, just the distance of it. Here and there, a splash of sound. A fox’s bark – I recognized that – and a bird’s cry, and the sheep in the field behind the house calling back and forth across the dark. And then just as I was drifting off to sleep, there was a screech so loud and sudden that it startled me bolt awake, and I was staring around the room in darkness, my heart going like a train. I reached for the bedside lamp, but it wasn’t there, of course; it was back at the flat. I lay in the bed just looking into the black, and there was nothing: no movement, no further sound, and my heart began to slow and settle. I got up out of bed and went to switch on the light. The bookcase stood solid and dark and stacked full of shadows.

An owl, perhaps; or something killed by an owl, up in the fields behind the house.


Daylight. There was a sense of weight beside me in the bed; if I just reached out a hand, Mark would be there. Cate down the corridor in her little room: a mutter; she’s about to wake. The day teetering on its brink, ticking towards the shriek of the alarm. The race of it all ahead of me; a battle with breakfast and with the pushchair and bus, and Cate’s clinging at the childminder’s, and then work; and the books dragged home from work, and lugging Cate on to the bus and she’d be tired and starting a cold, and holding me responsible. Feeding her, and bathing her, and putting her to bed, and feeding us, and getting on with the marking or reports or lesson plans, and an exhausted slump in front of the TV, watching the news with the sound turned down, ice shearing into the waves, blood in the dust. Hurtling, unstoppable change. Night, and bleached sleeplessness. Hours staring into the dark.

There was no alarm clock. The space in the bed was cool and empty. The house was silent. I didn’t have to be awake, not yet.


I spent the morning wiping dead flies from windowsills and fingerprints from doors. I dragged the old upright vacuum out of the kitchen broom-cupboard and did all the carpets. I found a rusting cylinder of Vim under the sink and scoured the baked-on meat juices from the inside of the cooker. I cleaned the bathroom. I opened all the windows. The house smelt clean; of vacuuming and Vim and wet spring air. It needed doing, it all needed doing. I wasn’t wasting time.

There was no means of making coffee in the house. No cafetière, no percolator, not even one of those filter efforts you balance on top of a jug. So I made coffee in the teapot and brought it, with a cup and a tea-strainer, back upstairs. I was going to go into the box room. I was going to go in with my cup of coffee and start sorting through the stuff, unfurling packages, assessing their contents, putting them in one of three piles, destined for home, Oxfam, or the bin. But instead, I found myself standing at the Reading Room window, looking out at the garden, at the nodding daffodils, the bare branches of a tree trembling in the wind. At the end of the garden stood an electricity substation; it was surrounded with green chain-link fence. On its pebbledashed wall was a sign showing, in silhouette, a man falling over backwards, a lightning bolt embedded in his chest. Beyond it was a farm, though it didn’t look as if it was still in use; there was no sign of animals. The outbuildings were all painted pastel blue.

All I could think was: this is an ending. The beginning was lost; the first peeling of the helix from its twin, the first bulge and split of cells: there is no way back to that from here.


The daffodils were bright yellow and the damson tree was in milky blossom. It was a fresh spring day and the sky was tumbling with clouds. I’d sat at the window in my Sunday dress, staring out across at Agnes’s house, nothing moving, till it seemed like everything – flowers, tree, Agnes’s four windows and brown front door – were all painted on the glass, and not real at all. It was like looking at the windows in the church, of St Hilda and St John, too deeply coloured, too neat, too calm to be anything like real.

My work lay beside me on the flags, a book was neglected in my lap. I had my shawl wrapped tightly around me; it was cold away from the fire. No one came, and no one left, and I shivered in the draught, and Mam scolded me for mooning about and wasting the day. The light began to fade.

She left for the evening milking, and the boys were playing out somewhere, and Sally was at the Forsters’ for her tea, and the house was empty.

