Naomi’s Room…a Horrifying Ghost Story by John Aycliffe. Chapter 2…

NR2Naomi’s Room, Chapter 2…

Christmas that year came slowly, hesitantly, as though on the brink of an untoward disaster, a birth without star or manger. I remember it with preternatural clarity, each day of the season printed on my memory, the way hours and minutes are unnaturally imprinted on the recollections of the sick and the convalescent. It came with open wings, with quiet bursts of music, with falls of the purest snow. It was a descent, a down-turning of nature, the world in reverse order: heaven made earth, spirit become flesh, God struggling to be man. Even then I thought of it in such terms, I watched it make its way towards us like a white ship bearing an unspeakable cargo. I saw three ships come sailing in . . . It was her favourite carol.

She came to my dreams again last night. She was singing. The same song. Always the same song. This morning, I woke to find myself stiff in the armchair in front of a cold fireplace. It was after ten o’clock. An untouched cup of cold coffee stood on the floor beside my chair. How unrefreshing sleep like that is. I have a class this afternoon, but I think I may cancel it. My concentration is not good today. I may be catching a cold. The photographs are still in the kitchen where I left them.

Writing these thoughts down is helping me a little. I should have kept a diary then, it might have given my memory some peace. I might have been able to say to myself, Look, it’s all down there in black and white, there’s no need for you to remember, let it go. Yes, I might have said that. But I don’t think my memory would have paid much attention. It’s rather like that old trick I learned in school. You tell someone, ‘Whatever you do, forget about the monkey.’ They can’t, of course, it’s the one thing they can’t do. You ask, ‘Have you forgotten about the monkey yet?’ and you know they haven’t, it has lodged in their mind. The act of forgetting has itself become the trigger for memory. Some things are like that, they lodge in your mind for ever. Trying to forget just makes it worse.

I realize I have written almost nothing about Laura, as though she were in some way unimportant. How could that be? I loved her. We met towards the beginning of her second year. She was at Newnham, I was in the early stages of my postgraduate career. Someone had started an early music consort, Musica Antiqua Cantabrigiensis it was called. They had modelled it on the Dutch Syntagma Musicum Ensemble, and, like it, drew their inspiration from Praetorius’s famous book, playing music of the years between about 1050 and 1650. I played the crumhorn, shawm, and bass recorder, Laura sang in a clear alto voice. Basiez moy, ma doulce amye, Par amour je vous en prie Non feray . . . And so we met.

Between love-songs of Provence and hymns to the Virgin, in cold college halls and dusty churches, through the white expanse of a long midwinter, we exchanged glances. Before spring we became lovers. I remember a warm room and our clothes heaped on the floor, the first touch of her flesh against mine, the torn cry in that perfect voice as I entered her. It seems so strange to contemplate now, that I was ever passionate.

We married shortly after her graduation. Musica Antiqua Cantabrigiensis, like so many other ensembles of its generation, had ceased to exist, but its members re-formed in honour of that day. They played and sang for us in the parish church in Wiltshire where Laura had been christened.

Baci soavi e cari

Cibi della mia vita

C’hor m’involtate hor mi rendete il core.

Per voi convien ch’impari

Come un’alma rapita

Non senta il duol di morte pur si more . . .

Kisses sweet and tender

The food of my life,

That steal my heart then give it back to me.

You should understand

How a soul that has been ravished

Feels not the agony of death, and yet it dies . . .

She wore a white dress with a long, long veil dotted with little golden flowers. Her hair was arranged like that of the charmante et belle Enide in the romans by Chrétien de Troyes: a golden thread woven into long gold hair, a fillet of multicoloured flowers set lightly on her head. I have a photograph, a single wedding photograph, locked in a drawer in my bedroom. Sometimes I take it out and look at it. Each time it seems to fade a little more. Long hair like gold, dried flowers like a wreath.

We honeymooned in Venice, where the women have blonde hair and there are pathways into the past. It was summer and the streets were full and the canals filled with tourists in gondolas. We noticed none of those things. Laura showed me instead the reckless artistry of the city: the riches of the Academia, the churches and the palaces, the mosaics of St Mark’s, the Ca’ d’Oro, the long, drifting vistas of the grey lagoon.

In return I read to her at breakfast and late at night, long passages of prose and verse in which the city was reshaped and reinterpreted. In the days we would walk for miles, searching for the things we had read about the night before. And every evening we would return to our hotel and close the great shutters of our room and lie naked in the copper shadows, our bodies throwing off the heat of the long day. First our hands would touch, then our lips, then our bodies, and on the mottled wall shadows coupled in the dim light. Naomi was conceived thus, to the sound of water eating stone.

Yes, Naomi was conceived there. Naomi and something else as well.

The ribbon was gone this morning. But it will be there again tonight. Or perhaps something else, something equally recognizable. She may be there at this moment, playing, singing, talking to her dolls. I think she wants the photographs, wants to prevent me burning them. They would be important to her.

