Naomi’s Room … A Horrifying Ghost Story by John Aycliffe. Chapter 6…

NR6Naomi’s Room, Chapter 6…

I can hear something upstairs. Far upstairs, in the attic. The sounds carry sometimes. I have come to recognize them. Why do I stay? For Laura’s sake, of course. And for . . . other reasons.

In our absence, little had changed. Nothing spectacular had occurred to advance the police investigation into Naomi’s death. No one had confessed, no one had been arrested. I don’t think either would have mattered much to us. Hundreds of potential witnesses came forward. Several told stories of having seen Naomi and myself that day in either Liberty’s or Hamleys, or Naomi alone in the toyshop, or Naomi being taken out of the store by a stranger, weeping as she went. As might have been expected, none of these stories tallied well with one another. But they were the best leads the police had, so they pursued them vigorously, made Identikit pictures of possible suspects, and pulled in known child molesters for questioning.

I had all this from Ruthven in the course of a long session at the City Police Headquarters one afternoon. He still seemed tired, but for the first time I sensed in him a vigour for the investigation. In the time I knew him, that vigour grew to an obsession. Perhaps the loss of his own daughter had sensitized him, perhaps the case insinuated itself into his unconscious. It would have been better if it had not.

As I have already said, the police were not, in fact, looking for a child molester. Bringing those men in was a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the police, and, as anyone could have told them, it came to nothing. Naomi had not been raped or even interfered with sexually. It is ironic how that single fact lent a frisson to the case, took it out of the realm of the ordinary. The newspapers made much of it and indulged themselves in reports of Naomi’s sufferings: the severed hands, the long knife-wounds on her shoulders, the eyes. Technically, she died from strangulation, her neck squeezed hard and finally snapped by a pair of powerful hands. A man’s hands, or so the coroner thought.

One or two of the more sensational dailies made wild speculations as to the motives of the killer or killers. There were the inevitable comparisons with the activities of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. One paper suggested a ring of Satanists.

Curiously enough, that suggestion sounds less bizarre nowadays, when even responsible newspapers, led by a bevy of psychologists and sociologists, tell us that child abuse through satanic cults is not merely recorded, but is endemic in our society. And perhaps they are right. Perhaps that is what he really was. By the time we knew, it hardly seemed to matter any longer. Our quest for motives had given way to a search for something else.

It was, in fact, a newspaperman who first alerted us to the existence of other events, events taking place beneath the surface, as it were. He was a photographer from the Daily Mirror, a man called Lewis, Dafydd Lewis I think it was. If I remember rightly, he came from somewhere obscure and semi-rural in South Wales – Neath or Port Talbot or Ammanford. One of those places neither Dylan Thomas nor Vernon Watkins ever wrote about.

By the look of him, Lewis had been a rugby player in his youth. He had the build, that Welsh stockiness that fits them so well for sheep farming and the mines. He had been a hard-drinking man once, or so he told me, but he was down-to-earth for all that. Not that it would have mattered. He had his evidence, I did not have to depend on his appearance or his word.

He was a quick-witted man, sociable and likeable, if not entirely cultured. He telephoned first, and when I said we wanted no photographs and made to put the phone down on him, he protested and said it was about another matter, something that was causing him to lose sleep at night. When I still demurred, he promised to come without a camera, and said he would bring some photographs with him, photographs on which he wanted my opinion. I hesitated, but agreed in the end. Had I not done so, would things have been any different?

Something is coming down the stairs. It is very slow, and I think it stops and listens every step or so. If I hold my breath and wait, I can almost hear it breathing. Please God, help me get through this, help me get through tonight at least.

Lewis arrived the same afternoon by car. A friend had called and taken Laura to Town. People were very kind in those days, they did what they could to help, although I know they found it difficult at times.

He was a rather bedraggled man, his untidy appearance worsened by his choice of a fur-hooded anorak, the sort of garment that would make even Rudolf Nureyev look foolish. That was unfortunate, for above all else, Lewis was a serious man and, whatever else he might have been, most certainly not a fool. For my part, I was predisposed against him: by his appearance, by his Welshness, by his profession.