I had wanted to stay with Agnes, but they wouldn’t let me. I’d asked her mam to let me know when it was over, and she had said she would send me word the first chance that she got. What good did I think I’d do anyway, my mam wanted to know. Hanging about, getting in the way? I’d only scare myself, and be put off ever marrying, and end up an old maid. But it seemed to me that it would be better to be with her, to know how things went with her, however badly they were going, than remain in ignorance for so long.

Dad would be back soon. Once he was back, and given his tea, I would just slip across the street and gently knock, and if someone answered I’d ask after Agnes, and if no one answered then I would just come home, and no one need know I’d been, and I’d be no worse off than I was now.

I had the kettle hot on the stove, the teapot standing with the tea spooned in, the canister with its picture of a Chinaman and a lion put back on the dresser. The bread and the cheese were cut, and a clean cloth laid over them. There was nothing more to do. I leaned against the table, chewed a fingernail. Of my mam’s confinements that I could remember, none had taken as long as this.

My father’s cap came bobbing slowly along the far side of the garden wall. I poked up the fire, got the kettle steaming. He scraped his way up the steps, and came in. His cheeks were flushed: he brought a pool of cool spring air with him, and the smell of his work, of horse and tobacco and beer. He was in one of those slow, philosophical moods that he gets into when he’s had a drink or two. He saw the steaming kettle and the tea things set out on the table, and shook his head, as if it were some fancy of mine to make him his tea, but he was prepared to humour me and play along with it. Then he saw my book lying on the windowsill, saw the work half done and lying on the floor, and his mood turned sharply.

‘If you’re going to waste your time reading that old nonsense again,’ he said, his breath sweet with malt.

‘It’s Sunday, and it’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which is a fine book for Sunday,’ I said quickly. ‘And it’s better than many ways of spending the Lord’s Day.’

He gave me a look, sat down in his chair, and kept himself bolt upright in a poor imitation of sobriety. I made the tea and I gave him his bread and cheese. I left him to pour his own cup and slipped out to stand on our top step, and look over to Agnes’s house. No candles lit there, as yet.

It was a lovely soft evening, a little way off dark. The sheep were calling up in the back field, and someone was chopping logs up at Goss House. A curlew flew overhead, giving its shrill repeating cry. I went down the front steps, crossed the road, the loose stones crunching loud underfoot. I peered through the front window, but couldn’t see anyone. I rested my ear to the front door. I heard nothing but the beat of my own heart. I thought that she had died. That she lay cold and dead upstairs. That they could not bring themselves to tell me. I lifted the latch; the door creaked open, and I stepped inside, on to Agnes’s clean-sanded kitchen floor.

The room was stuffy; I could smell something sweet and rich and spiced. There were figures slumped at the kitchen table. I moved closer in the gloom and saw that it was Mrs Skelton and Agnes’s mam, and that they were sleeping, their heads resting on folded arms. In the middle of the table was a half-eaten batch-cake, the crumbs scattered like grain, whole raisins lying plump on the scrubbed deal tabletop; the scent sweetened the air. Agnes had made the cake for eating after the baby came, moving slowly, bending red-faced at the stove, with her belly vast and in the way. Between then and now was last night, and the walking up her garden, as far as the apple tree, and back. She had paused when the pains came, her eyes screwing tight, and her mouth opening. She whispered to me, so that the women wouldn’t hear, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this,’ and I hissed back to her, ‘Yes you can, of course you can, it will be all right,’ because I was thinking, everybody that walks the earth is born, it happens every day. Then her breathing changed, and her eyes went distant and glossy, as if she were looking inward; she did not look like Agnes any more, and the women had brought her upstairs and sent me home, and I began to be afraid for her. But it was over now, because there were cake crumbs and tea-stained cups. This was not a scene of mourning, these women sleeping with their heads on their arms, the smell of spice, the huff and whistle of their breath: she had lived through it. They had been too tired, too exhausted by their labours, to think of telling me.

