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.
We entered the nursery together. Everything was as I had seen it the night before: torn paper, scattered presents, the drawing on the desk. I bent down and started picking up the fragments of paper, thinking, perhaps, that by behaving normally I might inject some sense of ordinariness into the situation. A voice snapped out behind me.
‘Leave it! Leave it as it is. Don’t touch a thing!’
I turned. Laura was standing in the doorway, her eyes blazing, quivering with anger. I laid the paper down. For the first time, a tiny thought flickered across my mind. I could not yet explain the scream, but had the rest too been Laura’s work? The opened presents, the spilled crayons, even the drawing? It would explain a lot, it would explain everything, even the tale of phantom footsteps above our bedroom. It was Laura who had said she had heard them. I had not.
‘It’s all right, dear. I’ll leave everything just as it is. You don’t have to worry.’
I came out and shut the door behind me. Laura took my hand.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s just . . .’
‘Take it easy, darling. I’m going to go up to the attic. I’m sure there’s nothing there. We’ve both been overwrought. It may have been rats, or a bird.’
She said nothing, but looked at me steadily instead. The thought that Laura might be behind everything had emboldened me. I put Lewis and his photographs out of my mind. It was easy to fake photographs, easy to prey on the bereaved. What would happen next? Would the Welshman turn up with a medium in tow, a friend who happened to know how to get in touch with Naomi? For a fee?
I found a large torch in the cupboard where we kept the cleaning things. The entrance to the attic was a small doorway at the top of a flight of five or six stairs. The door was locked, had been locked as far back as I could remember. I had been shown inside when we looked the house over, but apart from putting a few trunks and boxes and unwanted pieces of furniture into store, had found no further use for the attic space. It was cold, awkwardly shaped, and poorly lit.
It took me almost an hour to find the key. I had put it away in a drawer and forgotten it was there. A rusty old key it was, and no doubt the lock was rusty too, I thought. And indeed, when I came to try the key in it, it would not turn. It took a long time and the application of liberal doses of WD40 before the mechanism yielded to my entreaties. The door moved reluctantly. Beyond it lay darkness. Implacable darkness. But I did not then understand how dark or how implacable.
I switched on the torch. The flight of steps continued upwards, uncarpeted now, rising to the floor of the attic.
‘Is anyone up here?’ I called out in an unsteady voice, exhibiting a bravado I did not feel. No one answered. Intently, I listened for a sound of scurrying or the beating of wings. But there was nothing, only silence.
The torch beam picked out old wood panels, scarred by generations of discarded furniture and heavy boxes, stained by d and damp. Thick cobwebs hung like tattered banners in the high reaches of a dark cathedral nave.
I set my foot on the first step and began to climb. It was cold up there, as cold as it had been in Naomi’s room. My hand shook a little as I climbed, sending the torchlight scampering about among cobwebs and naked rafters.
As my head came level with the floor, I tensed, not knowing what to expect. The light picked out odd, frightening shapes and cast peculiar shadows in every direction. Nervously, I moved the beam about, locating and identifying the contents of the attic one by one: three tea-chests containing bric-a-brac, a dressmaker’s dummy that had belonged to my mother, old rubber waders, half-used cans of green and white paint, a chair, an ancient chest of drawers deemed too heavy for our bedroom, a coat-stand, a dartboard, my old fencing mask and foils, some shelves. Dust and cobwebs covered everything, as they should in an attic that has not been opened for years.
I stepped on to the floorboards and swept the beam along them, looking for tracks or footprints in the dust. The light showed nothing but a layer of thin grey dust no matter where I shone it. I walked about, going from object to object, finding everything undisturbed. The very possibility of footsteps began to seem absurd.
The light played across the wall furthest from me, revealing momentarily the shallow bay where the window lay. I wondered briefly why no light was coming into the attic from the outside, then, as the beam moved back, remembered that I myself had closed the shutters when last up here, in order to keep the unheated space fairly well sealed from the elements. Seeing the shutters still firmly closed as I had left them, I found myself doubting more than ever the veracity of Lewis and his photographs. How on earth could he have taken a photograph of anyone, even a ghost, standing at this window?
I stepped across to the shutters and pulled on the metal bar that pinned their two wings together. It gave reluctantly, then flew up all at once. I pulled the left wing back; it creaked on unoiled hinges, then bent and folded not quite flush against the wall. The right wing was more difficult. As I worked at it I glanced through the window.
For what cannot have been more than a few moments, the scene beyond the glass seemed to shift in and out of focus. Nothing was quite as it had been; only the basic contours of the front garden and the road beyond it remained. The trees and bushes, even the precise proportions of the lawn were utterly changed. The houses opposite could not be seen at all. I thought I saw someone . . . or something . . . move on the lawn, just on the edge of my vision.
In those moments, I experienced not merely visual disturbance, but an inner feeling that I could only describe as an acute sense of menace, an overpowering sensation that a tremendous force of malice was threatening me. The next instant, my vision cleared, the garden and the road resumed their accustomed lineaments, and the feeling of menace was at once replaced by one of simple unease.
Hurriedly, I left the window and traced my way back to the stairs. I could not understand what had happened, but put it down to the strain I had been under and the sleepless night I had just spent. At the bottom of the steps, Laura was waiting for me. Her face bore an anxious expression. As I approached her, a spasm of anger flew through me. I very nearly lifted my hand to strike her, to punish her for playing these games, for lying, for adding to my burdens. But the feeling passed almost as quickly as it had come, leaving only a faint aftertaste, a frisson of violence beneath the surface of my thoughts.
‘There’s nothing up there,’ I said, and turned to close the attic door.
‘But I heard . . .’
‘Please, Laura. We’re both overwrought.’ I turned the key. It felt solid and heavy in my hand, my fingers found it curiously familiar, as though I had been long accustomed to its use.
She was facing me when I turned, the same expression of mute anxiety on her face.
‘You think I imagined them. The footsteps.’
‘There was nothing up there, Laura.’ I did not call her ‘darling’ as had been my custom. ‘No sign that anyone’s been there. No footprints. Nothing.’
‘You know that’s not important, Charles. It doesn’t matter whether or not there are footprints. The sounds I heard were real enough. Maybe they weren’t physical, but they were real.’
‘Please, Laura,’ I interrupted her again. ‘We both need some rest. Let’s go downstairs.
You’ll feel better after breakfast. There’s nothing to worry about.’
But there was. I knew there was. Turning the key in the lock, I had felt more than its familiarity, I had felt the sense of menace again, this time redoubled in force. And as it had left me, I had remembered something. I had remembered where I had seen the two little girls in Lewis’s photographs.
End, Chapter 8.
Go to Chapter 9…