He hung his anorak in the hall.

‘I’ve left my camera in the car,’ he said. ‘But I’ve not come empty-handed.’

In his hand he held a large cardboard folder the size of a small portfolio.

‘Would you like something to drink?’ I asked.

He shook his head.

‘Better not,’ he said. ‘You might think I’m a drinking man. It’s better you don’t think that.’

‘Shall we go to the study, then?’ I suggested.

He nodded.

‘Wherever you like,’ he answered.

When we had settled, I poured myself a glass of sloe gin, taken from one of the Christmas bottles that had remained unopened. In some parts of the house, it might still have been Christmas. In the nursery, for instance, where Naomi’s presents remained wrapped. Laura would not listen to suggestions that she get rid of them. The wardrobe was full of Naomi’s clothes, the sheets on her bed had not been changed since the day of her disappearance. It was as though she had just gone out into the garden to play.

‘What can I do for you, Mr Lewis? What is it you want to show me?’

For answer, he took from his cardboard folder a collection of black-and-white photographs about six inches by ten square. He laid the bundle face down on top of my desk and turned to look at me. We were seated close together, me in my armchair, he perched on the chair I use for typing, the one I am sitting on now. If I close my eyes, I can see him, less than a foot away from me, his earnest Welsh face close to mine, like a doctor scrutinizing me for some suspected defect.

‘Dr Hillenbrand, just before you went away, my office sent me down here to take photographs. They wanted shots of this house, and, if possible, of you and your wife or anyone else I could catch going in or out. You’ll have seen us about, me and the other photographers. You didn’t think well of us, I know, and I don’t blame you for that. But it’s my job, you see. I have to make a living. So I came down and I hung about.

‘By and by, most of the others gave up and went back to London. They’d other stories to cover, and you weren’t giving them much of what we like to call a photo opportunity. But I’m more persistent than some, so I thought I’d stay on a day or two longer, see what I might get if you thought we’d all gone.’

He paused.

‘If you don’t mind, sir, I think I’d like that drink you offered after all. I’ll have a drop of what you’re having, if that’s not any trouble.’

I poured him a glass of the gin, a rich tawny shade in his hand, its surface reflecting the light of my desk lamp. It was growing dark outside. The garden was full of shadows and very silent.

‘I did get a few photographs,’ he said. ‘You and Mrs Hillenbrand went in and out a few times. You never saw me, I have a small van I use for these outings, where I can lie up for hours at a time without being noticed. I’ve got the shots of you. I’ll show you them in a moment. Over the few days I was here, I took quite a lot of pictures of the house and the garden. I found a way round the back, so I took a lot of photos there as well.’

He sipped his sweet gin. It was very rich, full of sloes and sugar.

‘It’s like port, this stuff,’ he observed.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘A little.’

A cat crept through the garden, intent on something we could not see, moving like a shadow into the darkness. Suddenly it looked round, caught sight of me, and darted away into some bushes.

‘Here,’ Lewis said. ‘These are some I took on the first day. I kept a close record of the numbers, with the dates.’

He laid a sequence of photographs on the desk-top, grainy shots, taken mainly through a telephoto lens, all showing our house from different angles. There was snow on the ground. In most of them, the curtains were closed. It seemed like a deserted house. Or perhaps not that, not deserted. It was more as if the soul had departed from it. I had thought it a happy house when I bought it. Now, looking at Lewis’s photographs, I wondered how I could have been so mistaken.

‘Now look at this,’ he said. He cleared a space and laid another photograph down. It had been taken from the front of the house, along the drive. Judging by the light, it must have been taken in late afternoon. It showed the upper two storeys and part of the overhanging eave. At first I could see nothing out of the ordinary. Then Lewis pointed with a stubby finger at something just below the eave. Barely visible in the attic window was a face, a pale face framed by dark hair. I felt a shiver run through me. And I thought of the movement I had seen on my return.

