A MOTHER WITH AN EMPTY NEST IS BEING HAUNTED BY A GHOSTLY CHILDREN'S CHOIR. ARE THEY GIVING HER AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE THAT ONLY SHE CAN HEAR, OR ARE THEIR MOTIVES MORE SINISTER?
Louise Beeston is being haunted.Louise has no reason left to stay in the city. She can't see her son, Joseph, who is away at boarding school, where he performs in a prestigious boys' choir. Her troublesome neighbor has begun blasting choral music at all hours of the nightand to make matters worse, she's the only one who can hear it.
Hoping to find some peace, Louise convinces her husband, Stuart, to buy them a country house in an idyllic, sun-dappled gated community called Swallowfield. But it seems that the haunting melodies of the choir have followed her there. Could it be that her city neighbor has trailed her to Swallowfield, just to play an elaborate, malicious prank? Is there really a ghostly chorus playing outside her door? And why won't they stop? Growing desperate, she begins to worry about her mental health.
Against the pleas and growing disquiet of her husband, Louise starts to suspect that this sinister choir is not only real but a warning. But of what? And how can it be, when no one else can hear it?
In The Orphan Choir, Sophie Hannah brings us along on a darkly suspenseful investigation of obsession, loss, and the malevolent forces that threaten to break apart a loving family.
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About the Author
Sophie Hannah is an internationally bestselling author of psychological thrillers, poetry, and short fiction including The Orphan Choir and The Monogram Murders: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery. Her work has been published in twenty-four countries, and her novel Kind of Cruel was shortlisted for the National Book Awards Crime Novel of the Year. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize, and is taught in schools throughout the United Kingdom. She has recently been commissioned by the Agatha Christie Estate to write a new novel featuring Hercule Poirotthe first and only since Christie's death. Hannah lives with her husband and children in Cambridge, England.SOPHIE HANNAH is an internationally bestselling author of psychological thrillers, poetry, and short fiction. Her work has been published in twenty-four countries, and her novel, Kind of Cruel, was shortlisted for the National Book Awards Crime Novel of the Year in 2012. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Award, and is taught in schools throughout the United Kingdom. She lives with her husband and children in Cambridge.
Read an Excerpt
The Orphan Choir
By Sophie Hannah
PicadorCopyright © 2013 Sophie Hannah
All rights reserved.
It's quarter to midnight. I'm standing in the rain outside my next-door neighbor's house, gripping his rusted railings with cold, wet hands, staring down through them at the misshapen and perilously narrow stone steps leading to his converted basement, from which noise is blaring. It's my least favorite song in the world: Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now."
There's a reddish-orange light seeping out into the darkness from the basement's bay window that looks as unappealing as the too-loud music sounds. Both make me think of hell: my idea of it. There are no other lights on anywhere in my neighbor's four-story home.
My lower ground floor next door is dark and silent. We mainly use it as guest accommodation, and as we don't often have guests, it is usually empty. It comprises two bedrooms, a playroom-cum-Xbox room for Joseph, and a large bathroom. All of number 19's internal cellar walls have been knocked down to make a single vast area: either a chill-out den or an entertaining space, depending on whether you're talking to my neighbor or his girlfriend.
I think the label "entertaining space" worries him because of its public-spirited implications. The word "entertain" suggests that one might give a toss about people other than oneself. My next-door neighbor doesn't.
Freddie Mercury's reflections about supersonic women are making me glad that I've never met one: they sound like a bit of a handful — not very easygoing. I've never had ambitions in the direction of supersonicness, whatever it might be. What I want is far more achievable, I hope: to be warm, dry, asleep. At the moment, those are the only things I want, the only things I can imagine ever wanting.
The stairs leading from the pavement down to number 19's basement are slimy with moss, rain, and street gunge. Each step's surface was a perfect rectangle once, but more than a hundred years' worth of feet and weather have worn away corners and edges, making them too uneven to use safely, especially in tonight's waterfall-style downpour. Normally I look at them and feel a twinge of satisfaction. The woman who sold us number 17 had recently had all of its eroded stonework replaced. The steps from our lower ground level up to the street are beautifully straight-edged, with a new black-painted iron handrail bolted on to them for added safety, but what does that matter, really? If I can't sleep in my house when I want to, all its other virtues are somewhat irrelevant.