I slipped past them and went up to Agnes’s room; the room she has had since she was married. Agnes was lying in the bed, sleeping, the covers pulled tight over her. Her face had the same pulled-tight quality as the sheets. Her hair lay in a thick dark braid over her shoulder and down over the quilt. The room smelt of blood, but there was no blood to be seen. She looked so completely done-in, so pale and wan. I came closer and saw the baby; it was tucked in the crook of her arm. It was red, dry-looking, its eyes pinched shut. Its head was a strange shape, bulged and squashed. It didn’t look like her.

I wanted to touch her, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I heard the stairs creak and lifted my sleeve to my face to blot away the wet. Her mam appeared and came over to me, moving quietly in stockinged feet. She stood beside me. Her face was a maze of wrinkles; she smelt of tobacco and bad teeth.

‘A boy,’ she said. ‘We’re calling him William Stephen, same as his father.’

The words whistled through the gaps in her teeth. She went on talking, the sound hissing and wet, and there was a constriction in my throat, and my nose felt raw inside.

‘I said to her last night, it’s taking that long it’s bound to be a boy,’ she said. ‘Girls are that much easier, God grant her a girl next time.’

‘I’d best go.’

I turned to shift past her, and she was in front of me a moment, her hair combed into a dry white parting, her shawl greasy and threadbare, her skin creasing happily. She’d seen it all before, of course, seen how much worse it can be. She had ten children that I knew of, and she had delivered all her six daughters’ babies. She turned to leave, and I followed her out towards the landing.

There was a pail tucked out of the way behind the door. I’d passed it unnoticed on the way in. It was full of blood-soaked rags. The blood was crimson. On the floor next to it was a folded blanket: it had been folded to hide the worst, but I could see the corner of what must have been a huge bloodstain. I looked back at Agnes lying white against the white sheets. I could hear the stroke of the older woman’s stockinged feet on the stair treads. I turned again and went after her, the weave of her grey plaits pinned up like a rush basket on the back of her head. Halfway down the stairs she stopped, and looked up at me as if out of a hole.

‘If you’ve got any old linen spare, can you bring it over, and any lye you’ve got made up?’

I nodded, my face feeling cold and numb. Agnes and I had shredded old sheets and shifts and shirts until we were covered in thread and lint and Agnes had laughed and said it looked like it had snowed indoors.

I managed to speak. ‘Is it often this bad?’

Agnes’s mam shrugged. ‘Every time is different.’

She turned to go on down the stairs, as if this was my question answered. I stood there, feeling cold. I had said that it would be all right.

I could hear the women moving around in the kitchen, and low voices: Mrs Skelton was awake and they were talking softly. I heard the clunk of stove-iron and clink of china as they made tea. I went down the stairs and straight outdoors. I needed air.

Outside a fine soft rain was falling. I pushed my hair back, tucked my shawl over my head and lifted my face to the clouded sky. I tried to pray. I tried to thank God for her safe delivery, but my prayers melted in the rain. I leaned there against the doorjamb and I cried selfish tears. I couldn’t do without her.

I heard the racket of clogs on the wash-house lane, voices; it could be my mam back with the other hands from Storrs Farm. I wiped my palms across my cheeks and ran for home.

I came in and started talking brightly to Dad, saying how Agnes had had a boy, that they were calling it William Stephen and what was the point giving a child the exact same name as its dad, he’d only get pet names all his life so you might as well think of something new to start with. I had my shawl off and was marching over to the fire to get the kettle on again so that it was hot for when Mam came in, and then I saw him.

He’d been sitting in Mam’s chair. He was getting to his feet. He was dark-clothed and tall; a good span taller than my father. Tall as the Reverend, though lean, and his clothes seemed more like a working man’s. I don’t know what it was about his features – the dark eyes, the strong nose and heavy brows, the clean-shaven lip and chin – but something just kept me looking at him. As if his face were a puzzle, and I couldn’t work it out.

Then I realized what it was. I’d never seen him before. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d come across someone that I had never seen before.

‘Ah Lizzy,’ my father said, ‘this is Mr Moore.’

