Ellen Fraser is and was my lifetime.
I had experienced a bad war
like so many young men of that era. By the time it was all over, I found
myself on a driving holiday in the West Country. My old man, a reasonably
well-to-do businessman, had given me a second-hand Morgan for my 25th
birthday with the express intention that I should get away for a few
weeks and sort myself out.
So it was that I drove into
the Victorian seaside resort of Ilfracombe towards the back end of July,
1946. Despite the post-war deprivation, local tradesmen had made a real
effort to rekindle the pre-war spirit of expectation and I spent many
contented hours reading in the glass-framed pavilion under the shadow
of Capstone Hill.
I stayed in a hotel near
the harbour and ate all the fresh fish and seafood that was on offer.
One muggy, oppressive evening, I gave up the unequal struggle to get
to sleep and decided that a walk might do me good. I wandered past the
varied shops bordering the harbour and found myself on the old pier
where the boats from Wales and the Lundy pleasure steamer moored to
collect and discharge their passengers. Ilfracombe pier does not jut
out into the sea but is built on a circle of rocks at the entrance to
the harbour. Leaning on the rusted rail under a solitary lamp at the
furthest point from habitation, I was staring out at the darkness and
the single light marking the entrance to the harbour when I became aware
that I was no longer alone.
Turning, I saw a woman walking
“Oh, I am sorry, I
thought you were Edward.” As she came into the sphere of the lamp,
I saw that she was fashionably dressed with the latest hairstyle framing
a remarkably pretty face.
“Afraid not. I’m
James Dryden.” I felt awkward even then and unsure of myself which
was not normal, particularly with younger women.
She held out her hand. I shook it and looked into her eyes: such beautiful
deep green eyes that drew me in like a whirlpool captures leaves. “I
was supposed to be meeting Edward here but he has not arrived. It is
so unlike him to be late.”
“Maybe he’s on
his way,” I ventured, lamely.
“Maybe. Whatever, I
will wait for him. Do you love anyone, Mr Dryden?”
“Me? No, afraid not,
never met the right girl you know.”
She looked at me, this young
woman I had never met before, and suddenly I wished more than anything
else in the whole world that I was named Edward and that she was waiting
here on Ilfracombe pier for me.
“You will. We all carry
one love through our lives. It is our destiny.”
Resisting an unashamed urge
to hold her, kiss her, smother her with words and intimations of love,
I replied hoarsely, “That is a prophetic statement, Miss Fraser.”
She stared down at the sea
thrashing the rocks below: “Your destiny is mine, Mr Dryden: take
care not to destroy it.”
Turning round, she bent forward
and gave me the softest, yet most passionate, kiss on my forehead. “I
wish you fulfilment in your love, James.” Then she walked away.
She gave me one last look
over her shoulder, a look that captured my heart forever. “If
you see Edward, tell him that I will be here, waiting for him, each
and every Summer’s evening. You will tell him that?”
Promising, I waved feebly
as she walked out of the lamplight and, I supposed then, out of my life.
What simple fools we men are to imagine that we can dismiss our destiny
All that happened so many
years ago. Since then, like my father, I enjoyed a successful business
career although I have been retired for many years now. I never married:
well, not in the real sense. One fleeting moment with a young woman
in 1946 provided the one love that I have carried through my life. All
other women, however desirable they might be to mortal men, appeared
to me as faded roses. Those deep green eyes still haunt my every dream
and watch over my waking, living hours.
Every back end of July since
that fateful first visit I stay at the same hotel near the same harbour.
The only reason I return is in the eternal hope that one evening I will
meet Ellen Fraser again. It has proved a forlorn hope these past 56
years but what else have I to do at the back end of July but dream of
meeting the one who has become my lifetime.
Tonight is muggy and oppressive,
just like that evening in 1946. I give up the unequal struggle to get
to sleep and decide that a walk might do me good. I wander past the
varied shops bordering the harbour and find myself on the new pier where
the boats from Wales and the Lundy pleasure steamer moor to collect
and discharge their passengers. The old pier, too dangerous to walk
on in latter years, has been replaced with a modern landing area and
shiny new rails. Leaning on the gleaming rail under a solitary lamp,
I am staring out at the darkness and the double lights marking the entrance
to the harbour when I become aware that I am not alone.
