Naomi’s Room–A Terrifying Ghost Story by Jonathan Aycliffe (Continued) … Chapter 13…

imagesNaomi’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.

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Naomi’s Room–A Terrifying Ghost Story by Jonathan Aycliffe (Continued) … Chapter 12…

imagesNaomi’s Room, Chapter 12…

Laura did not want to leave. She was frightened, of course she was; who wouldn’t have been? But not in the way that Lewis and I were frightened. I think she wanted . . . I think that, having met the little girls, she guessed about Naomi. So I showed her the photograph, the one of her and myself, and Naomi in the background, watching us walking down the path. I wonder now, if I had not shown her that photograph, might things have turned out differently? I might have persuaded her to leave, if not that night, then the next day or the next. But I showed her the photograph and she said she wanted to stay.

The rest of that evening was spent leafing through old family photographs. We started with the snaps of our honeymoon, but that led to others, and finally to the photographs taken the previous Christmas. Instead of upsetting her, those last pictures of Naomi seemed to give Laura a sort of peace. Not even the presence in them of the man and woman or the two girls could alter the fact that Naomi appeared, laughing, smiling, happy. I think Laura would have accepted anything just to see Naomi again.

We went to bed late and, for the first time in over two months, we made love. It was the saddest lovemaking we had ever known, an affirmation of the flesh, an unmaking of Naomi’s death. It lasted a long time. Afterwards, Laura wept, the first time she had cried properly since hearing of Naomi’s murder. I held her until she fell asleep. Then I fell asleep myself, still holding her, drifting into darkness, naked, unable to dream.

I was wakened by Laura shaking me by the shoulder.

‘Wake up, Charles. Wake up for God’s sake.’

‘What is it?’

It was pitch-dark. I remember feeling groggy, as though I had had too much to drink. Laura was sitting bolt upright on the bed beside me.

‘Listen,’ she whispered. ‘Listen.’

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Naomi’s Room–A Terrifying Ghost Story by Jonathan Aycliffe (Continued) … Chapter 11…

imagesNaomi’s Room, Chapter 11…

Lewis left shortly afterwards. He took with him the rolls of Egyptian film, as well as those he had himself taken in the house that afternoon. In spite of his strange panic in the attic, he was more than ever determined to dig to the bottom of the mystery. Almost as soon as he had left the attic and returned downstairs, his mood had changed. Two large glasses of calvados had restored to us both something of our former equanimity and composure. I laughed a little, trying to make light of how we had suddenly turned tail and fled precipitately down those dark steep stairs, like children who have spooked themselves in the night. But Lewis remained sombre.

‘I felt it,’ he said. ‘That menace you spoke about. Felt it as soon as I set foot in the attic. Well, it wasn’t so much menace as a feeling of being menaced, if you see what I’m driving at.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I suppose that’s it. As though someone else wished ill of you.’

‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘Undoubtedly. But more than that.’ He sipped his brandy slowly, less to savour it than to bring his mood down the more gradually. The yellow liquid turned in the glass. ‘As though they wished you harm,’ he continued, ‘physical harm. As though they meant to do you some mischief. Hatred it is, I suppose. Terrible hatred. And resentment, I could feel that too. And something else. Jealousy, I think.’

‘Is that what you meant back there when you said you felt compelled to relive your death? That someone wished to kill you? Out of jealousy?’

He shook his head with an air of reluctance, as though he wished he could say ‘yes’ and leave it at that. It took a while and several sips from the glass to bring him to it.

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Naomi’s Room–A Terrifying Ghost Story by Jonathan Aycliffe (Continued) … Chapter 9…

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Naomi’s Room, Chapter 9…

Lewis telephoned later that day to say he had something else to show me, something important. I hung up on him. He tried again, several times, until I left the receiver off the hook. By then, of course, I knew he was telling the truth, that his photographs were not impostures, but images of people no longer living. No longer living, that is, in any proper sense of the word. But I wanted things to end there, I wanted the dead to stay dead. I could not bear to think that they might mingle with the living. More than anything, I now perceive, I wanted to give my own feelings a decent burial. Left above ground, they could only be an abiding torment to me.

The next day Superintendent Ruthven turned up on our doorstep. There had been no disturbances during the night. At my insistence, we kept to our bedroom, though neither of us slept. Laura was keyed up, expecting the sound of prowling footsteps from the room above. Just before three o’clock was the worst time, for we both expected to hear that scream again. When the moment passed and all remained silent, we relaxed somewhat. I fell into a light doze, but Laura–so she told me later–remained wakeful until dawn. No footsteps sounded above our heads. In the morning, I ventured into Naomi’s room. Nothing more had been touched.

Ruthven brought with him a large plastic bag containing Naomi’s coat. Unlike her other clothes, this was not stained with blood. We confirmed the identification for him and he replaced it in its bag for return to his forensic laboratory.