Number 19 has no handrail. I don't fancy attempting the descent while water cascades from one step down to the next like a liquid Slinky without boundaries, but what choice do I have? If I want to get my neighbor's attention, I'll have to put myself where he can see me, or wait for a gap between songs and bang on the window of the room that he and his friends are in. I've rung the front doorbell seven times and he can't hear me. Of course he can't; Freddie Mercury is drowning out all other sounds.
I'm wearing pink-and-white-checked pajamas, drenched from knee to ankle, a black raincoat, and trainers that were waterlogged five seconds after I left the house. My feet now feel as if they're in two flotation tanks. It's the opposite of people putting slabs of concrete in their pockets to make them sink when they wade into water; I am weighed down by water, on the pavement's concrete. This is the kind of rain the skies pour over your head in a never-ending torrent. It's hard to believe it's composed of light individual drops.
I can't help laughing at the absurdity of it as Freddie Mercury invites me to give him a call if I want to have a good time. The problem is that my definition of a good time differs greatly from the song's, and from Mr. Fahrenheit's. That's what Stuart and I privately call our neighbor, though his real name is Justin Clay, and I've heard his friends and his girlfriend Angie call him Jub. My definition of a good time is being able to get into bed whenever I want to — yes, even quite early on a Saturday night — and for there to be no pounding rock anthems booming through my wall, preventing me from getting to sleep.
It happens only every two or three Saturdays. Thankfully, Mr. Fahrenheit spends at least every other weekend at Angie's house, but when her kids are with their dad, Angie comes to stay at number 19, and it's party time — or at least it sounds to me like a party whenever it happens. Sometimes they decide to make the most of their childfree weekends and play loud music on two consecutive nights, Friday and Saturday. Mr. Fahrenheit assures me that it is never a party, always a "little get-together." I have tried on four separate occasions to explain to him that I don't mind what we agree to call it as long as he's willing to lower the volume of his music to an acceptable level.
The get-together guests are always the same — the man who wears walking boots with the laces untied and tucks his jeans into his chunky socks; the stooped, too-tall man with the floppy hair and the backpack; the frizzy-haired chain-smoking dance teacher who works at the performing arts school on Woolnough Road; the fat woman with red glasses and oddly sculpted hair dyed the color of a blue Persian cat — and Mr. Fahrenheit always plays the same songs for them to sing and shout along to, though, to be fair, he does vary the order: "9 to 5" by Dolly Parton, "Livin' on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi, Blondie's "Heart of Glass," A-ha's "Take on Me," "Love Shack" by the B-52's, "Video Killed the Radio Star" — I can't remember who that one's by.
And the centerpiece of his every musical gathering: "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen, which expresses my noisy neighbor's attitude to life far better than he himself does. I'm sure he hasn't analyzed the lyrics as I have, but I don't think it can be a coincidence that he is a ruthlessly selfish hedonist, and the song he blasts out more often than any other — usually two or three times on a party night — is a hymn to his ideology. The narrator in the song is not merely someone who wishes to have a good time (which would be reasonable) but also someone who is acutely aware that the fun he intends to have (out of control, like an atom bomb) will adversely affect others to the point that they will find it unbearable and seek to put a stop to it. He anticipates this and makes it clear that he wants to hear only from those who agree with him about what constitutes a good time.
Stuart would say — has said, often — that it's only a song and I'm reading too much into it. The inaccuracy of the criticism irritates me. The menacing lyrics are there for anyone and everyone to hear; there's nothing ambiguous about them.
Stuart would be closer to the truth if he accused me not of finding meaning in the words that isn't there, but of imagining that "Don't Stop Me Now" is more than a song, which is of course scientifically impossible.
Unscientifically, it is the putrid essence of Justin Clay, encapsulated in music. His soul made pop.
Finally, Queen's rant-with-a-tune ends. This is my chance. I know from experience that one song never follows swiftly on from another on these evenings. Efficient DJing is not one of Mr. Fahrenheit's strengths. I used to think that the long gaps between musical assaults were his sadistic attempt to lull me into a false sense of security in order to blast me again just as I'm nodding off, but that was unfair of me. I underestimated how long it takes to transfer the various ingredients of an unrolled spliff from a lap to a coffee table without mislaying any of them, especially while stoned, and then shuffle over to the stereo and make a decision about what to play next.
