“Monty” James & The Ghost Story—There’s Nothing More Frightening Than Reading “the Master”…


I watched a BBC documentary today on YouTube (link below), narrated by the brilliant Mark Gatiss (Sherlock), about 19th-century ghost story writer Montague Rhodes James, aka. M. R. James—or, if you knew him well: just plain ol’ “Monty” James. I’m not sure whether “knowing him well” would have been a plus or a minus after having watched the documentary, entitled M. R. James: Ghost Writer, which focused on James’ keen ability to write terrifying ghost stories.

It was uncanny. What the heck went on in that antiquarian head of his? Do we even want to know? I mean—the man could scare the trousers off a college boy.

(A little inside joke— no offense, Monty.) 😏


Robert Lloyd Parry as M. R. James in the 2013 BBC documentary “M. R. James: Ghost Writer” (YouTube below).

James is known the world over as the undisputed master of the “English” ghost story—although, why we need to qualify these stories as “English” is beyond me…slow your roll, Liz—your fanny may be on the throne, but that doesn’t mean you have the power to run the rest of us! 👑🤚

We are all collectively “human” in the end, aren’t we?

Monty James was, and still is, the master of the “human” ghost story.

If you haven’t read the ghost stories of M. R. James, you should.

You can own the complete stories in a book that fits in the palm of your hand (see my photo below)—or a larger, illustrated edition; or a collectible first edition—whatever suits your ghostly fancy.

Just be warned. These stories aren’t for the night time—well, I mean they are—but they aren’t—it’s all about the resolve of your nerve. (I was going to say “it’s all about the size of your balls”…but Liz is listening.🍒)

The story that caught my attention—“Lost Hearts”—is one I’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading. In the documentary today, Monty—brilliantly acted by Robert Lloyd Parry, a man who not only resembles M. R. James, but has a little snarl to his smile that sorta makes you wonder—is reading “Lost Hearts” to a group of 19th-century Oxford boys, at night, with nothing but the golden glow of a candle…quivering.

He reaches the point in the tale where the spectre of a young boy appears to Stephen Elliott—anoher young boy, this one very much alive—and Stephen notices the spectre’s clawlike fingernails—which have left scratch marks on the bedroom door, and tears in Stephen’s nightshirts—over the chest area…

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I love this sexy man (HailThe9) & his book reviews…and his accent…

Here are more of his reviews…



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.

Go to Chapter 8…

Go back to Chapter 6…

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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.

Got to Chapter 7…

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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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Dr Hillenbrand?’


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

My heart skipped a beat. Two beats.

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

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

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

‘Naomi . . . ?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ve come back, Daddy. I was cold.’

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

End, Chapter 4.

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Naomi’s Room–A Terrifying Ghost Story by Jonathan Aycliffe (Continued) … Chapter 3…

 imagesNaomi’s Room, Chapter 3…

There was an office on the first floor where missing children were reunited with their parents. As soon as I had given up hope of finding Naomi on the crowded shop floor, I asked for directions from an assistant. The office was small, with several comfortable chairs and toys everywhere. The woman in charge was very reassuring. This sort of thing happened in the shop several times every day. It was nothing to worry about.

There were already two little boys in the office, waiting patiently for mummy or daddy to find them and take them home. It was Christmas Eve. Nothing bad happened to children on Christmas Eve.

‘It usually takes a little while,’ the woman said. ‘She’ll try to find you, then give up and start crying. Before you can say “Father Christmas”, someone will be knocking on the door with an upset little girl in tow.’ A little girl with a yellow coat and a red scarf and bright red shoes. Every time there was a knock on the door, that was who I expected to see. And every time I returned my gaze to the wall in front of me, a little more anxious than before. There was a clock on the wall, a large clock with bold numerals and giant hands, the sort of clock a child could read. The hands moved so slowly I wanted to reach out and push them.

Half an hour passed. Naomi had still not appeared, and I sensed that the woman in charge was becoming slightly anxious. The little boys had gone, their tears dried and their fears quieted. My fears were just beginning.

‘It’s such a hubbub out there today,’ the woman said in a kind voice. I thought of her as kind, I wanted her to be kind. The thought of Naomi alone out there was only supportable if I believed in the kindness of strangers. ‘Someone may very well have taken her outside to find a policeman. Not everyone thinks of looking for our lost child department. But I’ll put out instructions to members of staff to be on the lookout. She’ll turn up soon.’

She made an announcement over the public address system. If anyone should see a little blonde-haired girl in a yellow coat and scarlet muffler, would they please bring her to the office? No one came. They repeated it. Still no one came. It was three o’clock. The shop was due to close in one hour. The floors were emptying now, the magic was dissipating. I could hear Jingle Bells playing every time someone opened the door, flat and unChristmassy. It seemed to go on for ever, like a bad dream.

The manager was called. I went with him through each floor in turn. There was no sign of Naomi. A member of staff went outside to check the street. She came back shaking her head. No one was being jolly now, no one was pretending this was all in a day’s work. Someone stopped the tape that played Jingle Bells. The store grew silent. The manager rang West End Central police station, the nearest to the shop, in Savile Row. No, no one had brought in a missing child. No, none of their constables or patrol cars had reported a little girl lost in or near Regent Street. Yes, they would issue a description.

Outside, the street was starting to empty. The lights had gone on, red and blue and yellow angels against a darkening sky. I remembered that I had promised Naomi we would stay until they came on. It was almost impossible to find a taxi anywhere, but the manager rang for one, explaining that it was an emergency. In the taxi I cruised up and down the street, now on the east side, now on the west. We went slowly, ignoring the honks and curses of other traffic. My anxiety communicated itself to the driver. He contacted other cabs through his CB radio. No one had seen a little girl in yellow.