I nodded. ‘Good evening.’

He dipped his head, returned the greeting. His voice was strangely accented; he was not a local man. I reached up to smooth my hair and became suddenly conscious of my hands, of how chapped and rough they were, calloused as an old hedger’s. I tucked them behind my back. I’d never, not until that moment, thought of my hands as anything but cold or sore or deft or fumbling. I don’t think I’d ever thought about my hair at all. I couldn’t think what to say. My father leaned back in his seat, grinning. Mr Moore didn’t say anything, just looked at me, and didn’t smile. The silence continued. I began to think he was expecting something from me. He was in working clothes, but his stature and carriage were that of a gentleman. Was he waiting for me to curtsey? I glanced back at Dad. He nodded at me, his lips pursed. I turned to Mr Moore, looked him in the eye, and curtseyed. He held my gaze, watching as I bent one knee, wobbled, scraped my clog toe along the flags and dipped my head stiffly. I have never made a graceful curtsey in my life. For a moment, his face was sober, his brows knotted. Then he laughed, his face breaking up into creases.

‘You mistake me,’ he said.

I felt my cheeks colour. ‘So it seems.’

He stopped laughing then. My face burned.

Dad made a clumsy joke about the refinements of the establishment, and I turned away, and went to tidy up my work, and clear the leftovers of his tea, and all the time I was blushing, fiercely conscious of myself, of how ungainly and uncouth I must seem. I slipped upstairs, and washed my face in yesterday’s water. I loosened my hair, gave it forty strokes, plaited it and pinned it up again. I looked at my hands, the yellowed calluses on the palms, the nails stained dark and rough. I soaked them in the water and scrubbed at them. I heard Mam come in downstairs. I heard her greeting. She called Mr Moore by name, which was a surprise to me. I looked at my hands. Pinker, a little softer, still badly stained, the nails worn dull with work. I went downstairs to help Mam get the supper.

Mam and I were at the table. She was spooning tea from the canister. One for each of us. One for the pot. One for Mr Moore. So he was staying for supper. Over at the fireside, Dad was talking to him. Mam was telling me what else needed to be done that evening and what was to be done tomorrow when I rose. I nodded, trying to keep my attention on her, and not let it drift towards the fireside. Every so often, Mr Moore glanced over. I kept my attention on the loaf and the neat portioning of slices. One for each of us. One for him.

Then Mr Moore spoke, and Mam’s words faded out of my thoughts, and all I could do was listen to him. Dad must have asked him about the towns and cities to the south, because he was giving an account of them. Leeds, he said, was like a midden, filthy, all of a fester, a summer’s heat would suffice to make it burst into flames. Manchester was a tinderbox: any reckless hand might strike the spark. People were arming themselves, he said; in towns and villages all over the country, he’d seen arms hanging over the fireplaces in the poorest houses.

His voice, his manner and what he said: it reminded me of something, but I couldn’t quite remember what.

‘Everybody’s spirits are down,’ Dad said. ‘The bad seasons and these unchristian taxes. People don’t like going hungry.’

Mr Moore half shook his head. ‘When an employer says there is a slump in trade, and makes a reduction in wages, a man who already works every hour he can to watch his wife and children starve must feel the injustice of his circumstances as keenly as he feels brute hunger. What can he do? He can’t take his labour elsewhere, since if one employer makes a reduction, the others follow. They are reducing wages now, all across the region. And if there is a slump, then by God but the mill-owners are doing well out of it. Oversby’s building his new Hall on the strength of the current crisis.’

I realized that I was staring at him. His words and the manner of his speaking made me stare.

‘They do well, the Oversbys,’ my father said, seeming to think they were in complete agreement. ‘That’s a fine new house they’re building up at Storrs. A man needs a little land, a little seed-money, if he’s to make anything of himself.’

