Naomi’s Room … A Horrifying Ghost Story by John Aycliffe. Chapter 3…

 NR3Naomi’s Room, Chapter 3…

There was an office on the first floor where missing children were reunited with their parents. As soon as I had given up hope of finding Naomi on the crowded shop floor, I asked for directions from an assistant. The office was small, with several comfortable chairs and toys everywhere. The woman in charge was very reassuring. This sort of thing happened in the shop several times every day. It was nothing to worry about.

There were already two little boys in the office, waiting patiently for mummy or daddy to find them and take them home. It was Christmas Eve. Nothing bad happened to children on Christmas Eve.

‘It usually takes a little while,’ the woman said. ‘She’ll try to find you, then give up and start crying. Before you can say “Father Christmas”, someone will be knocking on the door with an upset little girl in tow.’ A little girl with a yellow coat and a red scarf and bright red shoes. Every time there was a knock on the door, that was who I expected to see. And every time I returned my gaze to the wall in front of me, a little more anxious than before. There was a clock on the wall, a large clock with bold numerals and giant hands, the sort of clock a child could read. The hands moved so slowly I wanted to reach out and push them.

Half an hour passed. Naomi had still not appeared, and I sensed that the woman in charge was becoming slightly anxious. The little boys had gone, their tears dried and their fears quieted. My fears were just beginning.

‘It’s such a hubbub out there today,’ the woman said in a kind voice. I thought of her as kind, I wanted her to be kind. The thought of Naomi alone out there was only supportable if I believed in the kindness of strangers. ‘Someone may very well have taken her outside to find a policeman. Not everyone thinks of looking for our lost child department. But I’ll put out instructions to members of staff to be on the lookout. She’ll turn up soon.’

She made an announcement over the public address system. If anyone should see a little blonde-haired girl in a yellow coat and scarlet muffler, would they please bring her to the office? No one came. They repeated it. Still no one came. It was three o’clock. The shop was due to close in one hour. The floors were emptying now, the magic was dissipating. I could hear Jingle Bells playing every time someone opened the door, flat and unChristmassy. It seemed to go on for ever, like a bad dream.

The manager was called. I went with him through each floor in turn. There was no sign of Naomi. A member of staff went outside to check the street. She came back shaking her head. No one was being jolly now, no one was pretending this was all in a day’s work. Someone stopped the tape that played Jingle Bells. The store grew silent. The manager rang West End Central police station, the nearest to the shop, in Savile Row. No, no one had brought in a missing child. No, none of their constables or patrol cars had reported a little girl lost in or near Regent Street. Yes, they would issue a description.

Outside, the street was starting to empty. The lights had gone on, red and blue and yellow angels against a darkening sky. I remembered that I had promised Naomi we would stay until they came on. It was almost impossible to find a taxi anywhere, but the manager rang for one, explaining that it was an emergency. In the taxi I cruised up and down the street, now on the east side, now on the west. We went slowly, ignoring the honks and curses of other traffic. My anxiety communicated itself to the driver. He contacted other cabs through his CB radio. No one had seen a little girl in yellow.

When I went back to Hamleys they were closing. The awnings had been pushed back above the windows, a metal gate had been drawn halfway across the entrance. All the lights had been turned off on the upper floors. It felt so final, that shutting down of things. The great street was almost deserted. I felt a wash of such great loneliness, a churning of such utter helplessness that, for a moment, I was the lost child weeping on a cold London street.

The manager accompanied me to Savile Row. His name, I think, was Mr Moneypenny, a good name for the manager of a shop. I do not remember saying a word to him all the way from Hamleys. Perhaps I did, but my mind was a blank, I could not have made sense. He was a man in his mid-forties or thereabouts, a well-dressed man with gently curling hair and a carnation in his buttonhole. I think he was genuinely upset by what had happened, not merely that it had occurred in his shop, that a child had been taken from her father there, but for the thing itself, for me myself.

I showed him a photograph I carried of Naomi, one that had been taken the summer before, when she was a little younger. How much a few months matter at that age. I do not have that photograph now, the police took it from me, it was never returned. Perhaps they thought I would not need it. Perhaps no one really cared.

But they were at least considerate. Enough time had passed by now for them to accept that something untoward had happened. They let me ring Laura. In all my life, I have never had . . . Of all things, I find these the most difficult to write about, that telephone call, that explanation, that sense of guilt. It has never left me, that feeling of personal blame, that conviction that I was responsible for our daughter’s disappearance, for what happened afterwards. Laura said she would leave for London right away, she would come by car. I asked her to drive carefully.

