Naomi’s Room, Chapter 13…
Dear God, the clock has stopped. I wound it yesterday, it has no reason to stop now. Of course, it may mean nothing. But the silence feels charged. How I wish I could leave this house. How I wish I could leave.
I found Laura in Naomi’s room. She was playing with the doll’s house, one that my father had made in his spare time for Naomi. She had been three and a little young for the house, but he had wanted her to have it. He had modelled it on one he had seen in the toy museum at Wallington Hall in Northumberland, modifying the design of the original to make his version a more or less exact replica of the house in which we lived.
Laura was speaking to herself in a low voice. At least, I thought then that her whispers were intended for herself. I know better now, of course. They were meant for Naomi. And quite possibly Caroline and Victoria, though I cannot be certain. Not that it matters now.
She held little dolls in her hands and with great exactitude was disposing them through the rooms of the tiny house. Naomi had long ago named the dolls. I did not then know with what precognition. Charles and Laura and Naomi, of course. And Caroline and Victoria, ordinary names that had signified nothing. And Dr and Mrs Liddley, which had made us laugh. Sweet Jesus, made us laugh! We wondered where on earth she had dreamed up such names.
I took the dolls from Laura and led her from the little house. She followed me without protest, like an obedient child whose playtime has ended. We went back to bed, but neither of us slept for the rest of that night. There were no further sounds from the attic, nor did I tell Laura that I had heard any. On the floor by the dressing-table, fragments of glass lay glinting in the cold electric light.
The next morning, Lewis arrived shortly after nine o’clock. I introduced him to Laura. There seemed little point in continuing the charade. I told him that Laura had seen the photographs. That was later, when she was out of the room. I mentioned to him that there had been some I had kept back. It was then that he told me quickly what he had seen in the shots developed the day before, the ones he had telephoned about.
‘They followed you to Egypt,’ he said. ‘All of them. Including Naomi. They seem to pass . . . from state to state. Sometimes quite normal, as they would have been in life. Sometimes as they must have been at the time of death. Sometimes without real form. It’s as though they’re constantly slipping and sliding.’
I shuddered. I did not ask to see any of the photographs.
‘What about the attic?’ I asked. Laura was making coffee. We had a few minutes.
His face went ashen. He looked round at the door.
‘It’s all right,’ I said. ‘We’ll hear her coming. For God’s sake, tell me what you saw.’
By way of answer, he reached into a briefcase he had brought with him and brought out a small packet of photographs. I noticed that his hand was shaking.
‘Last night,’ he said, ‘before I rang you, I thought I was going crazy. Whatever you do, don’t let your wife see any of these. She looks all in as it is, if you don’t mind my saying so. These here’ – he tapped the little portfolio – ‘could send her straight over the edge.’
He slid the packet across the coffee-table.
‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘They won’t hurt you. You’re in broad daylight. I clapped eyes on them in my darkroom. I could have done with somebody with me, believe me.’
I opened the packet and took out the first photograph. At first I thought there had been some mistake. It was not our attic at all, but another room, a strange room, one I had never set foot in. For one thing, it seemed longer than the attic. The walls were covered in a drab, light-brown paper, there were dull-looking rugs on the floor, pieces of heavy, antiquated furniture in random groups. And the light – the light was wrong, it belonged to another season. Midwinter, perhaps.
‘There’s no mistake,’ said Lewis. ‘It came off the same roll of film as the rest. You’ll see.’
More shots of the same faded, unfamiliar room. Vivid, full-colour photographs taken with a modern camera, and yet nothing modern about the room. In one shot, an oil-lamp was burning, and for some reason the light seemed much less pronounced, as though hours or days had passed since the first shot and it had grown close to evening. I felt, I do not know why, a sense of great melancholy in the scene, as though the room into which I was gazing were imbued with a very deep sadness. The furnishings were shabby, ill-proportioned, unaesthetic. Even the light seemed tainted by its passage through the air of the room.
Lewis laid a hand on my wrist. A fingernail grazed the bone.
‘Go easy, now,’ he said.