‘I wanted to know who this was,’ he said, ‘so I blew it up as much as I thought it would take, just in case it would be somebody I recognized. This is what I got.’

He brought out another print and laid it on top of the first. It showed a detail from the previous photograph, much enlarged, part of the window-frame and the face inside it. Theresolution was poor, but it was enough to show very clearly that it was a woman’s face. One thing was certain, the woman was not Laura. Nor did it seem to be anyone else I knew.

‘Do you recognize her?’ Lewis asked.

I shook my head.

‘I thought not,’ he said, and drank from his glass.

‘Is that it?’ I asked.

He shook his head.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘This was taken the next morning.’

The next photograph showed one of the downstairs windows, that of the dining room, to the right of the front door. The curtains had been pulled back. There was a face in the window, much sharper this time. On top of this, Lewis dropped a blow-up.

‘I thought it might be your wife or a relative,’ he said. ‘But I knew I hadn’t seen this woman going in or out before. What’s worse . . .’ He paused and drained his glass. ‘She wasn’t at the window when I took that shot. I’d swear to that in any court.’

I looked at the blown-up face. A hard, pale countenance, hair drawn back severely, revealing a taut forehead. A woman in her late thirties perhaps, or early forties. Thin lips, a pinched expression to the mouth, no make-up. Pale, very pale. I had never seen her before.

‘What sort of trick is this?’ I demanded. I had started to rise from my seat.

‘It’s not a trick, Dr Hillenbrand. Please, I want you to believe me. I have more to show you. You’d be as well to let me. The photographs concern you. And I can’t sleep at night thinking about them.’

I sat down again. Lewis reached inside his folder and drew out another batch of photographs.

‘I took this in the front garden on my last day. I wanted a shot of the swing.’

Our garden? Yes. Part of the house was just visible: the porch with its small stone lions, the three steps, a portion of the front door. In the garden itself was the swing I had erected for Naomi a year before. There was the large elm Naomi had grazed her shin on . . . how long ago? In October or November. But none of this drew my attention, they were details I noticed only later, as a means of confirming that this was indeed our front garden.

In the foreground stood two little girls, one aged about nine, the other six or seven. They were dressed curiously, in long wide skirts with boots showing underneath, and their hair was done in ringlets. They held hands, facing the camera. It was as though they had stepped out of a fancy-dress party, where they had gone as early Victorian children. Like the woman in the earlier photograph, their faces were pale. There was something about their eyes that made me look away. A look of pain or grief or anger or disillusion . . . it was impossible to say.

‘They were not there,’ Lewis said in a voice that was little more than a whisper. ‘There was no one there.’

‘You’re lying.’

A look of anger crossed the man’s face.

‘For God’s sake, man, can’t you see I’m frightened? I wouldn’t have come to you with this if I was making it up. What would be the point of that?’

‘Is this all?’

He shook his head again.

‘When I got home,’ he said, ‘I developed every photograph I’d taken at your house. Every single shot. Some were quite normal, as they should have been. Some had the two little girls in, always together, always the small one to the left, the older one to the right. And here’s another one.’

This photograph showed a scene in the rear garden, near the fishpond. The two little girls were there. And with them, dressed also in Victorian clothes, was the woman from the other photographs, the woman at the window. She was very tall. Her clothes were grey, and at her neck was a plain jet brooch.

‘But this is the one I want particularly for you to see.’ Lewis was sweating. I poured him another glass and a second for myself. I was beginning to believe his story. There was something about the man that carried conviction. Later, of course, I would not need proof.

He laid down the last photograph from his folder. Very slowly, anticipating its effect.

It showed Laura and myself walking away from the house. We were perhaps ten yards from the front door. I was wearing my tweed overcoat, Laura a green hat and green coat. We were two or three feet apart, Laura a little behind me. Between us, wearing her yellow coat and red scarf, was Naomi.

End, Chapter 6.

Got to Chapter 7…

Go back to Chapter 5…

Go back to Chapter 1…

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