Naomi’s Room–A Terrifying Ghost Story by Jonathan Aycliffe (Continued) … Chapter 4…

imagesNaomi’s Room, Chapter 4

My memory of what happened in the hours immediately following Laura’s arrival is hazy. The police questioned me, but there was so little I could tell them. Mr Money-penny took his leave, full of sympathy, promising to keep in touch. I knew he would. He was genuinely upset, Naomi’s disappearance had spoiled his Christmas. That sounds unkind. I mean only that, in some profound sense, his joy in the season had gone. He spent his life supervising the sale of toys to children and cannot have been immune to the happiness his marvels brought. Christmas must surely have been the high-point of his year.

A policewoman showed us to a room where we could wait, then brought us strong tea and, later, fish and chips. We couldn’t eat, we let the food grow cold and greasy in its wrapping, pages from the Evening Standard of the day before. What did we talk about? I do not remember. I do not think we talked at all, not really, beyond the reassurances people in that situation offer one another as a matter of course: ‘She’ll be all right, they’ll find her soon, you’ll see. Children get lost all the time. Don’t you remember that time she got away from us in Sainsbury’s? We were frantic, she couldn’t have been more than three. We got her back then, didn’t we?’

What was the point of talking, of really talking? What could we say to one another that we did not already know? That we loved Naomi, that we were afraid, that in our hearts we thought her dead or on death’s brink?

We did not sleep that night, not properly. A police doctor offered us both sedatives, but we refused them. It was not sedation we wanted, it was peace. Knowledge, at the very least. A little after midnight, the policewoman returned and told us they had booked a hotel room nearby. Laura would not leave, she wanted to stay near the heart of things. If they found Naomi, when they found Naomi, she said, she wanted to be there, waiting. Even an extra minute’s delay would have been a laceration to her. And to me, a laceration to me.

We stayed on through the dark hours of Christmas morning, huddled in blankets on wooden seats, listening to the sounds of drunks being charged and taken to the cells, the high, complaining voices of down-and-outs, the half-hearted protestations of a prostitute from nearby Soho. In the world beyond, Santa Claus was making his rounds, visiting the homes of sleeping families, sipping sweet sherry and eating Christmas cake. In our own house in Cambridge, in our bedroom wardrobe, a heap of presents lay untouched. I knew intimately what was in each parcel, saw in my mind’s eye Naomi’s reaction as she opened it, as I had imagined her opening it. The smell of old chips and vinegar forced me to the toilet to be sick.

I think I must have dozed once or twice. I remember waking in the speechless night, my feet cold, my limbs cramped, in that unchanging awful room, between those pale green walls, and Laura facing me, her eyes red-rimmed and open, staring without seeing. I had dreams, terrible dreams that left me sweating and sick at heart. O God, if you pity me for anything, pity me for those dreams.

Dawn was lacklustre, cold, pointless. A sergeant brought us tea, told us to keep our spirits up, he had known cases like this, Naomi would turn up, tired and hungry. We could tell he was lying. When he left, we could not look one another in the eye.

They had decorated the station for Christmas: a tree festooned with lights, swags of cheap paper bunting, a collection-box for a popular charity. Around nine o’clock, someone turned on a radio for the Christmas morning service from Wells Cathedral. Carols haunted the still air. A bishop preached a sermon on forgiveness. At half past, a squad of detectives arrived. They had taken half the force off leave and set up a special search unit. We would have to be patient, they said. It might be best if we returned home, they could contact us there. We both shook our heads. No one argued.

Would we have any objections to their notifying the press and television? Publicity was useful in this sort of case, it would encourage people to keep an eye out. What could we say? They asked if one of us could go up to Cambridge to locate some items of Naomi’s clothing and bring them to London.


‘It’s for the dogs. The tracker dogs. They need something to give them a scent. If there’s anything that hasn’t been washed . . .’

I said I would go. I didn’t want to, but there was no choice. Laura had left the car behind the police station, in Old Burlington Street.

It took me three hours to go and come back. The worst thing was being on the road with no means of communicating with the police. Nowadays, I understand that telephones in cars are commonplace. They were unheard of then. All the way to Cambridge, I wanted to stop at telephone booths in order to ring for news. I kept the radio switched on, hoping against hope to hear a news flash. It did not come. There was fog near Cambridge, illuminated now and then by the yellow lights of occasional cars. I wondered what people were doing, driving on the roads on Christmas Day. Whatever joy there may be inside people’s homes, it is the bleakest of days outside.

My flesh crept as I entered the house. The first thing I did was run to the telephone. Every ring was an age. It took another age to put me through. There was no news. No good news, no bad news. I put the phone down and burst into tears, the hottest tears I had ever shed. How long I sat at the foot of the stairs bent into my own grief, I do not know. It seemed for ever.

I was roused from my misery by the sound of the telephone ringing. I snatched it up. My voice shook as I answered. It was Laura’s mother, ringing to wish us a Happy Christmas. She had rung earlier and, receiving no reply, assumed we had gone to church. I said, No, we had not been in church.

‘Charles, is something wrong? You don’t sound yourself.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Something’s very wrong. Naomi’s missing. She got separated from me yesterday in London. Laura’s up there now. The police think they’ll find her later today.’

I tried to be matter-of-fact, to keep my voice level and my tone controlled. It was the first time I had spoken to someone else of what had happened. Doing so brought the reality of things home to me. It is so dreamlike to be in a situation like that, so unlike ordinary existence. You hold an internal dialogue, you hash and rehash everything that has taken place, but a part of you says, This is all a fantasy, no different from any other fantasy. It is when someone on the other end of a phone reacts, when their voice breaks, that you realize it is not a fantasy, that it is really happening.