In the next photograph, the room had changed. A chair had been thrown on its side. The rugs had been rolled up, leaving bare floorboards. And the walls . . . The walls were smeared with blood. No, not smeared, washed. The blood seemed fresh, as though someone had just painted the walls with it. Quantities had dripped on to the floor as well.
‘Go on,’ whispered Lewis.
A different angle. Blood on the walls as before, but a different light. Two indistinct shapes in the foreground. I looked more closely. Two children, girls. They were naked, crouched on all fours, and very thin. One stared at the camera, one at the floor. There were traces of blood on their skin and in their long, matted hair. And their narrow necks were encircled by leather collars, the collars fastened to chains. I thought I recognized them, I knew I had seen them before,
‘Yes,’ said Lewis. ‘The same.’
I stripped that photograph away, uncovering the next. Only one little girl in this one, the older of the two. She was naked as before, but drenched in blood. She was . . . What shall I say? What may I dare to write? I will mention only her arms. They were lifted towards me, towards the onlooker. Lifted in a mute gesture of . . . what? Rage? Appeal? Repulsion? Enticement? The hands had been severed at the wrists. Not hacked away, but severed with what looked like surgical precision. That is all I will say. That is all I have the courage to say.
Laura’s feet sounded in the corridor. There was a sound of crockery tinkling. Quickly, I gathered together the photographs and passed them back to Lewis, who slipped them into his briefcase. Laura called. I got up to open the door. As I reached it, a wave of the purest nausea swept over me. I did not make it to the bathroom. Instead, I threw up my breakfast halfway up the stairs.
When I returned, I pretended to Laura that my stomach had been reacting to the strains of the night before. She did not believe me, of course. She glanced at me and Lewis as though she suspected us of some gross infidelity. I took a cup of coffee and forced it down, sip by bitter sip, unsugared, as black as my mood. Lewis had the courage I lacked.
‘Mrs Hillenbrand,’ he said, ‘I have just been showing your husband some more photographs. They were taken yesterday in your attic. They contain . . .’ He hesitated. ‘Let us say that they are deeply disturbing. I have not shown Charles the worst of them, not by any means. But you have witnessed the effect of those he has seen.’
Laura said nothing. He went on:
‘I think you have two choices. The first is that you leave this house now, today, as soon as you have packed. Find an agent, put the house on the market, get it off your hands. Start a new life for yourselves somewhere else.’ He paused.
‘That is your first option. Unfortunately, it may leave the situation unresolved. Whoever comes here after you may very well find what you have encountered.’
‘It has not been so very terrible,’ Laura said. ‘I see no reason to leave home on account of it.’
‘No,’ Lewis answered. He was very calm. He had thought this through. ‘You are perfectly right. So far, nothing very bad has happened. It is more a question of nerves than anything. But now something has happened to disturb the equilibrium. That something was, I suspect, your daughter’s death. Before that, you were not troubled. These – what shall we call them? – images, phantoms, whatever, were present, not just here, but wherever you and your husband went. Venice, for example. And other places too, I am sure.
‘But after Naomi’s death, they seem to have become more visible in and around the house. Charles tells me you have actually met and spoken with the little girls.’
Laura nodded. I’m not sure, but I think she shivered. More fear in the memory than in the act. Lewis went on.
‘In the photographs from Egypt and those taken here, they are beginning to shift.’
‘To shift?’ Laura’s eyebrows went up a fraction. Was she humouring him even then?
‘To move between different states. To show themselves in more than one guise. The little girls especially, but also the woman in grey and your daughter. They change form, I will not describe how. But if you were to see them in their . . . altered states, you might raise your eyebrows less.’
So, he had noticed after all. Well, he was no slouch, our Mr Lewis. An unreformed Welshman and a former alcoholic, but sharp enough for all that.
‘The man is different,’ he continued, ‘though he too shifts after his fashion. The rooms are also capable of transformation.’
‘The rooms? How do you mean?’
‘I have photographs of this room,’ he said. ‘It is the same room, but as it might have been around the middle of the last century. Perhaps a little earlier. That, at least, is my guess. In one of the photographs, the woman is sitting in a chair. Just over there, by the window.’
