Naomi’s Room … A Horrifying Ghost Story by John Aycliffe. Chapter 5…

NR5Naomi’s Room, Chapter 5…

In Indonesia, they keep the dead in stone vaults, and every year they bring them out to be with their families again. In Tibet, they cut them into tiny pieces with butcher’s knives and pound flesh and bones together so that vultures may gorge themselves on the remains. That is known as sky burial. In Bombay, the Parsees take them to a high place, a tower of silence, where they are exposed until eaten. We do things differently here. We are civilized, we put our dead in boxes, nail them to their deaths, lower them into deep holes in the ground.

But everywhere the problem is the same problem: how do we keep them dead, how do we prevent the categories of life and death from becoming confused? The dead do not refuse to die, they are willing accomplices in their own disposal. But they will not rest unless the living rest as well. And we knew no rest after Naomi died.

What do I remember about the funeral? Snow drifting through a plain white sky, a church bell tolling four strokes, evenly spaced, one for each year of a child’s life; the surprising lightness of the coffin in the crook of my arms, holly on the lumpy soil of the grave; Laura stooping in the pain of her grief, her mother bending over her, the sound of her voice, abrupt, unfamiliar, hurling our daughter’s name to the far edges of the dense white air.

Everyone was there. My parents, Laura’s parents, Carol with a bewildered Jessica in her arms, my colleagues, staff from the Fitzwilliam, friends from all round the country. Most of the old music consort came down, but they neither sang nor played. My father was ashen, propped up on a stick. He died a year later, robbed of any happiness in his last months. My mother followed him before long.

I am fifty and I have a life to live, students to teach, books to write. But I died my death twenty years ago in a breach between the tolling and the untolling of a church bell. The questions began before that, I carried them down with me into my own death, I carry them with me now: ‘Was she the sort of child . . . ? Did she ever . . . ? Can you remember anyone . . . ?’

The policeman would not let me drive myself back to London. It was not simple kindness, I imagine, but prudence. I was in no state to drive; a drunk man would have fared better. He had no details to give me, nothing but the bleak message he had been instructed to give, that Naomi was dead.

During the journey, he asked a few questions, as much to distract me as anything. How old had she been? Did we have other children? I answered him by rote; but my mind was elsewhere, imagining the unimaginable. He had children of his own, he said. They were at home waiting for him, waiting to pick up the threads of an interrupted Christmas. He was not intentionally cruel, just a little thoughtless. Even I could not believe that I too would not soon be home again, eating Christmas lunch with Laura and Naomi.

I was driven straight to the City of London Police Headquarters, in Old Jewry. The policeman told me that, although the case had initially been handled by the Metropolitan Police, Naomi’s body had been found in Spitalfields, which fell under City jurisdiction. It meant nothing to me at the time, of course; why should it have done?

Laura was already there, pale-faced and shaking in a small office on the third floor. They left us alone for a while. I remember saying over and over again that I was sorry, that I was to blame. And I remember Laura stroking my hands, stroking my face, telling me not to worry, I had nothing to blame myself for. I think that, just then, while she said those things, Laura did not really believe Naomi was dead.

They did not leave her long in that state of bliss. About twenty minutes later, there was a knock at the door. A policewoman entered, accompanied by a man in plain clothes. The man was tall, clean-shaven, with thin, sand-coloured hair. He stooped as he came through the door. I made to stand, but he shook his hand at me and I remained seated. He closed the door behind him, quite slowly, as though it weighed a great deal. As he entered, he coughed heavily, cupping one hand to his mouth. When the coughing subsided, he looked at us both carefully before speaking.

‘My name is Ruthven,’ he said. He pronounced the name ‘Riven’. ‘Detective Superintendent Ruthven. I have just been assigned to the case of your daughter’s murder.’

I saw Laura flinch. Ruthven must have seen it too, but he kept on talking.