Now that the music's stopped, I can hear muffled voices, though I can't make out what they're saying over the drumming of the rain. Carefully, I make my way down the stone staircase backward so that I can hold on to the steps above me as I go. At the bottom, I turn and find Angie, the girlfriend, looking at me through the window, which, tonight, is a water feature. "Jub, the lady from next door's here again," she says after a few seconds of mute staring, as if shock has delayed her reaction. She's wearing a short green-and-white dress — fabric inspired by a lava lamp, by the look of it — with a longer beige knitted cardigan over it. Bare feet.
"Oh, you are giving me the joke!" Mr. Fahrenheit cries out. I resist the temptation to ask him if that expression is popular in the playground at the moment. He's bent over his music system, his back to the window. At this proximity, I can hear him easily thanks to the single glazing. He's in no hurry to turn round and engage with me.
Neither he nor Angie seems to have grasped basic cause and effect. They know that I object to their playing of loud music late at night because I've told them so unequivocally, yet they seem surprised when they do it and I turn up at their house to complain. It's clear every time that they have not anticipated my arrival. Afterward, I can't help pointlessly reciting to Stuart the conversation they must regularly fail to have:
You know, if she can't sleep because of our music, she'll need to find something else to do to fill up her night. What if that something else is coming round here and giving us a hard time?
Oh, yeah. I see your point. I'd say that's pretty likely to happen, since it's what always happens. If we don't like her coming round and moaning, maybe we shouldn't prevent her from sleeping.
Mr. Fahrenheit walks over, opens the window, stands well back from the rain. "Hello, Louise," he says, his voice as sullen and weary as his face. "Come to give me a reaming?"
I try not to feel hurt, and fail. Was I secretly hoping he'd say, "Come and join us, grab yourself a drink"? I think I might have accepted the offer, stupid and naïve though it undoubtedly would be. I've often thought that if I can't sleep and there happens to be a party going on next door, I could do worse than join in and try to have some fun. I'd have to decline, of course, even if Mr. Fahrenheit were to invite me.
I wonder if he knows that I would gladly stop hating him and even be ready to like him a bit if he would only show me a tiny bit of consideration.
"I find my midnight visits as inconvenient as you do, Justin," I tell him. "Especially when it's cold and the rain's pouring down. Are you finished playing music now? It's nearly midnight."
"No, I'm not finished playing music." He sways backward.
"Tell her to fuck off," his walking-boot friend calls out, waving at me from his cross-legged position on the floor next to a freestanding lamp that's as tall as he is, seated, and has what looks like a red tablecloth draped over it. He and the lamp are two islands in a sea of empty wine bottles on their sides. The room looks as if a couple of dozen games of spin the bottle have been abandoned in a hurry.
I say to Justin, "In that case, can you please keep the volume low from now on, so that it doesn't travel through the wall to my house?"
The fat woman with the red glasses appears at Mr. Fahrenheit's side. "Be reasonable, love," she says. "It's not midnight yet. Midnight's the cutoff point, isn't it? It is where I live. You've got to admit, you sometimes try to shut us down as early as quarter to eleven."
"And Justin often plays his music until at least one thirty," I say. "Why don't you encourage him to be reasonable? If I've come round before eleven it's because that's when I've wanted to go to sleep."
"God's sake, Louise, it's fuckin' Saturday night," Mr. Fahrenheit protests.
"I sometimes go to bed early on Saturdays and stay up late on Tuesdays," I tell him. "What if I was an airline pilot and had to get up at four in the morning to —" I bring my sentence to an emergency stop, not wanting to give Mr. Fahrenheit the chance to tell me I'm not an airline pilot and imagine he's proved me wrong. "Look, all I want is to be able to go to bed when I want and sleep uninterrupted by your noise. Please, Justin." I put on my best friendly, hopeful smile.
He raises his hands and backs away from me, as if I've got a gun pointed at him, one he knows isn't loaded. "Louise ... I'd like you to fuck off back home now, if you wouldn't mind. You've spoiled my evening again, like you've spoiled I don't know how many evenings — well done. Nice one. I'm not wasting any more of my time arguing with you, so ... go home, or argue with yourself, whichever you'd prefer."
