Naomi’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.
‘No,’ he said. ‘No, something else. It wasn’t there at first. It was quite different in quality to the first impression, to the menace. As though I was feeling what that other person was feeling. As though I was the one who wanted to commit murder. Terrible that! An ugly sensation. But the worst thing was that I didn’t feel brutal, not at all. I felt exhilarated at first. Buoyed up. Then I felt bleak as though I had a depression on me. There was anger in me, but controlled, very controlled. And it was growing in me every second I stayed up there.’ He looked up. ‘I might have killed you if we’d stayed longer.’
‘Surely not.’ But I looked more closely at his normally gentle face and understood that he was right. And I remembered the moment, just as Laura and I had left the attic several days earlier, before I turned to lock the door, when a wave of anger had washed over me and I had almost struck her.
I did not tell Lewis that. I kept it to myself. As though I wanted it to remain a secret, the way you harbour a sexual fantasy or a foolish hope.
It’s past midnight now. The clock chimed a moment ago. I wind it once a week, it is one of my few regular habits, one of the few hangovers from my past. It is of Art Nouveau design, shaped a little like an Egyptian pylon, thick at the base, tapering as it comes to the top, where it is square with a projecting board. The face is round and made of brass, with fine numbers engraved on it in black. It is smaller than a grandfather clock, with a large pendulum of wood and brass that gets through the seconds with great despatch: a thrusting, impatient clock. Naomi was forbidden to play with it, though the swing of its pendulum used to fascinate her when she was very small.
Sometimes it stops. It is always bad when it stops, as though ordinary time were somehow dislodged and its place taken by another sort of time. Their time. Perhaps that is why I am so punctilious about winding it.
The house is silent for once. I have all the photographs in front of me, though I hardly need them now, they can show me nothing I have not seen more directly, with my own eyes. If I get through tonight, if the clock does not stop ticking, I will go to church tomorrow and request an exorcism. It has been too long, far too long. But will they grant me an exorcism? Without confession, nothing will prove effective. He will want a confession, the keen young priest they have put in charge of the parish since last year. I know him, he will do nothing without it. Is it possible I could steel myself to that? After all this time? I hardly think so, and yet . . . this silence presages something. The ticking of the clock seems very uncertain tonight.
Lewis telephoned that night about nine. I think he had been drinking, though he was not so much drunk as frightened. He had developed the photographs.
Laura had come home hours before. We were sitting together in the living room, reading, pretending life was normal. She was sorting through slides of paintings from the Fitzwilliam, early Italian works from the trecento, triptychs full of red and gleaming gold. They had given her her old job back, she was due to start in a fortnight. I was reading Margery Kempe’s tedious diary in preparation for a seminar. I too planned to go back to work the following week. Laura’s face was half in shadow, half in light. I could not read her expression. Most of the time, there was no expression to read. Not even light and shadow can bring life to a blank face.
‘What have you found?’ I asked. ‘Is there anything?’
‘I can’t tell you over the phone,’ he said. He sounded nervous. ‘I’ve got to come down again.’
‘What is it? You sound . . .’ I could not say ‘frightened’, Laura might hear. ‘You sound distressed,’ I finished lamely.
‘Jesus, man, I’m frightened is what I am. It’s the photographs from the attic, the ones I took this afternoon. You don’t know what you have up there. Those footsteps your wife says she heard–they were real all right. Thank God you never went up that time. Take my advice, man, and get yourselves out of that house. If not for your own sake, for your wife’s. Tonight if you can. Make some excuse, but get the hell out.’
‘What did you see? Tell me for God’s sake.’ I had forgotten Laura’s presence, Lewis’s fear was infectious.
‘I can’t describe it on the phone. Listen, ring me at the office tomorrow morning. Let me know where you are, I’ll come down on the next train. But for God’s sake, clear out while you still can.’
He put the phone down. My hand shook as I replaced the receiver. Laura looked up from her sorting.
‘Can’t you get rid of him, Charles? What does he want anyway?’ She had guessed it was Lewis. I had told her of his visit that afternoon. I was growing frantic for some sort of explanation for his comings and goings. And how could I explain his demand that we move out of the house? That we were in danger if we stayed? What sort of danger? she would ask. From what quarter? Leaving was out of the question.
‘Well?’ Laura was insistent. Her nerves were still frayed, were fraying more and more every day. Getting away would not help. Having another child would not help. She wanted Naomi, but Naomi was gone.
‘He has some photographs,’ I said finally.
‘Oh, God. Not more. I suppose he’s trying to flog them to the News of the World or something. Well, you can just tell the little creep that we don’t want him here. If you don’t, I will.’
I had lied to her about the first photographs, told her they were just some shots Lewis had taken of the house, that he’d needed my permission to sell them for publication. I’m not sure she really believed me. Things were still fraught between us, we were like strangers most of the time.
‘Listen to me, Laura.’ It wasn’t worth keeping up the deception, it would only make things worse in the end. ‘I haven’t told you all there is to know about those photographs. The ones Lewis brought. Maybe it will help if I just show them to you. It’ll help you understand.’
I thought I was being very foolish, but I could not think of anything else to do. Laura said nothing. She waited in silence while I went to the study to fetch the folder that contained the sets of photographs – Lewis’s, the shots of Venice, the Christmas snaps. I sat beside Laura and took Lewis’s photographs out.
‘These are some photographs Lewis took in and around the house a little while ago,’ I explained. ‘They were taken after . . . Naomi left. I didn’t want to show them to you, because some of them could be . . . distressing. But I think you should know.’
One by one, I laid them in front of her, holding back the one that showed Naomi. In Laura’s state, that would have been a particular cruelty.
She picked up a print of the two little girls, the one in which they were standing hand in hand near the swing. A smile crossed her face.
‘This is lovely,’ she said. ‘It’s a very good likeness.’
She must have wondered why I looked at her so strangely.
‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘Have you seen a photograph of them before?’
She shook her head. Firelight caught her cheek, touched it with gold.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’ve seen them. Out in the garden playing. They seem so happy, I haven’t the heart to send them away. They’re very sweet, but a little odd.’
‘Oh, yes. I’ve spoken to them. They say they live here, isn’t that charming? But they won’t say where they really live or who their parents are or who put them in such old-fashioned clothes.’
She glanced again at the photograph, then at several others showing the girls. Finally, she looked up at me.
‘Who are they, Charles?’
I did not answer. Not at once. I was thinking of Christmas Eve, of lunch in Dickins & Jones with Naomi, of how I had smiled at her talk of imaginary friends.
‘Please, Charles, who are they?’
I stretched out a finger and pointed to the photograph.
‘This is Victoria,’ I said. ‘And this is her sister Caroline.
End, Chapter 11.
Go to Chapter 12…