SUMMER LOVE by Anthony Hunt


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 towards me.

“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.

“Ellen Fraser.” 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 so lightly.

2002

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 me.

“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 London.”

“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.”

“Ellen Fraser.”

“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 green eyes.”

“Ah, yes, those deep green eyes. They have…”

“…haunted me ever since.”

“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.


1888

“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 reads

Ellen Fraser
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 her twice?"

2002

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 really together.

Ellen Fraser was and is our lifetimes.

ENDS © Anthony Hunt