9:03

 9:03

It was a compact room, cluttered yet tidy. Books and magazines standing to attention on the mantelpiece. Scrapbooks and CDs in boxes under the bed. A set of blue pyjamas folded neatly on the pillow. It was a snapshot of a young girl’s mind, a movie frozen in time.

Please don’t touch anything,’ repeated Charles Lawford. Unable to bring himself to enter the room, he was on the landing with his back to the door.

A Betty Boop alarm clock sat on the bedside locker and I wondered in a vague way if it was worth anything.

I’ve seen enough,’ I said and we went down to the living room where Lawford poured us both a brandy.

Now you know what kind of a girl Jenny is,’ said Lawford. We sat in armchairs separated by a sofa. He was a squat man with narrow eyes and a red birthmark just visible beneath his thin, greasy hair. ‘That room hasn’t been touched since she disappeared. It’s exactly how she left it.’

His eyes were fixed on the grandfather clock in the corner of the room.

I allowed myself to be briefly hypnotized by the lazy swing of the pendulum, the relentless tick-tock of the clock’s mechanism. A small second hand with its own circle of numbers shuddered from one numeral to the next.

She’s a good girl,’ said Lawford. ‘Well-behaved, level-headed and sensible. She would never have run away.’

Although I was Lawford’s next door neighbour, I scarcely knew the man and was baffled as to why he had invited me into his house. It wasn’t for the company, I was sure of that – though he could hardly be blamed for not wanting to be alone. Two months had passed since his daughter had disappeared. There wasn’t much about it in the press – three column inches on page seven of a tabloid, a quarter page article with a fuzzy picture of Jenny in the local rag. The general consensus was that Jenny was just another teen runaway who was bound to turn up sooner or later.

For the first week or so, the police had made a show of concern. They’d sent someone each morning to ask if Jenny had returned and to assure the Lawfords they were still looking for her.

When the police stopped coming, the rows started. Night after night, sounds of anger, bitterness and recrimination found their way through the connecting wall into my living room. Mr and Mrs. Lawford blamed each other for the disappearance of their daughter. Neither was willing to admit that some portion of the fault might be their own; neither seemed to consider that there might be no fault at all. Twice the police were called to calm things down.

It was a relief to the entire neighbourhood when Mrs. Lawford packed her bags and left.

I polished off my brandy and got to my feet. ‘I really ought to be going.’

Charles Lawford was alarmed. ‘Five more minutes,’ he pleaded. ‘Have another brandy, Houghton. Just five minutes.’

As I sat back down, his gaze returned to the grandfather clock. Two minutes past nine.

The police don’t believe me,’ he said. ‘They think I’m mad. I need you as a witness.’

To what?’ I asked.

Lawford placed a finger to his lips. His left hand bobbed up and down in sympathy with the second hand of the grandfather clock. ‘Always three minutes past,’ he said. ‘Please say nothing. I don’t want you to scare her away.’

The second hand reached the perpendicular. 9.03. Lawford looked triumphant. ‘There! What did I tell you? Bang on time.’

He grabbed the telephone and placed it to his ear. ‘Yes, darling,’ he said after a few moments. ‘Daddy can hear you.’

He cocked his head as if straining to catch the words of his caller. I was aware of the ticking of the clock and the steady hum of the ring tone. ‘But where are you, darling? I know it’s dark but you must be able to tell if you’re inside or out. Please don’t cry. I’ll find you. Daddy will find you.’

Again he listened. Listened to the ring tone. Listened to an imaginary voice playing in his head. ‘Mummy loves you too but she’s had to go away… It’s not your fault. None of it is… No! Don’t go! Don’t hang up.’

Lawford’s shoulders slumped. He put down the phone and turned to me. ‘You heard her, didn’t you? Now the police have to believe me.’ He ran his fingers through his hair. ‘Will you ring them in the morning, Houghton? Tell them what you heard?’

Fearful of Lawford’s temper, I nodded. ‘I’ll tell them everything that’s just happened.’

Thank you, thank you. Then perhaps they’ll start looking for her again. If only she’d tell me where she is! She says its somewhere dark and it’s not too hot and not too cold. And there’s a light in the distance. I think she must be in a tunnel or something. I keep telling her to go towards the light but she won’t. She’s afraid to move. She wants me to come and fetch her. But how can I when I don’t know where she is?’

Although the following day was a rest day, I toyed with the idea of going to work. Lawford frightened me and I dreaded the thought of him banging on my door, demanding to know if I’d phoned the police. But I was damned if anyone was going to drive me out of my own home. If Lawford confronted me, I would lie to him, tell him anything he wanted to hear.