‘Where was it found?’ I asked.

‘In a church,’ he said. ‘An Anglican church called St Botolph’s. It’s in Spitalfields, off Brick Lane–not far from the spot we found Naomi herself. We’ve got people going over the place now, but we don’t expect to come up with anything. It’s an old church, hardly used. A curate from another parish comes in to do a weekly service. That’s about all. A few old folk attend. Some vagrants. Anybody could have left your daughter’s things there.’

‘Whereabouts?’ I asked.

‘I told you . . .’

‘No, in the church, I mean. Whereabouts in the church?’ For some reason I could not explain, it was important to know.

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Naomi’s Room–A Terrifying Ghost Story by Jonathan Aycliffe (Continued) … Chapter 10…

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Naomi’s Room, Chapter 10…

‘What happened?’

Lewis and I were sitting in the study, facing one another across a low table on which I had placed a small folder.

‘His throat was cut. Savage, according to the report we had at the office. Nobody at Old Jewry knows why he went down to the church. They’d finished there, done all their forensic business, and given up. Seems they haven’t found anything yet. They think the coat got there by chance, nothing more. A vagrant may have come across it, taken it to the church.’

‘But why leave it in the crypt? What would be the point?’

‘The caretaker says vagrants go down there sometimes, the clever ones that know there’s a boiler. They don’t last long, though. The place spooks them. Nobody’s ever spent a night there, as far as he knows.’

‘Could they be related?’

‘Who?’

‘No, not who: I mean the murders. Naomi’s and Ruthven’s. Could there be a link? Could Ruthven have been on to something? Panicked the murderer into attacking him, perhaps?’

Lewis shrugged.

‘It’s too early to say. There’s no record of a lead. They only shut down their operation at the church yesterday.’

‘When was he found?’

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Naomi’s Room–A Terrifying Ghost Story by Jonathan Aycliffe (Continued) … Chapter 8…

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Naomi’s Room, Chapter 8…

We spent the rest of that night downstairs, I in an armchair, Laura on the sofa. I switched the lights on, every light I could find, and left them burning brightly. Looking back, I am grateful for the fear or circumspection or simple instinct that prevented me going up to the attic that night. What I might have found – what I know I would have found – I would not then have been ready to face. Even now I shake to think of it.

We passed a dreadful night, most of all in the literal sense. Sleeplessness had given way to outright fear. That terrible scream had chilled our blood. And the steady, pacing feet in the attic, the attic that had been shut up long before we came to live in the house, that had always been empty, had further shaken Laura’s already frayed nerves. She asked me what I had found in Laura’s bedroom. I told her about the presents, but kept to myself the business of the drawing and my understanding of what the three figures represented.

In the morning, when it was fully light, we took courage from the fading of darkness and made our way upstairs again. There had been no further sounds during the night, no screams, no dark footsteps, not even a creaking floorboard. In the cool morning light, our fears seemed foolish. Warmth was creeping through the house as the central heating took effect.

The light on the bedroom landing was still lit. On the right, the door of the nursery lay open as I had left it. A faint shaft of light came through the doorway. Up here, where the natural light was less evident, I felt uneasy again.

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Naomi’s Room–A Terrifying Ghost Story by Jonathan Aycliffe (Continued) … Chapter 7…

imagesNaomi’s Room, Chapter 7

Everything is quiet now. I have the biscuit tin in front of me. Inside are the photographs, the other photographs, the ones we looked at after Lewis’s visit.

I could do nothing to reassure him. He could tell by my face that I was as shaken as he.

‘I’m not superstitious,’ he repeated, as though his probity of mind made things any better. Had he been, had I myself been prone to a belief in the supernatural, it might have allowed us a niche of sorts in which to take refuge. We might have tendered explanations, nodded agreement, made some cryptic sense of what the pictures showed. But such a route was not available to us, we had no way out but stark admission of what was before our eyes.

‘You say you never saw them?’ I asked.

‘Never. Save in the photographs. I thought you might have done. Living here. Being in the house.’

‘You think they’re connected to the house?’

‘They have to be. It’s all that makes sense.’

And I thought he was right, but how right I did not then know or guess.

When Laura came home from Town, Lewis had gone. I thought it best not to tell her anything.

‘Did that man come?’ she asked. ‘The photographer.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He came.’

‘What did he want?’

‘Oh, just a back way into our affections. He had photographs of the house, thought I might like them, agree to be photographed with you.’

‘I should have thought it had gone stale by now. Public interest.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Until they make an arrest.’

‘Do you think they ever will?’

‘Of course,’ I said, not really thinking it. ‘Why shouldn’t they?’

‘It was so random, Charles. Most murders are committed by someone close to the victim. A relative mostly, or a friend. There’s nothing like that to go on.’