Mr Moore said nothing for a moment. He inclined his head, and when he spoke, it was quietly, almost too calmly. ‘You know my position, a joiner on the new hall, and you know I need the work as much as the next man. But every peg I hammer home seems like a coffin nail to me.’

He was still as a rock, the whole of his body, but for his hands; they did not cease moving. He pressed his fingertips together; his fingers slid and meshed and separated. These slight motions seemed to be connected with what he said, as if he felt the distress in his own body and could not be at ease; as if his hands were eager to be at other work. His thumb rested for a moment between his lips, his teeth teasing at the skin beside the nail. I noticed my own hand was at my mouth, my own knuckle resting in the wet between my lips. I dropped my hand and looked away.

‘I take the money that could be used to pay his workers decent wages, and you will take it from me, and that is how we must live, and so all our hands are stained with this guilt, however little we intend it. We cannot be free of it.’

I knew what he reminded me of. Years ago, when we were girls, a preacher had come to give witness to the Lord from a tree-stump on the green. Our mams had forbidden us to go, so me and Agnes sneaked up through the field behind the green, huddled down behind the wall among the buttercups and wild carrot and long grass, and listened to the preacher’s great strong voice, his passionate words. We scared ourselves witless with what we heard about the Elect and Grace and the Second Coming and the End of Days. I felt it again, the same blend of fear and guilt, a sense of the coming apocalypse; and with it a new feeling that I couldn’t name. I was vexed at being laughed at, but there was more to it than that. The kettle began to rattle and boil, and I remembered the tea. I had to go to the stove, right between Mr Moore and my dad, and bend to get the kettle. They paused in their talk a moment, and I was all too conscious of myself and of the way my cheeks flushed in the heat from the fire.

Ted and John bundled in, red-cheeked and full of buttoned-down laughter. Mam sent me to the larder for preserves, though it was Lent, and there were only a half-dozen stone jars left on the shelves. Then Sally came in, looking prim and pretty. She had been up at the schoolhouse sewing with Mrs Forster. The younger ones took their supper to their stools and sat to eat, and I kept company with Mam, standing at the table to eat our bread and apple-jelly, while the men sat by the fire and ate theirs. Sally wanted to know about the baby and wanted to tell me about the dress Mrs Forster was making, but I didn’t want to talk, didn’t want to listen to her, didn’t want to think about the blood and the baby, and all the time she talked I couldn’t hear what Mr Moore was saying. My mam was now too tired for conversation, she just leaned against the table, and sipped at her tea, and ate her bread and jelly as if it were almost too much of a bother for her to do it. We cleaned up the plates and put them away, and still Mr Moore lingered there, listening to my father, who now was talking about the Enclosure. I didn’t like it when Dad got talking about the Enclosure. It seemed so long ago now, and there was nothing to be done about it, and it made him nasty to reflect on it, and I could not imagine what kept Mr Moore there listening to him, when he could have been off home hours before. He couldn’t have known the trouble he was courting.

I’d go up to my room and read and get myself out of the way. There was a little light left: I could get a few pages read at least before Sally came up and started wittering about bonnet trimmings or the baby. It didn’t cross my mind that I’d be remarked on, either in my going or my being gone. I had my hand on the stair-rail, my foot on the first tread, and my new chapbook about Robinson Crusoe under my arm, when Dad called out after me, asking where I was off to.

I turned and went back to him, bent to give him a kiss on his cheek, and said goodnight. The hem of my skirt brushed against Mr Moore’s booted feet, and I caught his scent for the first time: the smell of cut wood. There was wood dust in his hair.

‘You’re not up there any more,’ Dad said.

I looked at him, not comprehending.

‘You’re down here. You and Sally. You’ll be good and warm with the fire.’

‘You mean sleeping?’ I asked.

‘Of course I mean sleeping.’

