“Thing is, Jamie, when my wife died, my little girl took it hard.”
Ray Tomkins was verging on drunk, chattering away almost to himself, even though he kept leaning towards me, to make sure I was still listening.
“How do you explain to a three-year-old that her mummy has gone for ever?”
Ray was a pleasant fortyish character I’d got talking to in the pub. I liked him a lot. As he downed his third pint and leaned closer to me, his friendly smile whisked me into his realm of cheerful contentment.
“It was a hard time for me, as you can imagine. Had to give up my job and I signed on the dole to look after her. But it was the best decision I ever made. They say that being a dad is the most important job you can ever do in your life, don’t they? And by golly it’s true.”
“Can’t have been easy on your own,” I commented.
“But strangely enough I wouldn’t have missed those years for all the riches in the world. Having my little Ellie meant that somehow my Sally wasn’t gone, do you see? Because they were so alike in lots of ways. And when children are that age, every day is exciting. Watching a little person grow and change, learn to speak and see things and find out about life. And now that Ellie’s grown up, she tells me how she remembers those years when we were alone, and how happy she was, in spite of missing her mum of course. See, I had to be a mum and dad all rolled into one. With a bit of help from my mum and sister of course.”
He gazed into space for a moment. “But the thing I wanted to tell you about, Jamie, was my ghostly experience, because I know you’re keen on that sort of thing. Well it was 2003, and we used to go for walks in Coulsdon, Surrey. There was this old derelict mental hospital – Netherne – that they’d mostly knocked down, out in the fields it was, where the village of Netherne-on-the-hill is built now. But the chapel of the old mental hospital was still there, and Ellie used to like looking over at the place you know? Nice old red-brick building, You couldn’t get close, but you could see it from the path through the metal fence, and it was where we’d always sit down on the grass for a bit of a rest before the walk back home.
“Well, one day, she looked up at one of the broken windows and started waving. I looked across to where she was waving, but there was no one there. Who are you waving to, love? I asked her. She just smiled, and pointed and said ‘Pretty lady! Daddy, look at the pretty lady! Can’t you see her there? In window. Looking down. Smiling at me!’
“I was worried that she’d started seeing things, was losing her mind. And next day she looked up to see if the pretty lady was there at the window, but she wasn’t. Nor was she there the day after, or ever again, even though little Ellie looked up expectantly, longing to see her. She was always disappointed.”
“And it was just a derelict empty building?”
Ray nodded. “It was fenced off from the public, so if anyone had been inside it could only have been a building worker, and if someone had broken in, they’d not have been in the mood to stare out of the window smiling down at a child. Well I tell you, I was a bit worried, and asked our doctor about it, but he said that is wasn’t so unusual for youngsters of that age to make up ‘pretend’ people, and in Ellie’s case, she was obviously missing her mother, so inventing a ‘mysterious pretty lady’ was a natural thing, because she was missing a female influence in her life. That seemed to make sense, and I didn’t make a big deal of it, and, as I said, Ellie never saw her again. So no harm done. Soon she forgot all about it.”
I got us some more drinks, thinking that was the end of his story.
“But you know what was odd?” he went on, “Not long ago Ellie and her boyfriend Mark and I went to see that film Gone with the Wind, and after it, Ellie was quiet like, she seemed shaken, you know? I asked her what was wrong, and she said ‘Did I remember the ‘pretty lady’ she saw at the window of the chapel at the mental hospital, all those years ago?’ I told her yes, I remembered her talking about it, that she’d imagined it. ‘Well,’ she said to me, ‘I’m sure I didn’t imagine it. And that was her, in the film! Scarlett O’Hara! I can distinctly remember her looking down at me and smiling, the actress in the film. I’d forgotten all about seeing her until I saw Scarlett O’Hara there on the plantation gazing out at Rhett Butler. She was gazing down at me in just the same way.’”
“So do you think that Ellie had seen Gone with the Wind as an infant on TV, and not remembered it?”
“No. I thought of that. I’d have remembered seeing it on TV with her – she only ever watched cartoons on her own.”
“When we got home, her boyfriend googled the actress Vivian Leigh, who played Scarlett O’Hara in the film. We found the following entry:
The actress Vivien Leigh suffered from bipolar disorder, and after a particularly bad breakdown in 1952, her husband, Laurence Olivier, brought her back to England in 1953, where she was treated by the relatively innovative method known as Electro Convulsive Therapy, in the exclusive Fairdene wing of the pioneering Netherne Hospital in Coulsdon. .
So I dug around a bit and checked the date she was admitted. It was the evening of 21 March 1953. Fifty years to the day when Ellie saw the ‘pretty lady’ in that chapel window. . .”
(photo courtesy of Skeeze)