‘I know you would prefer to be alone, but there are urgent questions that have to be asked. Your daughter was found in an alley near Spitalfields market. Not far from Liverpool Street station. We think the killer may have seen her there when you arrived. He may still be in London, but he won’t know we’ve found the body yet. It was well hidden. I want to catch him before he makes a run for it.’

‘What makes you think it’s a man?’ I asked.

Ruthven hesitated, then said very deliberately, ‘I’ve just come from viewing your daughter’s body. I would like to think that a woman could not be capable of . . . what I saw.’ Another round of coughing took hold of him. ‘I’m sorry,’ he apologized. ‘I’ve been trying to throw this cold off for the past three days.’

‘Can we see her?’ Laura was on her feet. ‘Perhaps there’s a mistake. Another little girl . . .’

Ruthven shook his head.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs Hillenbrand. There’s been no mistake. I’ve brought along her clothes to enable you to make a formal identification. They fit the description you gave us.’

‘I’d like to see her.’

He shook his head again. He was in his fifties, not so much blunted by his occupation as tired of it. I later learned that his own daughter had died of a drugs overdose a year or two earlier. She had been twenty-one.

‘I don’t think you should see her. You have a right to, of course, but in this case . . . Please take my advice. I’d prefer it if your husband carried out the identification.’

The policewoman asked us to come over to a small table on the far side of the room. I noticed for the first time that she carried a small case. From this she took out a number of transparent plastic bags. Each was labelled and held an article of clothing. She laid them in a short row on the table.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I wish we didn’t have to do this. Could you tell me if you recognize these clothes?’

We looked at them in turn: the blue dress, the shoes, the underclothes. There was blood on all of them. A lot of blood. Laura retched, but nothing came up. I felt the blood drain from my face, my hands. I wanted to touch the clothes, but my hands encountered cold plastic.

‘She had a coat,’ I said. ‘And a scarf and gloves.’

‘We haven’t found those yet, sir. Could you confirm that these clothes belonged to your daughter Naomi?’

I nodded. Laura nodded.

‘Is that “yes”, Dr Hillenbrand? I have to have a verbal assent. For the record.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Those things belong to Naomi. I’m sorry. Belonged to Naomi.’ I turned to Ruthven. ‘May I see her now?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’ll accompany you to the mortuary.’

‘How did she die? Can you tell me that?’

He shook his head.

‘Not yet, sir. She’s in the hands of our forensic examiners at the moment. They’ll have to carry out a post mortem. I’ll be able to tell you more after that.’

He knew even then, of course. Not the fine details, but the more obvious things, like the fact that her hands were missing. The rest came out at the inquest. Laura was not there, her doctor refused to let her attend. But I sat through it, I listened to everything. That is why I do not turn round when she comes. Sometimes she visits me as herself, as I remember her. And sometimes she is what her killer made her: handless, bloodied, featureless. The thing I saw on a table in a mortuary, that is what visits me.

He did not rape her, if that is what you are thinking. That might have made it a crime of passion, I might have tolerated that. In its fashion, it was, of course, but not his passion, not her killer’s. They let it slip out at the inquest that she did not die quickly. I never told Laura, it would have finished her. I have always carried that burden myself.

Sometimes I wonder if that had something to do with what happened afterwards, whether those events might not have taken place if he had given Naomi a quick death. But then I remember the photographs. And the house that Dr Liddley had built for his wife and his little girls. For little Caroline and little Victoria.

The inquest was held in London in the first week of January. I had to attend as the person who had identified Naomi, but Laura stayed at home. They arranged for me to enter and leave through a rear door, so I would not be pestered by the press. Back at home, however, we would see photographers sneaking about, taking shots of the house, hoping for a chance view of Laura or myself. The coroner adjourned the inquest until February, to await developments in the police inquiry.

Laura’s parents stayed with us during the worst part, the funeral, the memorial service in college, the inquest. Then my sister Carol came. She took over the running of the house, brought a semblance of normality into our lives. But she had a job and a child to go back to. She was building her solicitor’s practice in Northampton, her daughter Jessica could not stay with her grandparents indefinitely. Friends came in, did what little they could, and left again.