‘But –’

Ted laughed. Only then did it dawn on me what was going on. Mr Moore was lodging with us. He was to have our room; mine and Sally’s room, and we were to sleep downstairs. There’d been talk of a lodger for a while, but nothing had been done, and I’d thought the idea had been forgotten. I looked down at the floor, the rag rug, the ash on the hearthstone. I will sleep like Cinderella tonight, I thought, and every night until he’s gone, and I will not have a moment’s peace or solitude until he goes. In the corner of my eye, I could see Mr Moore looking down at his hands, his right index finger bent and pressed down hard with the thumb of the same hand, so that the fingertip nearly touched his palm. The knuckle cracked, he looked up, and our eyes met. His eyes were brown and clear as peat-water. He looked a little ill at ease.

‘Go and get what you need down from your room, and put it in the chest,’ Mam said, ‘and then Mr Moore can go up when he wants to.’

My eyes left his. I turned away. I went up to our room, and fetched bedding and clothes and brought them down and put them in the chest, and then went back for the books I had up there, and rearranged the crocks on the dresser to make space for them, and moved aside the Bible and the prayer book, and pushed my Pilgrim’s Progress and my chapbooks in beside them, and all the while the pair of them were sitting there at the fire, my father smiling and watching me as I made the arrangements. Mr Moore didn’t look around at me, which was good, because I could not have easily met his eye.

It was pitch dark by the time Sally and I had got the bedding spread out and undressed and laid ourselves down to sleep. The fire was a low smoulder. I was beginning to drift into sleep, thinking that another night, when I was not so tired, I’d stir up the flames a bit, put a few sticks on, and I’d be able to read in the firelight, and it wouldn’t be so bad. It was good just to be lying down, and I didn’t really feel the hardness of the floor, and my eyes were closing, and I was thinking how Agnes hadn’t seen the new chapbook yet, that I’d take it over and read to her in bed tomorrow evening, and when she was well enough, she’d sit in her kitchen, and I’d do her cleaning or some baking for her.

‘Are you never going to get married?’

I opened my eyes. ‘What?’

‘You were nineteen last birthday,’ Sally said.

‘I know how old I am.’

She took a noisy breath. ‘I was thinking what with Agnes having the baby now, you would be thinking of it, you could marry Thomas and move out and have babies of your own.’

‘You’ll wear yourself out, thinking like that.’

She rolled on to her side, pulling the blankets with her. ‘You could have your own room then too, though I suppose you’d have to share it with Thomas.’

‘Leave off, will you?’

She sniffed indignantly. ‘It isn’t just me.’

I leaned up on an elbow, looked over at her. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Oh nothing.’

I prodded her. She yelped in protest. I said, ‘Tell me; you’ll have no rest till you do.’

She rolled back over and looked me in the eye. I remember her eyes, dark and glossy, catching the firelight, and her smooth young skin glowing pale. ‘Our mam was saying that we’re too crowded here, I heard her say it. And Dad agreed.’

‘They should have thought about that before they invited that man in. There’s just him taking up a whole room to himself while us two have to sleep down here, and that’s just daft, it makes no sense at all.’

Sally shrugged and heaved herself over again; ‘He could hardly have the boys’ room, it’s too small, and you wouldn’t wish this on our mam at her age.’

Just as I was about to ask whether she knew if he’d be stopping long, she said, her back still turned to me, ‘I’m to be apprenticed soon, you know, Mrs Forster is arranging it for me.’

‘Who to?’

‘Mrs Forster’s milliner at Settle; one of the girls is leaving to set up for herself, and when she does, I’m to be indentured in her place.’

I rolled on to my back, lay there with the blanket pulled up to my chin. ‘What did our mam say?’

‘It’s clean work, and I’ll be mixing with a better sort of people. She’s glad.’

Time passed in silence, and the church clock chimed ten.

‘Good for you,’ I said.

Sally muttered something, but her breath was coming softer, and I knew that she was almost asleep. The blanket scratched against my chin. I turned, tugged at the covers, and saw that there was light overhead, sieved by the boards, slipping down between them, hair-thin, golden. He was awake up there, up in our old room. He had a candle burning. He sat in light.