It was shortly after midday that the police arrived. They pulled up in an unmarked car – a plain clothes detective and a policewoman. I watched them through the living room curtains as they marched up Lawford’s garden path.

He opened the door just as the detective was about to ring the bell.

It all seemed ominous to me.

For two minutes, there was no sound from next door. Then Lawford’s voice came thundering through the dividing wall. It was muffled but I could make out some sort of denial and the liberal use of the word ‘buffoons’.

And then calm.

Deciding now would be a good time to prune the roses, I grabbed some secateurs and wandered into the front garden. My plan was to waylay the police officers and tell them Lawford had lost his mind.

When he and the police came out together, I was caught off guard and had no chance to duck out of sight. Lawford saw me as he reached his garden gate.

These people are buffoons!’ he yelled. It was in my general direction but loud enough for half the street to hear. ‘They don’t believe us, Houghton. They’ve made a ghastly mistake.’

The policewoman made shushing motions and said something to Lawford which I suppose was meant to be calming. He ignored her and came stalking up my garden path.

They’ve found the body of a young girl in a disused mine shaft,’ he said, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. ‘They insist it’s my Jenny and that she’s been dead for at least two weeks. But how can that be when she phones me every night? It doesn’t make sense, does it?’

Backing away, I shook my head.

You did ring the police like you promised?’

Of course,’ I lied. ‘I told them about the phone call and everything.’

The plain clothes man ventured into the garden but kept his distance from Lawford. ‘We can sort this out at the station,’ he said.

We certainly can, Inspector,’ Lawford spat back. ‘And then I’m making a formal complaint about the way this investigation has been conducted. Heads will roll, believe you me.’

Lawford marched to the police car and got in the back. The policewoman got in with him.

The policeman showed me his badge. ‘Detective Inspector Collins. Are you Mr Houghton by any chance?’

Yes, Inspector.’

Mr Lawford tells me you paid him a visit last night.’

He insisted I come over.’ I told Collins about Lawford’s strange behaviour.

We know about the phantom phone calls,’ said Collins. ‘They began just after his wife left him. He’s been ringing the station every night to say his daughter’s phoned and she’s lost somewhere. The first few times we checked with the phone company.’ Collins tapped his temple. ‘The calls are in his mind.’

What he just said about the girl’s body…?’

Collins nodded. ‘I’m afraid it’s true, sir. His daughter was found at the bottom of a mine shaft.’

And you’re certain it’s her?’

The mother’s at the station now. She’s made a positive ID. Jenny Lawford is dead.’

Numbly, I sat watching BBC News 24. Lunch was a couple of shots of scotch.

Poor Lawford, I thought. First he loses his daughter, then his wife and now his mind.

For all that I couldn’t bring myself to like the man, I did feel deeply sorry for him.

The news eventually broke just before the four o’clock bulletin: ‘And we’re receiving reports that the body of a young girl found in a disused mine shaft is that of missing teenager Jennifer Lawford. Her mother and father have been informed. So far police have given no indication as to whether or not foul play is suspected. We’ll have more on that story as details emerge…’

That was yesterday. A handful of reporters turned up at the Lawford house but left when it became clear there’d be nobody home for a while.

Now and then I’d turn on the television for an update. Aside from the police ruling out foul play and Mr and Mrs. Lawford going to stay with relatives, there were no new developments.

Finally, shortly after midnight, I went to bed and waited for sleep. It didn’t come so I returned to the living room and poured myself a large scotch.

I turned the television on in the hope of finding a late night film. I got News 24 and was about to channel hop when I caught the word ‘Lawford’.

…was immediately rushed to hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival. In other news…’

I had to wait half an hour for the headlines to come around again. When they did, I learnt that Charles Lawford had killed himself with drain cleaner.

Morning finally arrived. It found me sleeping in my armchair with the television on and a glass of whisky at my feet.

Not wanting to know or think any more about the Lawfords, I switched off the telly as soon as I woke up. My head was filled with a dull ache. The scotch burned my throat. It was 8.40. I was going to be late for work.

After a quick shower and shave, I made some toast but couldn’t bring myself to eat it.

The telephone rang. I picked it up. ‘Hello?’

Hello.’ A young girl’s voice. ‘Is that Mr Houghton?’

Yes,’ I said.

Hold on please. My dad wants to talk to you.’

I looked at the wall clock. It was 9.03.

Houghton?’ The voice was unmistakable. ‘This is Lawford. I just wanted to let you know I’ve found my daughter. Everything’s going to be all right now…’

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