le-gothique restaurant

The Ghost of Charlotte Jane Bennet at The Royal Patriotic Building near Wandsworth Prison

The night it happened – it was dark and we had got off the bus early.

Really, It’s impossible this way!” James called after her disappearing back.

They had been there before but the last time, they had approached from the road, it had been daylight as it was summer, and they had arrived early for their booking eager to have a drink and seep into the evening.

“This can’t be right,” he complained trying to catch up with her.

It was pitch-black, he needed time for his eyes to adjust, to think, to clarify where they were and where they should go. She had charged ahead, and he was meant to be the impetuous one. Unwilling to follow her, he was equally unwilling to be late for their booking; it was already five minutes past. What sort of unfeeling husband leaves his wife wandering around at night in an ill-lit area on her own. He had no choice. She was striding the wrong way. Oblivious to the pleas, she marched around three sides of the perimeter. He knew she knew it, but she had to win. It was ever thus.

“We’re not that late, I’m sure they’ll hold the table,” she assured him, not breaking her pace as she turned into the development.

“I’m sure you’re right,” he agreed, anxious not to provoke her, he had gone to a lot of effort to create a decompression session, a chance to relax and reflect after Christmas and he was not about to spoil it.

Later, that night, after the meal, they found the right entrance. At that point in the proceedings, he was trying to stop seething. Sweating under his woollen hat, he was upset with himself, he hated being late but how he had estimated it would take only half an hour to get there and how could he have been so wrong, he just did not know. Having not factored in returning to the house for an umbrella, despite the forecast being fine and for the ten-minute walk to the bus stop after that, his downfall was inevitable.

 Sometimes, he wondered how he had managed to get to work on time for so many years. How could someone be os organised at work and yet so chaotic at play? Fortunately, the buses arrived quickly, a five-minute wait for the 319 to the corner of Bellevue Road, it took less than eight minutes to reach the turning, and then a two-minute wait for the 219. That bus ate up the distance they might have had to walk; ten minutes reduced to two.

Alighting at the County Arms, he had only then remembered that he should have stayed on for one more stop; that would have delivered them to the right spot; opposite the carved stone, tall gate posts that had once housed a side gate to the Royal Patriotic building and now led to a high-rise housing estate and the building beyond.

Eventually, passing one side of the huge gothic building, they found themselves in the carpark and he led her to the doorway in the corner of the courtyard, which must have once been a stable. Weaving through the corridor, they arrived at the entrance of the French restaurant.

Having arrived at Le Gothique, ten minutes late, Andrew, the owner, helped the stress melt away as he seemed unfazed, so Henry was able to relax. They had finally made it there. He had booked it through his restaurant ‘app’ and she, Sally, had almost pulled the plug on the whole venture, complaining that it was an unnecessary expense after Christmas. From his point of view, it was the last part of Christmas. His family had always celebrated The Epiphany, which they referred to as the Feast of the Magi.

As a gift giving exercise where the three kings gave the embalming oils and funeral fee to the infant Jesus, according to Christian thinkers and the New Testament, it was in most Roman Catholics diaries. Imagine getting gold, frankincense and myrrh on your first birthday. Being of generous spirit, Henry saw the meal that night as a wonderful post-Christmas decompression session.

What a wonderful restaurant, it was. Opulent fin de siècle furniture, crimson cushions and snow-white table cloths, it was like arriving at an Edwardian restaurant, but in an indication of its modern menu, there were black and white photographs on the cream walls. Cream crimson and white were the iconic colours of sedate, calm. Politely, Andrew led them up to the mezzanine where they sat on the scarlet velvet chairs, a table festooned with a white table cloth and  beautifully folded white, starched, thick napkins.

On the walls were an eclectic mix of mirrors, photographs of Battersea Power Station, pictures of all sorts, photographs, prints, sketches, and even, clinging to the wall, an angel carrying an amphora who loomed over the bar almost twice life size.  Dimmed, cream, up-lighters gave off a ghostly glow, creating a cosy cave with a welcoming feel and candles burned in night-light silver cup, shaped like a wheel, ingredients for a perfect meal.

Calm, now that they had not lost the table, relieved to be sitting down, Sally and Henry chatted amiably. Ordering a bottle of Cotes du Rhone, Henry was reinflated with the joys of Christmas, all humbug and frustration at being late was consigned to a box that would never be reopened. Sally seemed relaxed too, thankful that her fiery husband has doused the flames of fury without the need of intervention.