"Chill out, next-door neighbaaah!" the man with the floppy fringe yells at me from the far side of the room. He's sitting at the big dining table that's dotted with torn Rizla rolling papers and wine stains. The table, which stands directly beneath the elaborate glass chandelier, is pushed up against the room's only wallpapered wall. The paper is pale blue with gold violin-shaped swirls all over it. It's beautiful, actually, and was probably expensive, but brings on eye ache if you look at it for too long. Mr. Fahrenheit cares a lot about interior design. He cares equally about getting drunk and high, and not at all about tidying up. His house is an odd mixture of two distinct styles: camera- ready aspirational and documentary-reminiscent den of vice — ashtrays kicked over on expensive sisal flooring, takeaway cartons sitting in front of designer chairs as if they're matching footstools.
Floppy Fringe Man shares Mr. Fahrenheit's dress sense: checked shirt over a white T-shirt, faded jeans. The only difference is in their choice of shoe: Mr. Fahrenheit favors a hybrid trainer-clog and Floppy Fringe wears a range of cowboy boots. I spot his backpack, leaning against tonight's pair. The drugsack, I call it.
"Liking the raincoat," the frizzy-haired dance teacher says loudly to the room, not looking at me. "Hood up, drawstrings pulled tight — stylish." The rest of them laugh.
This is the first time Mr. Fahrenheit has sworn at me, the first time his friends have weighed in on his side. I wait for the feelings of humiliation to subside and tell myself that it doesn't matter what some rude strangers think about my raincoat. I hope I don't cry. When I feel calm enough to speak, I say, "You can ignore me tonight, Justin, but my problem with your behavior isn't going to go away. If you won't listen to me, I'll have to find someone who will. Like the police, maybe."
"Good luck, mate," says Angie, sarcastically stressing the last word. "And ... dream on. No one's going to stop us listening to a few songs in our own house on a Saturday night."
"Whose house?" Justin teases her. She pretends to laugh along, but I don't think she enjoys the joke as much as he does.
"Louise!" He points at me, arm raised. More of a salute, really. "I promise you, one day you'll find yourself on the receiving end of the buzzkill shit you're so keen on giving out. Yeah! Wherever you're living when your boy's a teenager, unless it's somewhere out in the sticks with no neighbors, some twat's going to bang on your windows when your lad and his pals are letting their hair down, and you're going to think, 'What a fucking twat, they're just having a laugh.' You know what, Louise? You're that twat, right here and now." He nods as if he's said something profound. "Oh, wait, sorry — I forgot, your son's already left home, hasn't he? You've sent him away, isn't that right? How old is he, again? Seven? Bet your house is nice and quiet without him. That why you did it? All this choir shit just an excuse, is it? What, did he turn up the TV volume a bit too loud one day?"
I am a solid block of shock. I cannot believe my neighbor would say that to me. That he would think it, even when angry. He couldn't have said it if he hadn't first thought it.
He did. Both. Said and thought.
I can't find anything to say in response. It would serve Justin right if I were still standing here this time tomorrow, glued to the ground by his cruel words.
"Leave it, Jub," Angie warns. She sounds anxious. I wonder if I look alarming, as if I'm considering climbing in through the window — a dripping, hooded black figure — and choking the life out of him. What an appealing idea.
"She sent her seven-year-old son away?" the dance teacher asks. "What the fuck?"
"Would you rather I played classical music?" Mr. Fahrenheit taunts me. "Would you still be such a fuckin' buzzkill if I played, I don't know ... Mozart?"
I wonder why he's imitating Hitler, with his finger in a line over his upper lip. Then I realize it's not a mustache; he's pushing his nose up to indicate snobbery.
"Mozart?" Walking Boots laughs. "Like you've got any."
"I have, as it happens," Mr. Fahrenheit tells him. "You've got to have your classical music. Isn't that right, Louise?" To his friends, he says, "Wanna hear some, you lowbrow deadbeats?"
No one does. They groan, swear, laugh.
"Looks like it's just you and me, Louise — the cultured ones. Culture vultures." He leans closer to the rain barrier between us to wink at me.
Excerpted from The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah. Copyright © 2013 Sophie Hannah. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ONE: September, October,
Also by Sophie Hannah,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This well-written story unfolds layers of fear, from uneasiness to horror. Whenever you think you know what's going on, you are brought up short and scared all over again.
For some reason I could not get absorbed in the plot of this book