Turning in heart-stopping
anticipation I am disappointed to see a middle-aged man walking towards
“Oh, I am sorry, I
thought you were someone else,” I hear myself saying, without
reason or cause.
“Would that someone
be Ellen Fraser,” replies the stranger who, with that one statement,
is a stranger no more.
“I don’t understand,”
I stammer, which is the absolute truth.
“I have seen you every
evening for the past week coming down here and looking: searching with
all the hope you can muster for someone: someone who never comes. And
I saw you doing the same thing in 1992 and ten years before that and
maybe ten years before that for all I know.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Frank Blower
and, apart from one chance meeting in 1962, I have led an undistinguished
life as a civil servant in a small room in a large brick building in
“What chance meeting?”
“Oh, I think you know.
I was on holiday here that year, 25 years old and searching for some
excitement. The rock and roll years passed me by, as would every social
phenomenon to come, but I was still relatively young then and longed
for the love that others around me seemed to take for granted. One evening
I came down to the pier in the early hours of the morning to clear my
head and I met my destiny.”
“Exactly so. I imagine
you can anticipate what happened.”
“Had she found Edward?”
“No, she was still
waiting for him. I can see her now, dressed in that dark red jive skirt
with her dark hair moulding her perfect features…”
“…and the deep
“Ah, yes, those deep
green eyes. They have…”
“I have returned here
every tenth year in the hope, vain I know, that I might catch sight
of her once again.”
“I have returned here
every year for the past 56 years and still hope, still believe. I imagine
that I might find Edward and then she will come back but in my heart
of hearts I know that she is dead now.”
“Oh yes, Ellen Fraser
died in 1888.”
My look of astonishment prompted
Frank to tell me about his research into the life of Ellen Fraser. He
had gathered scraps of information from interviews in the local papers
of the time and pieced together a reasonable archive that matched the
known facts, filling in the blanks with a probable supposition honed
over 40 years of experience.
“Ellen Fraser and Edward
Penberthy lived and came to love in St Mawes in 1887. She was the daughter
of the local landowner, he the son of a local fisherman. The social
customs of their time meant that marriage, even arranged meetings, were
unacceptable so, like others before them and since, they met secretly
and their love grew stronger as each month passed. Recognising that
their future together would be doomed if they remain in St Mawes, they
left around the spring of 1888 and travelled eastwards, arriving in
Ilfracombe in July. They intended to get a boat to Wales and start a
new life together where no-one would know them.”
“One sunny morning
at the back end of July, Edward left their rented room for the last
time to book their passage on the afternoon boat. An hour later, Ellen
bade farewell to their temporary home and walked down to the pier with
her worldly belongings in a travelling bag. She waited patiently but
Edward did not come. Day after day, night after night, Ellen waited
for Edward but he never came. The local fishermen got so used to seeing
her there that she became their homecoming mascot.”
“One of them discovered
her body in the slopping water under the pier one morning in early September.
The cause of death was never proven but the local gossip was that Ellen
Fraser took her own life on the stark realisation that Edward was never
going to come. What had happened to him remains a mystery but others
had disappeared before, prey to the smugglers who worked out of the
Devon harbours and who would kill their own brother for a handful of
coins, the price of a few drinks at the seaside taverns.”
"Ellen Fraser is buried
in the churchyard at the top of the town: the inscription on her stone
1868 - 1888
died of a broken heart
may her spirit rest in peace
but we know that her spirit
roams the harbour every back end of July as she seeks eternally for
Edward. She never finds him so ensnares other men’s destiny by
way of revenge. How many of us are there: how many surrogate husbands
has she gained over the past century? And have any of them ever seen
I dare not answer his questions
but turn once more to gaze into the inky black of the bay.
Frank Blower and I stare
out to sea, seeing nothing, hoping for everything, not seeking to change
our past, merely hoping to relive one moment of it. Together but not
Ellen Fraser was and is our