Sharing the assiette du burrata, they chatted away and shared the beautiful bread that came with the cheese and Palma ham, he ate the salad and tomatoes, so she did not have to. Ordering the Chicken Saltimbocca, Sally was pleased to see that there was tender-stem broccoli with it, one of the few vegetables that she would eat; ordering the confit de canard, he was happy that there were two of his favourites with the duck, red cabbage and potato Dauphinoise.

Chatting about their Christmas Eve drinks party, Christmas Day as Suzi’s, Sally’s sister, on the coast and their Boxing Day lunch in the pub, they completed their review and chatted about their daughter living in Australia. For pudding, she ordered the chocolate fondant then changed her mind to the assiette de fromage. Knowing she was in a good mood and had decompressed, he ordered a Sauternes, knowing he would get away with the added extravagance.

“So, Christmas was a less stressful time, do you think?” he asked.

“It was a good rest, work was stressful just because everyone was trying to get things wrapped up by year end,” she explained, leaning forward on her elbows, brushing a cracker crumb from her red lips.

“That’s good to know, I think the drinks was a success and your sister’s spread was wonderful,” he enthused.

“The lunch at the hotel was good, too,” she continued, smiling, she had never looked so beautiful to him.

“Best Boxing beer, I’ve ever had, and the food was lovely, not as good as here, but delicious,”  he agreed affably, he loved it best when she was relaxed, “I have to go to the loo.”

Polishing off the last drop of Sauternes and slipping the napkin from his lap to the table top,

James rose and left the mezzanine by trotting down the stairs. Turing right, he went through the doorway into the surprisingly cold corridor, it had been a mild winter, but a cold snap was expected next week. Was it because he had forgotten his jacket or was it more sinister?

A shiver ran up his spine as he neared the corner where the corridor split, straight on to the main entrance, left to the loos. Was that something moving in the shadows. Dismissing the notion, he put the apparition down to an overactive imagination; it was a gothic building, he had read too much Wilke, too much Stoker and too much Poe; he had met too many women in red, white and black, scared himself enough to have a heart attack.

Going to the loo, he watched steam rising and realised perhaps it was the ambient temperature and not some ghostly presence that made his tremble involuntarily.  Washing his hands, he enjoyed hot air dancing over his cold we hands, the smell of soap filling his nose.

It was when he stepped out into the corridor that he noticed the history of the building summarised in different eras and times on grey tablets secured by screws to the grey-painted walls. Glancing at the historical tablets as he was keen to get back to Sally and, frankly, the warmth of the restaurant, he saw something strange ahead of him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a small, sixteen or seventeen-year-old girl. Straw coloured hair surrounded her pale face. Blinking, he thought that she had pale blue eyes, her lips seemed bleached. Looking elfin in the dark shadows, it was difficult to tell. There was nothing bright in her countenance, nothing colourful in her clothes. A drab, mousy Maud in a grey skirt and white blouse.

Then, it hit him.

Those were Victorian clothes. A smell of damp filed his nose. The figure flitted from shadow to shadow, visible in the corridor for a few seconds.

His face froze. His pulse raced. His heart hammered in his chest.

Standing stock still, he stared at the girl as her clothes caught fire and she disappeared in a flame of burning muslin and wool. James breathed in the burning smell. His disbelieving eyes saw her become a flaming torch.  The flames lifted off the ground and rose like some strange Chinese lantern launched into the corners of the ceiling of the cloister. Nothing was left behind. Then, the flame burnt out. A smell of dust and decades filled his nose, a faint whiff of burning cloth still present in the air.

His eyes were fixed on the spot. The place where she had combusted bore no sign of a conflagration of any kind. Stunned, He slowly felt calm returning to his body, the hackles in his neck, his pulse and heart beat slowly returned to normal.

That was that.

He returned to where Sally sat. He spoke no word of what he had seen. He tried to be his old self.

The next day, he went back. In the cold light of day, the corridor seemed normal, merely a connection from the restaurant to the reception area, the main hall. Flooding through the clear, clean glass, sunlight bathed the red-tiled floor, the original Victorian crimson ceramics, he was sure, now a dull burnt orange hue. Apart from the view of the inner courtyard garden, there was nothing to see there. The painted mullions around the window panes, the white paint, the cloister’s roof, dark wood and monastic.

There were no clues connected to Charlotte’s appearance on that previous night, 6th January 2024. The same cold pervaded the corridor but that was to be expected, after all, the door to the outer courtyard carpark was open, allowing the wintry wind freedom to sweep down the passageway to where he stood. Turning on his heel, he decided to leave but then the historical tablets, screwed to the wall, caught his eye.