He pointed and our eyes followed his finger. I shivered, thinking that she might be there now, watching us. Lewis continued. He still addressed himself mainly to Laura.
‘There have been . . . manifestations,’ he said. ‘Both of you have heard sounds. Yesterday, your husband and I visited the attic. We sensed . . .’ He stopped, grasping for a way to express what it was we had experienced.
‘A flux in our emotions,’ I said. It was an attempt to distance myself from the enormity of what I had felt.
‘Yes,’ Lewis said. ‘Anger displacing . . . whatever had been there previously.’
‘Well, what’s the point of all this?’ Laura interjected impatiently. Lack of sleep had not improved her temper.
‘The point?’ It was Lewis’s turn to raise his eyebrows. ‘The point is this, Mrs Hillenbrand.’ I remember that he always preserved a polite formality with her. ‘If these changes become more . . . violent. If the . . . creatures that are haunting this house become more physical, you will not wish to be here. I do not exaggerate.
‘More than that, I am afraid for you, though I cannot explain why. I feel . . . Let me say that I have felt a terrible sense of menace here. Perhaps you have not, but I assure you, it is here.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said Laura, voicing my own doubt from before, ‘how it is possible for a camera to record images that are invisible to the naked eye. A camera is not – how shall I put this? – is not a spiritual instrument. It is not an item in the medium’s armamentarium.’ She was being deliberately affected. She could be, of course, it was in her nature. Affectation and disdain.
Lewis set down the coffee-cup from which he had been drinking. I noticed that his hand had stopped shaking. He seemed very calm.
‘I have been giving that little matter a great deal of thought over the past few days. Great thought. It has been a source of infinite trouble to me. As you say, photographic film is sensitive to light, not spiritual emanations. It now seems to me, however, that we have been looking at the entire matter back to front, as it were.’
He paused, less for effect, I think, than to gather thoughts that were only as yet half-formed. Laura was silent. Something in Lewis’s manner had taken hold of her.
‘The point is,’ he went on, ‘that, as you so rightly say, the camera is an instrument of limited dimensions. It can only be adjusted so’ – he made a gesture with his fingers, as though holding a camera – ‘or so. The focal length may be altered, or the shutter speed, or the angle of the lens. But it will, provided it has not been set badly out of focus or at entirely the wrong speed, make a fair enough record of anything you point it at.’
He ran a hand over his hair, smoothing it.
‘Now,’ he continued, ‘that is not altogether true of the human eye. The eye itself is, perhaps, quite inflexible. We can’t make it infrared-sensitive or capable of acting like a microscope. A camera would be more flexible. But it is not the eye that does the real seeing, it is the brain. It is the brain that records impressions sent to it by the eye. Our brains are unreliable. Our perception varies from one of us to the next.’
He paused again to drink and, I think, to steady his nerves.
‘I’m sorry,’ he muttered. ‘I’m not explaining this well. Look, what I’m trying to say is this: I think that what my camera has seen, what it has photographed is . . . how things really are. Sometimes normal, as you might say, like this room at this moment. Sometimes the same room as it would have been in the past. And . . . sometimes the same room, still in the past, but changed. It’s as though the room is moving through time, and the camera is just photographing what it sees. I think . . . I think the people are actually there much of the time, and that they show up on film as a result. It’s just that we don’t see them, can’t see them, for whatever reasons. We are not . . . attuned. Do you see? The fault lies with us, with our perception, not with the camera.’
I looked round the room and shivered. ‘How things really are . . .’ We were living in a state of unreality, in a dream of our own making. This room might be full of ghosts, might be packed with all the house’s dead, but we could not see them.
‘I think,’ the Welshman continued in a voice that had fallen to little more than a whisper, ‘I think that, bit by bit, their reality may be taking control here, that before long we will start to see them and hear them more and more often.’
‘You said two choices,’ Laura broke in. ‘What was the second?’
He did not answer at once. Perhaps he realized that he had gone too far, that she might after all prefer the second option.
‘We go back up to the attic,’ he said finally. ‘That’s the heart of this thing, that’s where it resides. We find out what it is. And we put a stop to it.’
End, Chapter 13.