The loss of a loved one is always excruciating to bear, but the premature death of one's child is a pain of a particularly lacerating kind.
It was exactly year ago today in the first week in September that Helen Mitchell had lost her 10 year old daughter Ellie and there was no way that she could spend the day at home where she was convinced that the stillness and the sadness would suffocate her. So she took a train from her South London home in Clapham to Waterloo station in the centre of the city and crossed over the Golden Jubilee Bridge to the north side of town, so deep in thought that she barely registered the classic view of the Thames River bordered by the most iconic features of the capital's skyline.
She took emotional refuge in one of her best-loved cafés, located in the crypt of St Martin-in-the Fields Church at the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square, where she ate a light lunch sitting under the red brick-vaulted ceiling and over the historic gravestones lining the crypt floor.
Helen was taller and slighter than most women with light brown, shoulder-length hair. She was known to her friends for her understated elegance and liked to wear as now a long, dark-coloured dress adorned with a wide, loose belt and a brightly-patterned shawl round her shoulders – what she called her artistic look. She was a 46-year old music teacher in a South London comprehensive and would be back at school next week after the long summer break. Her own instrument of choice was the cello and, for years, her favourite cello concerto had been Elgar's work in E minor but, since Ellie's death, she had not been able to bear playing or hearing it.
She was 32 when she had met and soon married Paul, a housing manager with one of the London boroughs, and they had taken it for granted that they would have two children and be a happy family unit. But, like one in seven couples, they had encountered difficulty conceiving and it had taken several courses of clomifene to stimulate ovulation and much taking of temperature and careful timing of sex before she had become pregnant and given birth to Ellie. The complications around conception had put pressure on the marriage and then the tribulations of parenthood – neither had imagined the sheer lack of sleep and accumulated exhaustion - had piled on the pressure until they separated when Ellie was four and divorced a year later.
Ellie had done both her parents proud, performing well at school and popular with her peers. Although she had always eaten well, she had a willowy figure and looked particularly sweet when her long, very fair hair was in plaits. She was an energetic character, always on the move, enjoying sports and dancing.
It was noisy in the café, but Helen heard nothing. As she ate her lunch, she found it impossible not to think back to last summer.
Paul had seemed to find it easier to be a good father once he was no longer actually living with his beautiful but demanding daughter and Ellie stayed with him on alternate weekends and holidayed with him for a week each summer. Last year his work commitments were such that he did not manage to take Ellie away until the beginning of September and, since his parents were so keen to see more of their granddaughter, he took her to their cottage in Cornwall, close to attractive beaches and quiet coves.
On the last full day of the holiday, the four of them went out together to a sheltered nook that they had not visited before, fortified with a hamper laden with bountiful food, refreshing drinks, and appropriate utensils. While the grandparents relaxed on the beach, Paul took Ellie swimming. Both were good swimmers but unfamiliar currents took a relentless grip and dragged them remorselessly further and further from the shore and the distraught grandparents. Ellie's body was never recovered. Apparently there had been a warning sign about the danger of the local currents but vandals had removed it.
Rationally Helen knew that it was a terrible but unforeseen accident and that it was not Paul's fault; but, in a dark corner of her soul, she blamed him with a passion and, in an even blacker recess, she wished that it had been him who had died. She still had dreams in which Emily's body floated slowly to shore, a peaceful smile on her alabaster face, and sometimes – just sometimes – the child spluttered to life.
Over coffee, memories of Ellie passed across Helen's mind like clouds in an Autumn sky: mostly light and fluffy but too nebulous to last long, dissipating before they could be fully savoured: a very early expression “I'm a little bit shy”, her love of “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, her naming of a new puppy Rascal, her pride on the first day of primary school, her excitement at the prospect of starting at “the big school”.
From about the age of five, Ellie had fallen in love with ballet. It had all started with a Christmas visit to the Royal Festival Hall to see “The Nutcracker”, but there followed ballet after ballet at venues like the Royal Opera House or the London Coliseum. Her favourite was “Giselle” and no sooner had she started ballet lessons than she would pretend to be the eponymous peasant girl in impromptu performances in the living room. The funeral ceremony had incorporated some of Adolphe Adam's haunting music.