‘Ruthven said the forensic lab had come up with a few things. Fibres left on Naomi’s clothes. Traces of some sort of resin.’ I had not told her this before, not wanting to upset her.

‘Did he say that?’

I nodded.

‘Perhaps they’ll find her coat,’ she said. ‘Her scarf.’

‘Perhaps,’ I said. Sometimes we could not stop talking about it, about the murder. It was always on our minds, pulling us away from all other topics. People were visiting us less frequently. We were so heavy, it was such hard work to be with us.

That night, the first of the troubles happened. We called them ‘troubles’, but they were more than that. A spiritualist would have called them manifestations, I think. They started in a small way, as though the house were slowly waking up. By the end . . . No, that isn’t right. There has never been an end.

We had gone to bed. The nights were times of great stress to us. The doctor had given us both sleeping tablets, but tranquillizers quickly become ineffective and, if anything, exacerbate sleeplessness. I had given mine up and managed periods of deep sleep interspersed with long episodes of wakefulness. During these spells, I would go over in my mind everything that had happened during that day in London and the days following. It was like a tape that played itself over and over, that could not be stopped, however hard I tried.

Laura would lie awake beside me, never achieving more than a light doze. Sometimes, she tossed and turned in a half-sleep, dreaming dreams that she refused to talk about on waking. She was losing weight.

I had a small battery-operated reading lamp that allowed me some respite. Sometimes I read long into the night, falling asleep at four or five o’clock, sometimes not at all. We never made love. Desire had left us both, even the desire to touch, the will to take comfort from another’s physical presence.

It was almost three o’clock when the sound came. According to the post mortem, that must have been around the time Naomi was finally killed. What we heard was a single, high-pitched scream, a child’s scream, loud, frantic, full of an indescribable fear. It was suddenly cut off. I sat up and switched on the bedside lamp. Laura was sitting up beside me, her eyes wide open, a look of terror on her face. Instinctively, we both knew where the scream had come from. The nursery.

I stumbled out of bed, shivering in the cold of early morning. At the door, I hesitated. Lewis’s visit had unsettled me, and in bed my darkness had already been haunted by images of pale, staring children and a tall woman in a grey dress.

The landing was pitch-dark. There was a switch just to my left. I remember reaching out with a trembling hand, terrified at what I thought I might see. But there was nothing. The scream had been followed by a thick, hazy silence, the sort of silence in which you can imagine there is someone sitting facing you, mouthing words you cannot hear or understand.

I made my way along the short corridor to Naomi’s bedroom. Her name was on the door, white painted letters on a blue tile. She had chosen the tile in Primavera on King’s Parade earlier that year. For a long time, I stood at the door listening. Reason told me not to be afraid. But I had seen the photographs, I had seen Naomi where she should not have been.

I opened the door. For a moment, I expected to see the nightlight burning, as it had always burned when I went in to check on Naomi at night. But the room was dark. Dark and still and very, very cold. Colder than anywhere else in the house. I shivered and reached a fumbling hand for the light switch.

As soon as I looked, I knew she had been there. Her presents lay on the floor, the wrappings torn and tossed aside. I recognized the crying doll, the doll’s cradle, the doll’s pram. On the bed was the box of Lego I had promised her. It had been opened, and the pieces scattered over the counterpane. A box of crayons had been opened and its contents spilled across the floor. Someone had taken a few of them and drawn on a large sheet of paper on the little desk.

I bent down and looked at the drawing. She had used several colours. On the paper, in a child’s hand, she had drawn three figures. Underneath them, in her imperfect block letters, she had written their names: Mummy, Daddy, and Naomi. The figures were very crude, but one thing was certain: she had never drawn Laura or me like that before. The Daddy figure was drawn all in black and wore on his head something that might have been meant as a stovepipe hat. Naomi was dressed in yellow and had red scribbles at her throat, doubtless to indicate her scarf. But the mother figure struck the greatest dread in me: it depicted a tall woman in a long dress. A long grey dress.

There was a sound behind me. I turned and saw Laura standing outside the nursery door, her hair dishevelled, her eyes red and staring.

‘It’s nothing,’ I started to say. ‘A cat or something . . .’ But my voice trailed away as I looked at her. She had not come after me to investigate the sounds from the nursery.

‘Charles,’ she said. Her voice was trembling. ‘There’s someone walking about upstairs. I heard footsteps. Above our bedroom.’

‘But there’s nothing . . .’

‘In the attic, Charles. There’s someone walking about in the attic.

End, Chapter 7.

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Naomi’s Room–A Terrifying Ghost Story by Jonathan Aycliffe (Continued) … Chapter 6…

imagesNaomi’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.

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Naomi’s Room–A Terrifying Ghost Story by Jonathan Aycliffe (Continued) … Chapter 5…

imagesNaomi’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

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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.

‘Clothing?’

‘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?’

‘Yes.’

‘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.

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