If there had been another child, if Laura had had someone dependent on her, someone who might have suffered by her neglect, she might have pulled through. But there was only me. The doctor came and prescribed tranquillizers. They did nothing for her. Her problem was grief, not some chemical imbalance. Day by day she deteriorated. I began to fear, first for her sanity, then for her life.

The university gave me indefinite leave of absence. At first, I just sat in the house and moped with Laura. We were no good for each other, my grief exacerbated hers, the very sight of her reminded me at once of my loss. And I knew so much that I could not tell her.

We went away for a while, to Egypt. It was Carol who suggested it, and everyone concurred: my parents, Laura’s parents, our doctor. ‘You need a change,’ they said, ‘you need to get away from this place.’ The doctor thought sunshine might help. Nowadays, they write books about it, how a lack of sunlight makes some people depressed, how natural light can stimulate recovery. But Laura was not depressed, that was what they failed to see. She was dying inside.

For a month we lived in the sun, in the moist heat of Lower Egypt and the dry, desert warmth of the south. We took a cruise-boat from Cairo to Aswan, stopping at all the sights. Our fellow travellers were Europeans, but we kept to ourselves. In the long nights, beneath a sky riddled with stars, Laura would stand at the ship’s rail staring into the darkness. We passed silently like ghosts through a landscape of tombs.

Someone recognized our name, a woman from Ullapool on her first trip abroad. She and her dull husband made a point of coming up to us one lunchtime. They wanted to commiserate with us in our loss. That was how she put it: ‘Arthur and I would like to commiserate with you in your loss. She was such a beautiful child. We’ve not been blessed with children ourselves, so in a way we understand what you must be going through.’ The warped logic of the insufferable. She had flat red hair and freckled skin that would not take the sun. Her husband was something in insurance. I looked at her, fighting back . . . not anger, but pity. I did not want to pity her. Her own pain, her childlessness, her ugliness.

‘My daughter,’ I said, ‘was only lost for a short time.’ I said it between my teeth, I forced the words out. She wore a Marks and Spencer frock, a cheerful white frock with green flowers. Her husband wore a khaki suit in some synthetic material.

‘After that he started killing her. It took several hours. Her killer threw out what was left. What the police found was not beautiful.’

The woman from Ullapool and her husband did not speak to us again, but they watched circumspectly from a distance and encouraged others in our party to do the same. By the end of that day, everyone on the boat knew. It made no difference to Laura or to me.

The river churned past us like a long, unbroken dream. We stopped at Beni Hassan and Abydos and Luxor, where we would walk – a little apart from the others – between fallen pillars and the heads of giant statues come to earth. Laura would trace with a childless hand the painted forms of gods and dancers on the walls of deep-shafted tombs. We were so far away from our old life, from any life, so taken out of things, and yet not a moment passed, not a bird rose up from the dark reeds of the riverbank, not a star twinkled in the night sky, but we thought of Naomi. I, above all, thought unceasingly of that moment when, in a flicker of forgetfulness, I lost her.

We returned to Cambridge a month later, suntanned and exhausted, but otherwise untouched by our interlude abroad. The remedy had not worked, our absence had served only to make our hearts grow fonder and, as a consequence, more fragile. We took a taxi for the short drive from the station. It was early afternoon, and the snow had gone, leaving a tangled and sodden garden. Without its mantle of white, the house seemed old and deserted. We took our cases wearily from the boot of the cab and set them down by the steps. I paid the driver and turned back to enter the house.

As I did so, something made me look up. Even now, I cannot be certain what I saw, whether, indeed, I saw anything. Or anyone. But in an upstairs window I was sure I saw a quick movement, almost furtive, as though someone, watching from above, had let a curtain drop and fall back into place. But that didn’t make sense. The window in which I thought I had seen the movement was the attic window. It had no curtain. No one went up there. It had been locked for years.

End, Chapter 5

Go to Chapter 6…

Go Back to Chapter 4…

Go back to Chapter 1…

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