A year later, even Helen's friends did not fully appreciate the depth of her loss and the nature of her grieving. Of course, they were sympathetic and caring but they expected the pain to have eased and the recovery to be linear. For Helen though, the hurt was still hardly less wounding and her progress was faltering with bad days and slightly less bad days alternating unpredictably.
As Helen left the crypt of St Martin-in-the Fields, she thought momentarily of visiting the church itself and possibly saying a prayer, but she was not a traditionally religious person, more a spiritual one, so at street level she simply turned right and started walking, to where she was not sure.
Something she had learned to do while on holidays in European cities was from time to time to look up at the detail of the buildings and, as she waited to cross the road at the corner of William IV Street and St Martin's Lane, she glanced at the top of “The Chandos” pub where she observed the familiar, life-size moving figure of a man manoeuvring a barrel of beer. It amused her to think how few visitors spotted such an engaging character. A little way up St Martin's Lane, she paused to look in the windows of the Ellie's favourite shop, the lime-fronted “Freed” which specialised in dancewear and shoes. For her last birthday, the youngster had chosen some particularly pretty ballet shoes here which, like all her clothes, remained in her room.
From this shop, Helen drifted aimlessly in the general direction of Covent Garden. She was standing at some traffic lights waiting for green when she glanced over to the building diagonally opposite and her gaze drifted upwards, noting how different floors had slightly different shaped windows. Then, on the top floor – the fourth – she spotted a face at the window and the recognisible nature of the visage shocked her into immobility even as the lights changed.
It was Ellie. It couldn't be – but it was. The child smiled at her benevolently, lovingly, reassuringly. Helen's eyes welled with hot tears which blurred her vision but she was in no doubt: it was her beloved daughter. A red double-decker bus passed in front of her and temporarily blocked the view. As the spell broke, she was overwhelmed with emotion, so that she turned and literally ran.
It was a full year later.
Helen's experience on the first anniversary of Ellie's death had been an utterly transformational encounter. Her sadness – no, her despair – had not gone but it was more tolerable, knowing that she still had some connection with her daughter, however, fleeting, however ephemeral. After that contact of last September, she had, of course, revisited the scene – many times, in fact. She had never seen the face again. At first, this had upset her, but then she had come to appreciate that the date of the engagement was no coincidence and that, if she was to see Ellie again, it would in all probability be on the next anniversary of her loss.
So it was that today she was visiting the city centre and retracing her steps of one year ago. Her sense of hope and expectation imbued a combination of both exhilaration and fear. She so wanted to see Ellie's face again – but suppose she had deluded herself a year ago and there was once again nothing to be seen? She was not sure that she would be able to bear the agony of a blank window. So she walked untypically slowly and uncharactistically had her head down as she approached the crossing with the traffic lights. She almost edged into the same spot as last year and then allowed her view to creep up the face of the building opposite.
There Ellie was. Helen had had no reason to fear disappointment. Her daughter was in the same place at the same time, gazing down with the same love and warmth. And she looked just the same – no older and no less pretty. Helen's eyes misted with tears and her heart overflowed with a surfeit of joy. This was what she so wanted. This was what she so needed.
This time, she crossed the road urgently to seek a better view but, standing in front of the building and looking directly upwards, she could see nothing at all in the window. As she stood gazing skyward, wondering what to do now, she noticed something small and slight coming down towards her and, as it grew closer, she saw that it was a brilliant white feather which slowly descended to eye level and then settled on the pavement between her feet.
Helen had a number of friends – some religious, others more spiritual – who had had angelic experiences and several of them had identified the white feather as the calling card of an angel. Now Helen was beyond doubt. She had often called Ellie “my little angel” and today she had the compelling evidence that her one-time term of affection was now a reality. She bent down, retrieved the feather, and made her way home to face another year without the physical presence of her beautiful daughter but warmed by the knowledge that they still had a very special bond.
Another year had passed.
Helen had found it easier to carry the weight of her suffering, although there were still days when she felt that she would never last until the evening and the release of sleep. She knew now that there was little prospect of seeing Ellie at that window other than on the anniversary of her daughter's death, but still she had occasionally stolen over to the spot and checked out the scene. On each occasion: nothing.