I have not moved all morning. I am still sitting in the chair I slept in. Is she capable of that, of sapping my will, binding me here until I promise not to burn the photographs? Very possibly. I do not really know what my darling is capable of.

Christmas Eve was a Thursday. Term had finished a week earlier, and we had spent the days since then attending parties, shopping, visiting Father Christmas in Joshua Taylor’s. I caught up on some writing, an overdue review of Pauline Matarasso’s translation of the Queste de Saint Graal for a journal called Medium Ævum. Laura cut out angels from tinfoil and with Naomi’s help pinned them round the living room.

Until that year, we had spent our Christmases either with my people or with Laura’s. Our decision to stay at home had been wholly on Naomi’s account, to let her enjoy Christmas in familiar surroundings. Laura’s mother and father planned to drive up to Cambridge in their old green Humber on Boxing Day. There was wine jelly in the refrigerator, a deep ruby red, and bottles of sweet sloe gin, purple and rich like a heavy bruise.

Naomi was up early, her excitement at fever pitch. I have such a clear memory of her coming into our bedroom, her face flushed and her eyes wide.

‘Father Christmas has been! Father Christmas has been!’

‘What can you mean?’ I said. ‘It’s only Christmas Eve morning. He’s not due until tonight.’

‘But he’s been. He left his footprints round the fireplace.’

‘Did he indeed? And how do you know they’re his footprints?’

‘Of course they’re his, silly. Who else would come down the chimney?’

‘I think I’d better come and take a look.’ I turned to Laura. ‘What about you, love?’

‘Chimneys are your business. It’s too bloody early. I’m going back to sleep.’

I got up and accompanied Naomi to her room. And there (as I knew there would be) were the telltale footprints in artificial snow all round the hearth.

‘These are tiny footprints, darling,’ I said. ‘I think they must belong to one of his helpers, one of the elves. He probably came as a spy in the night.’

‘What’s an elve?’

‘Elf, sweetheart. Do you remember I read a story to you about Rupert Bear? Just last week.’

She nodded.

‘Well, that had elves in it. Little men with pointy ears.’

‘Oh, you mean gnomes.’

I shook my head.

‘No, I don’t. I mean elves. There’s a great difference.’

‘What sort of difference?’

So we spent the first part of that morning talking about gnomes and elves and goblins, all the fine points in which they differed one from another.

And Ich wulle uaren to Aualun, to uairest alre maidene . . .

And I shall go to Avalon, to the fairest of all maidens,

To Argante, their queen, a most beautiful fairy,

And she shall make whole all my wounds . . .

But no elven maiden shall ever heal my wounds, neither here nor in Avalon.

A little sunshine is creeping through my window. I feel less tired now, but I have telephoned the Faculty and asked Miss Norman to put a notice on my door saying I will not be in today. She knows nothing, of course, she is too young. I suppose she was still a child in 1970, perhaps even Naomi’s age or thereabouts. Christmas to her means horrid lights in the High Street and songs by Slade and Cliff Richard and inane game shows on the television.

Christmas Day is only a matter of weeks away now. I see people coming home with heavy bags of shopping or small trees trailing behind them. There seem to be children everywhere. Someone sent me a card the other day, someone quite insensitive. My friends know better than to include me in their Christmas festivities. The card showed a jolly Father Christmas and some robins. Inside, it read: ‘Wishing you all the joy of the Season’. Joy? I have no joy, not at Christmas, not at any season.

I have decided to go to church this afternoon. Candles will not keep her away, but they give me a sort of support. I became a Catholic ten years ago. The priest from whom I took instruction was a young man. He had not heard my name, knew nothing of my family, my past. I told him what little he needed to know and kept the rest where it should be kept, lodged deep in my own heart. I was received into the Church with the minimum of fuss or ceremony, which was how I wanted it.

I attend mass regularly, at Our Lady and the English Martyrs on Hills Road. Nevertheless, I regret the passing of the old forms, the predominance of the vernacular. I am a more traditional Catholic than many raised in the faith. It is always that way with converts. But then, my grasp of medieval Latin is quite good: I can read Aquinas in the original. I should have enjoyed the aura of the old mass, its resonances, its nuances. If they ever perform an exorcism, I shall insist that it be in Latin.

Naomi used to pray every night before she went to sleep. Either Laura or I would put her to bed. On her bedside table was a nightlight, a lamp with a train that rushed for ever through the night, soundless, never arriving. Her prayer was simple, a curious distortion of well-known words:

‘Now I lay me down to look, I pray the Lord my look to look. If I should look before I look, I pray the Lord my look to look.’

We asked her what it meant, why she used such strange words.

‘I see eyes watching me,’ she said. ‘When I’m in bed at night. He says he has little eyes, that his little eyes are watching me. I don’t like him watching.’

‘Who is it, sweetheart?’ I asked. ‘Who watches you?’