Laura’s mother was too upset to continue, so she put her husband on. We had never really come close, he and I, but that Christmas morning whatever barriers there had been between us fell. He said he and Laura’s mother would leave for London straight away. I told him the address of the police station and hung up. A terrible silence filled the house. It has been there ever since, that same stark silence, a silence that waits for a child’s voice to break it.

I rang my own parents after that. My sister answered the phone. She and her daughter Jessica had been with us only a few weeks earlier. Jessica, who was three, had played with Naomi in the garden. Carol had driven them both to see the lions at Longleat, taken them to a puppet show in the Arts Theatre, bought them matching clothes. I spoke with her, trying to be calm, to bottle up the hysteria that kept rising in my throat.

‘Charles?’ she said. ‘We’ve been trying to get through to you. We saw a news item on television. They said . . . They said Naomi is missing. Is that true? For God’s sake, Charles, what happened?’

I explained as well as I could. When I finished, there was a long silence at the other end. I could hear Carol’s breathing, could sense the effort she was making to remain calm. My father had had a heart attack the previous year. She was thinking of him as much as of me or Laura or Naomi.

‘Let me deal with this, Charles. You’ve enough on your plate. I’ll tell Dad the news item was an exaggeration, that things are under control. We won’t say anything to Jessica. How are you? How’s Laura taking it?’

‘Not too good. We’re under a lot of stress. But we’ll survive. They’ll find her. I know they will.’

‘That goes without saying. I never doubted it. Listen, Charles, we’ll come down to Cambridge today. Or London, wherever.’

‘I’d rather you didn’t, not yet. Naomi isn’t dead. If the family all come down . . . Well, it will seem like a funeral. Naomi may be back by the time you arrive.’

‘Of course. But you may need some support. Would it be all right if I came? Just myself? Mother can look after Jessica.’

‘All right, then. Just you. Tell Mother and Father I was asking for them. Try not to alarm them. Is Father all right?’

‘He’s worried, but he’s all right. It was a bit of a shock, seeing it on telly like that. But he’s fine. You’ve enough to worry about at the moment without him as well.’

‘Tell him I love him. Tell him Naomi is fine. She’s looking forward to seeing him next week.’

There was nothing more to say. I think Carol knew even then. An intuition. She had always been a little uncanny. Second sight, perhaps. Isn’t that what they call it? She compensated for me: I had always been down-to-earth, literal. I am not so any longer, of course.

There was no one else I wanted to ring. I replaced the receiver on the hook and headed upstairs to the nursery. There was a blue laundry bag with the clothes she had been wearing two days before, a thick sweater and skirt, vest and pants. I took some other things as well: her teddy bear, her pillow, a pair of shoes. Let the dogs have her, I thought, let them have their fill of her. Or did I take those things for myself? I found some more photographs downstairs.

Every room I entered, everything I touched was imbued with her. I could remember vividly her relationship with the objects and the spaces of the house. I knew the precise moments when she had entered through this door, sat on that chair, eaten at that table. Her exact words, her actions, her facial expressions had become part of the house’s fabric, more than bricks or windows or painted walls.

I was in the hallway getting ready to leave when someone rang the doorbell. It made me jump, the sudden loud clangour breaking such a self-preoccupied silence. I opened the door. A young policeman was standing on the doorstep, his hand poised, ready to ring again. He was a patrol car policeman and wore, not the traditional bobby’s helmet, but a peaked cap with a chessboard pattern around the sides. I must have gawped at him. For a stupid moment I had no idea what he might be doing there.

‘Dr Hillenbrand?’


‘I’m sorry if I startled you, sir. I’ve just come from the police station on Parkside. We’ve had a message relayed from London. They wanted me to try to catch you before you headed on back. It’s about your daughter, sir. They’ve found her.’

My heart skipped a beat. Two beats.

‘Thank God,’ I whispered. ‘Thank God.’ Racing, my heart was racing.

The policeman paused. He seemed tense, I could tell by his expression that something was wrong, that he had not told me everything, perhaps that he had told me nothing. Even in that moment, that moment when I knew, I think I felt sorrier for him than for myself. What a bloody awful thing to have to do on Christmas Day. That’s what I thought.

‘I’m afraid not, sir. It’s not . . . I’m afraid it isn’t good news, sir. To thank God for, that is.’

‘Naomi . . . ?’

‘Your daughter was found dead, sir. One of the search party found her body an hour ago.’

She is here now, here with me in the study. I do not have to look round to know, I can feel her presence, I have acquired a sensitivity. She has never come down here before, into this room, I had thought I was safe from her here.

‘Daddy.’ Her voice, behind me, at the door. ‘Daddy.’

I will not turn, I will not look at her.

‘Daddy, why won’t you look at me? I want to see you, Daddy.’

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? All I have to do is turn round. Whatever she is, she is still my daughter. Isn’t she? Yes. But what will I see if I do turn, what will be standing at the door?

‘I’ve come back, Daddy. I was cold.’

Outside, a ragged mist haunts the trees. A brown bird swoops in a parabolic arc, diving for buried seeds. Snow is forecast. The woods stretch away at the bottom of the garden, stretch away for ever, out of sight.

End, Chapter 4.

Go to Chapter 5…

Go back to Chapter 3…

Go back to Chapter 1…

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