When I went back to Hamleys they were closing. The awnings had been pushed back above the windows, a metal gate had been drawn halfway across the entrance. All the lights had been turned off on the upper floors. It felt so final, that shutting down of things. The great street was almost deserted. I felt a wash of such great loneliness, a churning of such utter helplessness that, for a moment, I was the lost child weeping on a cold London street.

The manager accompanied me to Savile Row. His name, I think, was Mr Moneypenny, a good name for the manager of a shop. I do not remember saying a word to him all the way from Hamleys. Perhaps I did, but my mind was a blank, I could not have made sense. He was a man in his mid-forties or thereabouts, a well-dressed man with gently curling hair and a carnation in his buttonhole. I think he was genuinely upset by what had happened, not merely that it had occurred in his shop, that a child had been taken from her father there, but for the thing itself, for me myself.

I showed him a photograph I carried of Naomi, one that had been taken the summer before, when she was a little younger. How much a few months matter at that age. I do not have that photograph now, the police took it from me, it was never returned. Perhaps they thought I would not need it. Perhaps no one really cared.

But they were at least considerate. Enough time had passed by now for them to accept that something untoward had happened. They let me ring Laura. In all my life, I have never had . . . Of all things, I find these the most difficult to write about, that telephone call, that explanation, that sense of guilt. It has never left me, that feeling of personal blame, that conviction that I was responsible for our daughter’s disappearance, for what happened afterwards. Laura said she would leave for London right away, she would come by car. I asked her to drive carefully.

It is easy to see what must have happened. Naomi got separated from me in the crush. Her abductor found her almost straight away, promised to help her find me, spirited her away in a different direction. If he had already been watching, he will have known who I was. By the time she suspected anything was amiss, Naomi was out of sight and out of earshot. Even if she started crying, even if she kicked up a fuss, who would have noticed a weeping or screaming child in a large toyshop on Christmas Eve?

No, I do not mean ‘noticed’. Later, witnesses did come forward, saying that they remembered a little girl in a yellow coat crying as she was taken out of the store. Dozens of people must have noticed her. But they took no notice, that is the point. Why should they have? She would have been the sixth or seventh fractious infant seen by them that day. Some of them will have had bad-tempered or upset children of their own in tow. Too much excitement, too great a stimulus, too large a crowd: what more natural than that a child should weep or a parent drag her, in spite of her tears, out to the open street.

Laura arrived in a little over an hour. She had not paused to change her clothes or pack a bag, she had simply rushed to the car and put her foot to the floor all the way down the A10. By the time she reached Savile Row, a full-scale search was under way. It was too late, of course it was too late, but how could we have known that then? I do not mean that Naomi was dead, that it was too late in that sense. Quite the opposite. Dear God, quite the opposite.

There is a noise upstairs. I can hear it quite clearly, I know it is not an auditory hallucination, I know that what I hear is really there, that anyone could hear it. Bumpity-bump, an old sound, a familiar sound, a rubber ball bouncing on a wall. There will be a ball in the corridor tonight, a red and white ball the size of a large grapefruit. I have seen it before. If I pick it up she will laugh at me. Or scream at me in anger. She is unpredictable.

This house stands on its own at the end of a street in the Newtown area of Cambridge, between Lensfield Road and Brooklands Avenue. Newtown was originally common landthat was divided up in 1807 among several owners, including the university and Trinity Hall. Building started there about 1819, when Thomas Musgrave built thirteen little houses and named them Downing Terrace, after the newly-founded college just to the north. More narrow streets and brick terraces were built by Addenbrooke’s Hospital and other landowners between 1820 and 1835.

But to the west and south a wealthy family called Pemberton owned a site looking out on Brookside, in those days an open space. There, larger houses were slowly erected for the middle-classes, among which ours was one. It was built in 1840 for a doctor and his family, a man called Liddley, a graduate of Downing. I shall have more to say of Liddley in due course, of Dr John Liddley and his family.

Suffice for the present to note that the house remained in Liddley’s keeping until 1865, when it passed into the ownership of one Professor Le Strange, the Ambrosian Professor of Greek at the University. Much of the modern garden was, I understand, laid down by the good professor and his wife. She died at an early age from tuberculosis, and the professor soon afterwards vacated the house to return to a bachelor existence in Caius. A succession of other families, mainly academic, had it in their keeping until our day. In a manner of speaking, it is ours for ever now.

The house consists of three storeys and an attic space. It has been altered, of course, but the basic layout is intact. On the ground floor there is a spacious living room that looks out on to a short front garden. The garden is luxuriant, with tall trees and thick shrubbery; in the summer, it is impossible to see more than the upper storey of the house from the street. The path leads directly to a high wooden gate on which the number of the house is set. There was a name once, but it faded long ago and I have not had it renewed.

At the rear of the ground floor is a room I once grandly called the library. It is merely my study, though the walls are indeed lined with books. I am seated at my desk, looking through the velvet-curtained window on to the back garden, Professor Le Strange’s garden. It is not much to look at now, but when we bought the house it was its greatest attraction. It covers a large expanse of land and was laid out once with care and attention. One part is a walled garden where there were trellises and climbing plants. There is a broad lawn running down to a little pond bordered by willows. A monkey puzzle towers over the path. But it is overgrown and gone to seed now, a tattered relic of what it once was. If I close my eyes, I can see Naomi playing there among the trees. Sometimes I do not have to close my eyes.

On the first floor are a small sitting-room, a television room, a bathroom and what was once Laura’s study. It is my bedroom now. The second floor is given over entirely to bedrooms: the main bedroom, where Laura and I used to sleep, two guest rooms, a guest bathroom, and the nursery, where Naomi slept and played.

The bumping has stopped. Everything is quiet again. I may have been mistaken, of course. It may not have been Naomi I heard. There are others.

End, Chapter 3

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