It is easy to see what must have happened. Naomi got separated from me in the crush. Her abductor found her almost straight away, promised to help her find me, spirited her away in a different direction. If he had already been watching, he will have known who I was. By the time she suspected anything was amiss, Naomi was out of sight and out of earshot. Even if she started crying, even if she kicked up a fuss, who would have noticed a weeping or screaming child in a large toyshop on Christmas Eve?

No, I do not mean ‘noticed’. Later, witnesses did come forward, saying that they remembered a little girl in a yellow coat crying as she was taken out of the store. Dozens of people must have noticed her. But they took no notice, that is the point. Why should they have? She would have been the sixth or seventh fractious infant seen by them that day. Some of them will have had bad-tempered or upset children of their own in tow. Too much excitement, too great a stimulus, too large a crowd: what more natural than that a child should weep or a parent drag her, in spite of her tears, out to the open street.

Laura arrived in a little over an hour. She had not paused to change her clothes or pack a bag, she had simply rushed to the car and put her foot to the floor all the way down the A10. By the time she reached Savile Row, a full-scale search was under way. It was too late, of course it was too late, but how could we have known that then? I do not mean that Naomi was dead, that it was too late in that sense. Quite the opposite. Dear God, quite the opposite.

There is a noise upstairs. I can hear it quite clearly, I know it is not an auditory hallucination, I know that what I hear is really there, that anyone could hear it. Bumpity-bump, an old sound, a familiar sound, a rubber ball bouncing on a wall. There will be a ball in the corridor tonight, a red and white ball the size of a large grapefruit. I have seen it before. If I pick it up she will laugh at me. Or scream at me in anger. She is unpredictable.

This house stands on its own at the end of a street in the Newtown area of Cambridge, between Lensfield Road and Brooklands Avenue. Newtown was originally common landthat was divided up in 1807 among several owners, including the university and Trinity Hall. Building started there about 1819, when Thomas Musgrave built thirteen little houses and named them Downing Terrace, after the newly-founded college just to the north. More narrow streets and brick terraces were built by Addenbrooke’s Hospital and other landowners between 1820 and 1835.

But to the west and south a wealthy family called Pemberton owned a site looking out on Brookside, in those days an open space. There, larger houses were slowly erected for the middle-classes, among which ours was one. It was built in 1840 for a doctor and his family, a man called Liddley, a graduate of Downing. I shall have more to say of Liddley in due course, of Dr John Liddley and his family.

Suffice for the present to note that the house remained in Liddley’s keeping until 1865, when it passed into the ownership of one Professor Le Strange, the Ambrosian Professor of Greek at the University. Much of the modern garden was, I understand, laid down by the good professor and his wife. She died at an early age from tuberculosis, and the professor soon afterwards vacated the house to return to a bachelor existence in Caius. A succession of other families, mainly academic, had it in their keeping until our day. In a manner of speaking, it is ours for ever now.

The house consists of three storeys and an attic space. It has been altered, of course, but the basic layout is intact. On the ground floor there is a spacious living room that looks out on to a short front garden. The garden is luxuriant, with tall trees and thick shrubbery; in the summer, it is impossible to see more than the upper storey of the house from the street. The path leads directly to a high wooden gate on which the number of the house is set. There was a name once, but it faded long ago and I have not had it renewed.

At the rear of the ground floor is a room I once grandly called the library. It is merely my study, though the walls are indeed lined with books. I am seated at my desk, looking through the velvet-curtained window on to the back garden, Professor Le Strange’s garden. It is not much to look at now, but when we bought the house it was its greatest attraction. It covers a large expanse of land and was laid out once with care and attention. One part is a walled garden where there were trellises and climbing plants. There is a broad lawn running down to a little pond bordered by willows. A monkey puzzle towers over the path. But it is overgrown and gone to seed now, a tattered relic of what it once was. If I close my eyes, I can see Naomi playing there among the trees. Sometimes I do not have to close my eyes.

On the first floor are a small sitting-room, a television room, a bathroom and what was once Laura’s study. It is my bedroom now. The second floor is given over entirely to bedrooms: the main bedroom, where Laura and I used to sleep, two guest rooms, a guest bathroom, and the nursery, where Naomi slept and played.

The bumping has stopped. Everything is quiet again. I may have been mistaken, of course. It may not have been Naomi I heard. There are others.

End, Chapter 3

Go to Chapter 4…

Go back to Chapter 2…

Go back to Chapter 1…

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