Pausing on his way back out, he read about the spectre he had recently seen, Charlotte Jane Bennet. The phantom had a sister, Maria Elizabeth, and they had both been sent to the Royal Patriotic Building Asylum in 1861, during November. Their father John Cullen  Bennet, a Paymaster Sergeant had been mortally wounded in Sebastopol in 1855. Otherwise, in 1862, he might have been sent to fight the Americans in Canada or gone, as allies to the French army, to Mexico and might have died there. The question of how it took so long for them to be adopted, he could not fathom unless the mother had died young.

Charlotte was  hired as a domestic, maid servant since she was too old to go to school.  After Christmas she got into trouble, and on the 4th of January 1862, she was locked in the lady superintendent’s bathroom for insubordination. On the second day, 6th January, she was given her midday meal and some lucifer matches to light the gas lamp. The same day, Epiphany, the Feast of the Magi, the day of Sally and James’s decompression session.

That evening, in 1862, at six, some of the girls heard screams from the bathroom above them but were too scared of the staff to report them. It was only at 8:30 pm when she was due to be released that her body was found burnt. The linen window blind had caught fire together with the chair and Charlotte’s clothing.

Accidental Death was the verdict. Later, workmen saw an apparition during renovations in the 1970s. it was believed that they had seen the spirit of Charlotte Jane Bennett who died in that awful fateful fire in January 1862.  Incredibly, the workmen had tried to talk to her when they assumed she was a child from a local secondary school. Staff have also had exploding light bulbs in the room where she passed away and a film about her shown in a nearby room was disturbed by the lights dying and then when she was asked to switch them back on, the light was restored.

Was she cruelly killed by kismet? Was her punishment too harsh? Will she ever tell us her story? The real facts of that night; 6th January 1862, one hundred years before James was born. He was 62 born in 1962  and she had died in 1862, too.

Michael Fitzalan’s first novel gained cult status and here are some others: Waterwitch was a hit with those who have ever sailed; two brothers battle storms and Spanish support for the Malvinas in an attempt to meet up with their girlfriends in Ibiza. They have to get from The Algarve to Ibiza, all very straightforward until engine failure and storms threaten to sink all their plans. The Taint Gallery tells the story of a modern Romeo and Juliet; the story is set in Cheslea and Fulham, not Verona, nevertheless, it is a doomed relationship. The book was shunned by big publishers for its highly charged and graphic sexual content and the small publisher who produced the book folded, copies are rare. A reprint is planned for its twentieth anniversary next year; it is still as pertinent and shocking today as it was back in 1996. Switch is an amazing mixture of Franz Kafka realism yet it reads like a Raymond Chandler thriller. Joe Ederer falls for a French girl but he is recovering from being dumped by his English girlfriend. A fish out of water in London, he chases her home only to be rejected. He hooks up with a suffocating drug addict and that is when his nightmares begin. Major Bruton’s Safari is the story of innocents abroad; a family invited to celebrate the coronation of the Kabaka of Buganda become indoctrinated into the ways of Africa. With an acerbic observer on hand, the family experience the warmth and ways of Uganda that help them to understand themselves a little better. IPG – Innocent Proven Guilty is about a teacher, Philip Hayward whose brother sold their shared flat and ran off to America with the proceeds. Philip bumps into his brother’s ex-girlfriend and she tells him his brother is back. Racing to the address she gave him, he arrives to find his brother with a knife in his back. As he leaves, his shoes leave bloody footprints and the police come looking for him. Carom – Finn McHugh and his team take on a swindler and smuggler, Didier, who is depraved in so many ways. They know he is smuggling art and drugs; he must be stopped before others take him out. The Cubans, want him dead, Finn wants to break the smuggling ring. Who will win? Remember the Fifth November – Guy Fawkes was innocent, Catesby was a broken man who brought his children up in the Anglican faith, yet Robert Cecil arranged for them to be portrayed as terrible villains. With a spy service second to none and with moles everywhere how could someone hatch a plot like this and fail to be discovered? The answer, they could not. Read the truth! One – Bullying does not go on anymore in schools. I would not bet on it. Weep as you read the terrible story of a school bully and the misery he dispenses to all the boys. Then, cheer as one of his victims takes revenge. Take a trip to a prep school in a time when kids built tree houses, danced and swung on Tarzan ropes!

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