But today, she absolutely knew, would be different. So again she made the same journey and followed the same walk. She stood at the same spot and looked up at the same window. And what did she see? Her darling little Ellie, as gorgeous as ever, smiling as always. Her faith had been rewarded. In this sense at least, mother and daughter were still together and always would be.
And yet, and yet. However much Helen wanted and needed to believe that it was Ellie at that window - and not another child, a youngster still of this earth - there was a scintilla of doubt that, over the last two years, would not be stilled. So this time she crossed over to the building and entered it. At street level, it was a book shop and, on the other levels, it was various offices.
It was not easy to find who was responsible for the top floor and who could give her access to the relevant room. It seemed that the fourth floor was largely used for storage and she was assured that the particular room that she insisted she wanted to view was rarely visited. But a mixture of charm and pleading enabled her to have her way and finally she stood outside the room at the top of the building overlooking the main road while an office manager unlocked the door and respectfully stepped back to allow her to enter alone.
Helen had not been misled: the room was dark and dusty and two-thirds full with filing cabinets, boxes and crates. She immediately looked at the window in the far corner and then all around the room. She had not known what to expect but there was no sign of Ellie. On reflection, she could not have expected the girl to present herself in such close proximity with a stranger outside the door; she must be back where her spirit resided since her drowning.
Yet, before she left the room, she wanted to stand in the spot where she had seen her daughter on three separate occasions now, so she manoeuvred her way past various items of storage so that she could position herself next to the window and look out. She could see the exact spot where she herself had stood staring upwards at the adorable apparition that had once been her own flesh and blood.
As Helen turned to leave, her peripheral vision caught something strange, unfamiliar, and quite unexpected. On a building opposite this one, a couple of floors below, there was huge tarpaulin advertising the wares of the shop on the ground floor of that building. The top line read in large letters: “Back to school”. The line underneath announced in smaller letters: “All you need for your son or daughter”.To the left was a photograph of a smiling boy aged about 10. And to the left was a similar image of a girl of around the same age.
In a split second of understanding and realisation, emotional scaffolding delicately constructed over two years came crashing down, taking her heart – and, she feared, her sanity – with it. She staggered back from the corner window and haltingly made for the door. She then noticed the window in the other corner. A bottom pane of glass was broken and there was a triangular gap, while on the floor beneath the window there were feathers: some white, many grey, a few black.
Helen's journey home was a retreat into a torment that she thought she had left behind and which she felt she could no longer survive. She had so wanted to believe. She had believed. She had believed with conviction. And yet she had deluded herself and felt now not just bereft at having lost the comfort of her daughter's ethereal presence but frightened that her rationality seemed to have been undermined. She feared that she was sliding into an abyss of utter despair.
As she opened to door to her smart Clapham home, it caught the day's post. The post arrived so late these days, she thought with irritation. She closed the door, picked up the mail, and flicked through the various items as Rascal the dog came sniffing around her legs. Nothing unusual here except a communication from Royal Mail itself. So she placed all the other pieces on a small table in the hallway and stood there as she opened the one intriguing envelope.
There was a typewritten message from a local Royal Mail manager:
“Dear Mrs Mitchell. I am writing to apologise for the exceptionally late delivery of the enclosed item. It has only just been discovered behind a sorting machine following a major programme of modernisation which involved replacement of the machinery. Please accept this book of first class stamps in recognition of our failure to give you the service which you would expect and we normally deliver.”
The item in question was a postcard with a picture of Cornwall on one side and Ellie's neat handwriting on the other:
“Dearest mummy, I am fine. How are you? Me and daddy are having a lovely time here and are going to a new place to swim tomorrow. A BIG hug to you and please cuddle Rascal for me. Love you tons.”
Helen crumpled, slumped to her knees, and sobbed. Rascal nosed her face and she put her arms around his warm body. She may have been silly over the face in the window but this was different. The arrival of the postcard today was not a coincidence; it was a communication. Her tears now were not of grief; she was beyond that. They were tears of reassurance and resolution and, as they coursed down her face, she could hear clearly in her mind Ellie's words: “I am fine. How are you?”
Published on 24 September 2009
To access all my short stories click here