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.
He looked at me oddly, as though my question had revealed a perspicacity he had not suspected.
‘In the crypt,’ he said. ‘They might not have been found for years, but something went wrong with the boiler. When the caretaker went down to take a look, he came across the coat. It had been left on top of one of the tombs. Whoever left it there must have broken in. Or had a key. It’s given us a line of inquiry at least. We needed one after all this time.’
I invited him in for tea, but he shook his head. He was dressed in a raincoat and a dented grey hat, almost the stereotype of a policeman, except for his eyes. I can still remember them, their blueness, their acuity, their hoodedness. He kept something buried beneath them, buried very deep yet at times visible if you knew what you were looking for. I knew. I understood. I had it buried inside me as well.
‘How is your wife?’ he asked, preparing to leave.
You are meant to say, ‘Bearing up’, but I did not.
‘She suffers a lot,’ I said. ‘She’ll never get over it.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘You don’t. People think you can, but it isn’t possible, it scars your life.’
He meant his daughter, of course, though I did not know at the time. The verb he used was curious but apt. Death leaves wounds that never heal properly. And yet . . . even then I thought he meant something else by it.
‘If there’s any news . . .’ I said.
‘Don’t worry. You’ll be the first to know.’
The following day, Lewis’s letter arrived. It was just a short note really, accompanying two photographs taped between a couple of sheets of thin cardboard.
‘Please get in touch,’ he wrote. ‘I took these the day I visited you, before I came in. The first was taken with an ordinary lens, the second with the zoom. I believe you are both in danger. We need to talk.’
I cut the tape and slipped the photographs from their makeshift wallet. The first was another contact print showing the front elevation of the house. I looked at it closely, knowing where to look now, guessing what I might find, but not quite suspecting the truth of it. A chill crossed my heart as I made out the unmistakable image of a face in the attic window. The shuttered window, the one I had opened only two days before.
I picked up the close-up. It makes my blood go cold even now to think of what it revealed. Not the pale, grey woman, not one of the little girls, not Naomi. But Laura’s face, white and cold, staring down as though from a great height.
That night the hauntings began again. I think of what took place that night as a loss of innocence. Each stage in those events represented some form of loss: a loss of love or faith or self-respect. But innocence is like trust: once gone, it can never be restored.
What do I mean by innocence? I was, after all, a grown man by then, a grieving father. I had experienced disappointment, disillusionment, hard knocks – all the paths by which we come to worldly wisdom. Or, if not wisdom, a sort of understanding. But, for all that, I was innocent enough at heart. I mean that I harboured a belief in an essential current of goodness running through things, I saw a shape, a pattern to the whole, even if life in its particulars seemed at times shapeless or inchoate, even if children died in pain. It was, I suppose, a religious sense of the world, though I did not formulate it in theological terms. A sterner theology, a dogma, might have seen me through what happened. But my innocence was not made of such iron stuff, nor so well defended. It was half-formulated, lax, too much in tune with the times and too little with the experience of generations.
I was wakened from an uneasy sleep a little before three. Laura was asleep beside me. On this occasion, it was not a scream that woke me, but something far more insidious. As I woke, I felt as though there were some great pressure forcing me down. I found it hard to breathe. My thoughts were confused, I could feel panic welling up inside me for no apparent reason. As I lay struggling to pull myself upright, I heard what sounded like breathing. Not Laura’s breathing, but quieter than that and further away. I thought it was coming from the foot of the bed.
With an effort, I heaved myself up against the pillow.
‘Who’s there?’ I whispered. I was certain that someone was standing at the foot of the bed, watching me intently. Beside me, Laura stirred uneasily in her sleep. There was no reply. The sound of breathing continued. I strained to see, but there was only darkness, plain and impenetrable.
‘Who are you?’ I asked again. ‘What do you want?’ Shaking, I reached out my hand to switch on the bedside lamp. Nothing happened. Again and again I flicked the switch, but the light would not go on.
And now I became conscious of something terrible. The sense of menace I had felt before in the attic had returned, this time much stronger. The awful thing was that I experienced it in two different ways at once: I felt that I was the object of a dreadful hatred, of an unappeased anger that was reaching out for me with all its force. And simultaneously I felt it in myself, I felt hate, anger, malice, a gamut of raw emotions that all but choked me. I still found it hard to breathe. The darkness pressed in on me, relentless, tight as a sack, smothering me.
Suddenly, I heard Laura’s voice on my left.
‘What’s happening, Charles? What’s going on?’
I struggled to answer, but words would not form. I felt as though I were drowning in air.
‘What’s wrong, Charles? What’s wrong? Where are you?’
Her voice seemed to come from a long way away. It was so faint I could hardly hear it. I tried to speak, but nothing happened. I could hear another sound now, a faint rustling like silk.
Suddenly, a bright light exploded in my eyes. I blinked hard, then opened them again. For an instant, I thought I saw someone standing in front of me, someone tall and dressed in grey. Then I was breathing again and I could feel Laura’s hand on my arm and hear her voice clearly.
‘Charles, are you all right?’
I nodded, gulping in air.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I . . . I must have been dreaming. It was as if I was being smothered. But it’s all right now. I’m fine.’
But I wasn’t fine. Something had lodged itself deep inside me, something unspeakable. It was not a memory, but a sensation, a lingering awareness of the menace I had felt and a dark knowledge of something else already there, something that had been quiescent until then. The feelings of rage and hatred had not come from outside but had been in me all the time. I felt unclean, as though something filthy had touched me or entered me. When Laura reached out a hand to calm me, I pulled away from her. I had never done that before. She said nothing, but I knew my gesture had hurt her. It didn’t matter.
In the morning, I rang Lewis. He had been waiting for my call.
‘Have you heard?’ he asked.
‘Heard? Heard what?’
‘It was on the news this morning,’ he said. ‘Ruthven has been found dead. Murdered. In the church where they discovered Naomi’s coat.’
End, Chapter 9.