THE HOUSE OF ASHES
"Here, now, till I tell you..."
Sara Keane’s husband, Damien, has uprooted them from England and moved them to his native Northern Ireland for a “fresh start” in the wake of her nervous breakdown. Sara, who knows no one in Northern Ireland, is jobless, carless, friendless— all but a prisoner in her own house.
When a blood-soaked old woman beats on the door, insisting the house is hers before being bundled back to her care facility, Sara begins to understand the house has a terrible history her husband never intended for her to discover. As the two women form a bond over their shared traumas, Sara finds the strength to stand up to her abuser, and Mary—silent for six decades—is finally ready to tell her story . . .
Through the counterpoint voices—one modern Englishwoman, one Northern Irish farmgirl speaking from half a century earlier—Stuart Neville offers a chilling and gorgeous portrait of violence and resilience in this haunting narrative.
"This unforgettable tale of servitude and subservience, domestic abuse, and toxic masculinity builds to a resolution offering redemption and heartfelt solace. Neville has outdone himself." - Publishers Weekly Starred Review
"Chilling, compassionate and compelling." - Val McDermid
"This might well be his masterpiece." - Mark Billingham
Read an Excerpt from The House of Ashes
Chapter Two: Mary
Here, now, till I tell you.
I always lived in the house. I never knew any different. Underneath, in the room down the stairs. In the dark. That’s what I remember the most, when we were telt to put the lamps out. They locked the door at the top of the stairs and that was that. Dark until they opened it again. I still don’t like the dark.
As far as I know, I was born there. Nobody ever telt me any different, and I don’t mind any different. From I was wee, that’s all I remembered. Always. Thon room under the house, then the rest of the place when I was allowed up.
The only light down there was the couple of oil lamps they allowed us to have. It was always cold and wet. They’d made a floor out of wooden boards, and a ceiling, with posts to holt it up. The floor was always damp. Sometimes, if it rained hard outside, mucky water would come up through the cracks.
I don’t mind what age I was the first time they let me up the stairs by my own self. Five, maybe, or six. Old enough that I could do a lock of wee things about the place. Sweeping up the floors or dunging out the ashes from the fireplaces. Mummy Noreen telt me what to do. Says she, when the Daddies is around, you don’t look at them, just you get on with your work. Just you pretend you aren’t there, and they’ll not bother with you. Unless they do bother with you, then you be polite and don’t give them any cheek.
So that’s what I did. I just bate on with what I had to do, and if Daddy George or Daddy Ivan came in, I just put my head down and said nothing. And that wasn’t hard to do, either. I was wild afeart of them. They weren’t slow about giving beatings, them boys. Many’s a time Mummy Noreen or Mummy Joy would have a black eye or a sore back from a kicking.
Daddy Tam was the worst of them. He was a cribb’d auld skitter, so he was. He’d slap you soon as look at you. And them big hands of his. If he hit you, you knew you were hit.
I mind the first time he hit me. I’d finished sweeping up the ashes around the hearth in the living room. It was the wintertime because it would’ve foundered you in the house, but I remember the sun was out, and it was shining between the bare branches of the trees outside, and through the windows. Mummy Joy had just cleaned them, and you’d hardly know the glass was there she’d cleaned them that well. And I was there in the room all by myself and the sun was shining in and it felt warm on my arms, so here, didn’t I start dancing? I don’t know what notion I took, but I started twirling around like I don’t know what. Just spinning around and tittering away.
Then something slammed into my head, bang, and I didn’t know what it was. I thought the roof had fallen on me. Then here’s me on the floor, didn’t know what way up I was, and Daddy Tam’s standing over me.
Says he, What do you think you’re at?
I was that afeart I couldn’t answer him. I just stared up at him. Then he kicked me in the backside, awful hard, I’d never felt the like of it. I’d been hurt before, I’d had the odd wee bump or scrape, but no one had ever hurt me before. Not like that.
I don’t mind too well, but I suppose I must’ve cried or screamed because Mummy Joy came running in and she got down beside me, between me and Daddy Tam, and says she, Get you away from her.
No one ever talked back to Daddy Tam. Never, never, never. I could see the anger in him. He was always angry, that man, they all were, but this was not the same. He was raging so much he went all quiet. And pale, except for the red blotches on his cheeks. I remember his big hands opening and closing. I remember feeling Mummy Joy starting to shake.
Then he points at me, and says he, Get thon child out of my sight, then you get back up here.
Mummy Joy didn’t argue with him. She picked me up and she carried me out into the hall, then into the kitchen, and through the door and down the stairs. She put me on the wee bed I had in the corner and put a blanket around me.
I suppose I must’ve been crying, and Mummy Joy was too, and says I, Don’t go up there, but says she, I have to, and away she went. She left me holding one of the wee dollies I’d made from tying sticks together with twine, the ones I kept hidden under my mattress so Daddy Ivan wouldn’t take them from me.
I heard all of it, Daddy Tam shouting and raging, the banging and the thumping, her screaming. It sounded like he was dragging her across the floor, back into the kitchen, and the way she was squealing, I suppose he must’ve been dragging her by the hair. Then I heard Daddy George telling him to quit it, he was going to kill her if he kept on.
So what if I do, says he.
Then I’ll kill you, says Daddy George.
Then them two went at it. Mummy Joy closed the door behind her and came down the stairs in the dark. She found her way to me and got into the bed and we cuddled up in the dark, under the blanket. All the time, from upstairs, banging and thumping and shouting. Then we heard Daddy Ivan come along and that was the end of it. As afeart as I was of Daddy Tam, him and Daddy George were more afeart of Daddy Ivan.
A wee while later, I don’t mind how long, Mummy Noreen came down and she lit the lamps and said we should stay down there for the rest of the day, just till things calm down. Things is bad, says she. Daddy Tam’s thran, he’s in a terrible twist, and he’s on the drink again. Don’t show yourself, either of yous, not till tomorrow, not till he’s sobered up.
What age was I then? I don’t know. Six, maybe. I never had a great notion what age I was. Tell you the God’s honest truth, I don’t know what age I am now.
But that was our days and nights. Up early in the morning, up into the house, cleaning and tidying, Mummy Noreen sometimes doing the cooking for the Daddies, other times Mummy Joy. Then downstairs in the evening to ate whatever leftovers there was. Whoever did the cooking always made sure there was just enough. Then when it was time to go to sleep, one of the Daddies would call down to us to put the lamps out, and he’d close the door and lock us in for the night.
It was always like that. Sure, I never knew any different.