The Annexe – Room Eight by Jennifer Rae
I swear to God it wasn’t a dream. The black formless thing that clutched at my throat bore down on me demanding total submission, sucking the life from me. It was the very essence of evil. My heart went into overdrive; every nerve-end was on full alert, but I could not move a muscle. I was paralysed with terror. Without uttering a word, my inner self screamed out, “God Almighty! Help me!”
Whatever it was released its grip and evaporated into the inky darkness of the night and was gone. I lay in bed still not daring to move in case it returned to torment me. Gradually, my breathing and heart rate returned to normal and I managed to sit up. My nightdress and sheets were wringing wet with perspiration and yet the room felt like Antarctica. It was so icy cold. I swung my feet over the side of the bed and sat there pondering on what had just happened. I switched on the light at the top of the bed and walked over to fetch my dressing gown from the hook on the back of the door, shivering with every step. Wrapping it round me, I got back into bed and noticed the time on the radio alarm was 2.05am. The whole annexe was as silent as the grave. From just outside the window came a rustling. Something was walking through the fallen autumn leaves just below the sill. Plucking up all the courage I could muster, I switched off the bedside lamp, got out of bed again and slowly peered out from behind the curtain. It was the fox. I’d seen him at dusk several times before on the edge of the nearby woods. The proximity of another living creature was strangely comforting and returning to bed, I pulled the bedclothes up to my chin, though no more sleep was to be had that night.
The annexe to the station officers’ mess was where newly arrived civilians of officer status were billeted on arrival. The site of Belsen concentration camp was less than two kilometres distant through the woods. NATO forces had displaced the Wehrmacht from this place and had occupied it since the liberation of the concentration camp. The room I was allocated was number eight. Rooms eight and nine, where Zoe slept had been a suite at one time with an adjoining door. More often than not, the door common to both rooms, was left open, except at night or for privacy.
After a long sleepless night, I watched the first rays of dawn brighten my room through the slits in the curtains. Before tapping gently on the adjoining door, I waited to hear movement in Zoe’s room next door.
“Come in,” was her immediate reply. I entered to find her brewing coffee on her filter machine.
“Fancy a cup?” she asked.
“Too true. This will be the best cup of coffee I’ve ever tasted,” I replied and went on to tell her of my ordeal in the wee small hours of the morning, half expecting her to take what I told her with a grain of salt.
She looked at me solemnly and said, “Yours isn’t the only story of its kind I’ve heard since arriving here.”
She handed me my coffee. Apparently, others in the annexe and the main mess about a hundred metres away had experienced similar things.
“You should have woken me,” she added sympathetically.
“Thanks, but for the life of me I wasn’t able to move. Now I know what it’s like to be petrified with fear.”
Not long after that, the opportunity arose to move into a flat in Bergen, Belsen’s twin town. I jumped at the chance. Living in the German community was what I wanted so that I could learn the language and live independently. However, I remained a member of the mess and frequented it often to collect post and to socialise. New civilians as well as visiting regiments on exercise arrived and left all the time. One of the most recent arrivals after I left my room in the mess was a lady in her forties, I estimated, called Mrs Greenaway. She came to manage the YMCA and moved into the room I had vacated, room eight. Our paths rarely crossed, since she kept herself very much to herself. Only once or twice did I see her in the bar or at mess dinners. There was no sign of a husband and I sensed an unspoken sadness in her as well as a distinct reluctance to talk about herself. She had a history. That was certain.
On one occasion, we bumped into one another at tea-time in the anteroom. I asked her how she was settling in and how the job was going. Everything was hunky-dory according to her. I told her that I was the last occupant of room eight, which I believed was now her room and how did she like it? Her answers were short and uninformative. It was on the tip of my tongue to come right out and ask her if she had had any unusual experiences in that room, but I thought the better of it and kept quiet on the subject, for fear of unsettling her. After that, I saw her only occasionally in the YMCA shop to nod to and say hello.
Then one Saturday morning, I parked outside the station officers’ mess next to an ambulance and RMP Land rover. As I walked through the front door, Terry the mess manager was entering his office.
“What’s happening, Terry?” I enquired. “Somebody been hurt? I saw the ambulance at the front.”
“No, not hurt. Something awful has happened. You know Mrs Greenaway? In fact, she moved into your old room in the annexe.”
“Yes, I know her.”
“Well, she died in her sleep last night. The medics think it was a heart attack, but we won’t know for sure until we get the results of the post-mortem.”
The news rendered me speechless. My immediate thought was that she had been the victim of the same horrific presence I had encountered. How tragic. What a terrifying death it must have been if my suspicions were correct… and if I was right, she wasn’t asleep when she died. She died alone, of sheer terror while fully awake but so paralysed with fear that she was unable to call for help, just as I had felt on that awful night the previous autumn. Yet here I was, alive and kicking and there she was, laid out in the back of that ambulance in a body bag headed for the mortuary. Why her and not me?