top of page

Pretty As A Picture

Maggie, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England
April 2001

Hi. The story I am about to tell you is true. I have tried not to leave anything out but as this story happened to my grandma, I have to take her word for it. She is a very matter of fact kind of lady. Not the type to lie.She has always told me the god-honest truth. And I believe that what she told me about this picture is real. I have seen the picture.But it is JUST a picture....

Let me fill you in.

When my grandma (Alice) was a little girl, (about seventy five years ago now!), she used to live in a street overcrowded with families and children. All the children of the same age played together, out on the street. It was a very different time to be living in. The families were so poor that the kids often had only sugar and bread or bread with dripping (lard) to eat for their dinners. And yet...they were happy. They could play outside without fear because child abduction just didn't happen very often then. Children did NOT just disappear.

Alice was about seven her little cousin Mary moved into the street.

Mary was a year younger than her cousin Alice, with long dark curls she wore in ringlets and she was 'such a pretty child' my grandma remembers. She also remembers how, jealous of Mary's curls, she used to tug them in the hope of making her curls drop out!!

Nonetheless, most of the time they played together and were close.

Mary had five sisters and three brothers. This was normal at the time in England (especially the North East where they lived). Poor families always seemed to have many, many children. So many in fact, if one went missing, it could go unnoticed until bed time. This is what happened with little Mary.

Mary went missing one day and Alice noticed she did not come out to play. She looked for Mary in all the usual places they played :The steel yard, the corner shop, beside the school, behind the chapel. She could not find her. Alice assumed she was ill and played with some other children instead.

Alice went to bed that night in the room she shared with three of her sisters. There was a picture above the bed (they all shared one bed) of a country scene. It showed a river, a little house, an apple tree....the usual stuff you would expect in a crude watercolour painted by a friend of the family. That night, Alice went to sleep thinking of Mary and hoping she would be alright to play the next day, which was a Saturday. Just then there was a knock on the door and the children whispered amongst themselves. It was late and they wondered who would knock at such a time. She heard her father go to open the door. It was Mary's father, Alf. He asked if the family had seen anything of Mary that day. Alice's father Eddie said no, and asked what was happening. Alf explained little Mary was missing.

Alice went to sleep worrying and the next day most of the street, including the children, all pitched in and searched the town to try and find Mary.

Mary had last been seen Friday morning playing near an old run down cottage which was derelict and had become a hangout for the local kids. Inside, it was bare, thick with dust, and the walls were covered with graffiti. Upstairs, there was a bed with no mattress, and a damaged chair was left in the hall. But Mary was nowhere to be seen. A childs ribbon was found, however, in the corner of a little back room. Perhaps it was Marys?

The police were called but Mary was never found. Then, a few weeks later, a strange thing happened. A little girls face appeared in the cottage in the picture.

Like Mary, she was a pretty little girl, and you could clearly make out her dark ringlets and rosy cheeks.And her sad, mournful expression. Alice showed her sisters, and her mother. Her mother started to cry when she saw little Marys face in the window. After all, Mary was her niece and it had been a terrible shock to lose her. She made the children swear never to say anything about the painting because Mary's parents were devastated with grief.

Mary was never found, but she was still visible in the painting.

When my grandma turned 17, she married , left home and took the painting with her. She still has it, and when I was a child, she showed me the picture many times. For many hours I would stare at the little face in the window, willing it to move or change expression. Then, one day, when I was fifteen, I visited grandma Alice and noticed that Mary's face was fading from the picture. It faded and faded until one day, decades after it had appeared, Mary was gone from the painting. It was as if she had died of old age, still trapped in the cottage in the picture. My grandma was relieved because she says this means Mary is at last at peace.

It is true, it was haunting to see the sad expression of the little girl in the window. If Mary is at peace now then I am glad. She never had a burial as her body was never found.

One of the things my grandma remembers about Mary's parents was how they would boast sometimes that their children, especially young Mary were "Pretty as a picture". So it seemed all the more ironic to her that pretty Mary did, in the end, become part of one.

She has kept the paining, and when she passes on, it will be mine to keep. It is a family heirloom that will hopefully provide me with an interesting, if sad story, to tell MY children in the future...I often think of Mary. Wherever she is, I hope she is finally happy.

Maggie, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England
00:00 / 01:04
bottom of page