‘Nobody,’ she said. And nothing more could be got out of her.

After breakfast, Naomi and I kissed Laura goodbye and set off for the station in a taxi. I wore a heavy woollen overcoat, she her yellow coat and red scarf, the way I find her in all my memories, as though they were things she had always worn. The plan was for us to go up to London for the day, returning once the shops had started to close. Laura wanted us both out of the house so that she could concentrate on making things ready for dinner that evening and lunch the following day.

We had friends coming for Christmas Eve dinner, a colleague from my department and his wife, Laura’s old tutor from Newnham, and my college bursar. Naomi would be tucked up in bed by the time they arrived, and the aim was to tire her out thoroughly so that she would stay tucked up.

How she shone that morning. I had seldom seen her so happy or so enthralled. She had never been up to Town before, her eyes bulged at every new sight. We took the 10.02 to Liverpool Street, the slow train. I have often thought how different all our lives might have been had we taken a King’s Cross train, had we been earlier or later arriving in London.

We clattered happily through sleepy station after sleepy station – Shelford and Whittlesford, Audley End and Elsenham, Stansted and Broxbourne. At every halt we picked up more London-bound passengers. Naomi’s sense of adventure was infectious. People smiled at her. A woman with a Scots terrier sat near us so she could stroke it.

The weather favoured us. A clear blue sky showered light on fields made white with snow. The light lingered on everything it touched: red-tiled roofs printed with starry frost, the edges of small frozen ponds, the eaves of Great Chesterford station, spiked with icicles. A snowman stood on a ploughed field, like a scarecrow out of season. Naomi clapped her hands and laughed at his crooked hat. She gave him a name. I remembered it in the middle of a sleepless night three days later: Magoo. He had melted when I next passed that way.

We arrived at Liverpool Street at half past eleven, a few minutes early. There were plenty of taxis waiting to take all the last-minute shoppers to their destinations. Naomi had never been in a proper cab before. She sat on the edge of her seat, watching with wide eyes as we pushed through the heavy traffic into Regent Street.

Naomi would have been content never to have entered a shop that day. We spent at least half an hour just walking round Liberty’s, gazing at the window displays, scenes from fairyland that were, to a child’s eyes, a species of magic. My memory is blurred now, overlaid by so much else; but I seem to remember crimson wings and tumbling dancers, pillars and domes and minarets, a box that opened and closed, revealing gold and jewels, a steam train that circled a mountain, a dragon breathing fire. If I lived again, it would be for that half-hour.

Inside the store, we walked hand in hand from cluttered room to cluttered room. We were not rich, there was so much here we could not afford or ever hope to afford, but Naomi had no consciousness of that. She had never been a greedy child, had never wanted things she could not have. The mere fact that life held such abundance was enough for her. She enjoyed looking. I wonder now if he was watching her even then.

We had lunch in Dickins & Jones, on the top floor. They have closed that lovely room now, replaced it with cramped and inelegant cafeterias. But when I took Naomi there it still had a certain grandeur. She had a huge lunch, complete with ice cream at the end.

‘Victoria would like this,’ she said. ‘She’s never had ice cream.’

‘Victoria?’ I asked. ‘Who’s Victoria?’

‘Oh, you know,’ she said, hardly paying attention. ‘One of the little girls who lives with us. She and Caroline are my friends.’

‘And who is Caroline?’

‘Her big sister, silly. I thought you knew.’

I shook my head and smiled. Oh, God, how charming we think our children are. How full of dreams and fantasies. I shook my head and looked at her and smiled.

She wanted a proper toy fair. Laura had once mentioned the name Hamleys, so Hamleys it had to be. It was a short walk. Late though it was, the store was still crowded with parents and children, aunts and uncles. We started on the second floor with the dolls. Each counter held some new excitement, some fresh wonder. But by the time we had worked our way to the floor above, even Naomi was beginning to flag. I must have been tiring too. In a little while, I thought, it will be time to leave and find a taxi to take us back to Liverpool Street. The lights and noises and pushing, shoving people were making me cross and inattentive.

I cannot have turned my back for more than half a minute. For all I know, it may have been a matter of seconds. We were at a large table watching toy trains make a circuit of plaster hills and dales. If I had turned round two or three seconds sooner, I might still have caught sight of her vanishing figure. But when I did turn, she was gone.

I can still remember that stab of panic, tiny as yet, but distinct and accompanied by fear. I looked to right and left, but nowhere could I see a yellow coat. I called her name, but my voice was drowned by a thousand other voices. I pushed through the crowd that pressed in against me, sure she would be just a little distance away, unable to get to me through the forest of adult bodies all around her. I struggled round the huge table with its tiny, whirring trains, and arrived back at the point at which I had started. But no matter where I looked, no matter where I went, Naomi was nowhere to be seen.

End, Chapter 2.

Go to Chapter 1…

Go to Chapter 3…

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