On the twenty-fourth of February 1909 my husband decided to kill me. I like to believe he had thought it through long and hard, as he was never a man to act on impulse.

‘Your husband suffers from a harmless obsession,’ the doctor said but he didn’t know half of it. I had become a captive to my husband’s whims, resigning myself to his confidences.

His eyes followed my every move and my hands would shake from all this unwanted attention. Even the walks on the beach had turned into an ordeal, the sea air fuelling his fantasies. My husband had been killing me way before he pulled the trigger.

Thinking back to my final day there was nothing exceptional in his demeanour, no danger sign. He was, I remember, rather more affectionate than he had been for a long time and I drank it in knowing it couldn’t last. We had lunch at the Morley hotel where we were staying and then made the inevitable trip to the National Portrait Gallery.

When it came, the shot was deafening, the echo in the East Wing of the Gallery multiplying it tenfold. I felt my feet lift off the ground as if in flight and then I hit the floor hard. And then there was the second shot, which I knew would come, as I lay there, my ears full of noise. I heard a girl screaming.

They carried me through the East Wing and down the stairs to the Main Entrance.

I remember looking up at the faces of my bearers, my vision so sharp I could see the pores of their skin. There was a small yellow stain on the dark blue cravat of the constable who was carting me by my feet. His eyes were red and there were dry flakes of skin around his nostrils.

A tall thin man with a mournful face, wearing a dapper grey suit, was wringing his hands, his eyes round with fright. He looked familiar but I couldn’t place where I had seen him.

‘I am begging you; we should wrap her in blankets. All this blood,’ he was saying.

Then I was aware of it: the brilliant red flow, bedazzling like clusters of garnets strewn on the floor.

‘Please, the floor.’ The policemen ignored him.

The embarrassment. Making a spectacle of myself in public. I, who have always taken pride in being discreet, considerate, proper.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I said to the man with the mournful face but he didn’t hear me. He wouldn’t even look at me. Instead he stared at the blood, my blood, and kept wringing his hands.

For once, the dimly lit Gallery was bathed in bright white light – so bright it hurt my eyes. As for the first time, I looked at the people encased in glass and gilded frames.

Their eyes were following me, gleaming as if they were enjoying the performance: all those men in opulent clothes with their double chins and their intimations of a power that had always been beyond my reach.

The embarrassment. I could die of it.

The tall thin man in grey was still in tow, resigned now to the fate of his parquet, still wringing his hands; and the faces of the dead watching me with glee. At last they could lay a claim on me, me who had looked at them with such distaste, their bloodless faces and fish eyes and the pretence that they were still important as ever.

At last they could claim me as one of their own.

For days after there was an unusual number of visitors in the Gallery. They made their way to the East Wing, shuffling their feet, shamefacedly asking the warders questions.

Where exactly did it happen? How? Why?

They stared at the floor, as if mesmerised by phantom pools of blood, but really there was nothing there for them to see. The cleaners had done a thorough job.

I took to avoiding the East Wing. Instead I took my first tentative walks around the first and second floors, my eyes on the ground, ashamed, so ashamed.

Those days the Gallery wasn’t getting as many visitors as it does now. Sometimes I could walk forever without meeting anyone. It was restful.

Not that I minded the visitors. After all, I was one of them. Only, unlike them, I had a permanent pass and I would be staying the night.

I knew they couldn’t see me yet I was glad I was wearing my favourite dark green silk dress. It rustled reassuringly as I walked.

There were terrible times when I saw people I had known. The shock of it.

At first, I would flee the room, my face burning with shame lest they saw me – silly me. It takes a while to get used to one’s invisibility.

Then I discovered the advantages. I could slide down the banisters under the nose of the warders and I could be as rude as I liked to people I found distasteful. I could berate the bejewelled oligarchs and their courtiers on the walls; I could even follow one of these nice and proper English families that visited the Gallery and nestle in their household wreaking havoc. I could scream at the top of my voice and I could burst my lungs singing out of tune.

But, of course, I don’t do any of these things because it is not in my character. And, between us, where is the fun in doing such things if there are no witnesses?

People in the Gallery talked about it for days – the warders, the clerical staff, the tall, thin man in grey who was nervously inspecting the floor.

I shied away from it. I didn’t want to hear the rife speculation, the excerpts from the dailies read out aloud, the sordidness of it.

‘They were American,’ I heard a lady once say, as if this explained everything. I had always imagined my death as a very private moment in ripe old age, the final rest in my bed, slipping through my dreams, asleep for ever. This imagined ending was unencumbered by the odours of the sickbed and the agonised faces of my children.

The way I reached my end could not have been further from my imaginings. There is, I must admit, something unsavoury about it as if, in some obscure and undefined way, it had been partly my fault.


At first, nights were the hardest. Like all old buildings, the Gallery at night took a life of its own. The walls sighed and the floors creaked. Despite my heavy coat, I would feel the cold seeping through my body as if I was being slowly submerged in icy water.

My heart would stop when the bell rang and the warders started herding the visitors out. Many a time I made to follow them and I reached as far as the ground floor landing. But I had no place to go. Defeated, I would rush back to the semidarkness and the locked doors and the silent portraits.

And they were always silent, the portraits. I almost resented it. I was left alone with the sighs of the walls and the creaks of the floors and never one word from all those fellow dead in their gilded shrines who averted their eyes when I looked at them.

Were they pitying me, I wondered. Did they have a mutiny to leave me on my own? Was my end so unseemly that these well brought up people couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge me?

Sometimes I thought I heard the rustle of ancient brocade but I knew it was wild fancies, just like as a child when I would believe the nightly shadows on the walls of my room had their own voice that was at once animal and human. In their scariness they were oddly comforting. I never liked to be alone.

Unlike shadows, the people behind the glass would not oblige. Eyes averted, lips tight with disapproval, I thought. I looked at them defiantly. After all, I knew that, just like me, they had their own shameful secrets.


In those days there were only portraits of the dead on the walls. It is only in recent years that people alive and well started appearing. And there was no shortage of tragedy in the Gallery: untimely deaths, executions, falls from grace, madness, the loss of young children.

Often the executioners and the victims hung side by side like Henry the Eighth and his wives. It seems that, even in death, they could not escape him.

I sought out the tragedies as if to appease my own. I guess it was seeking for my own reflection that made me look at the portraits. I summed up the courage and strained my eyes to catch a glimpse of myself on the glossy black and the venetian red, the favoured backgrounds for the notables on the walls. But the glass would only yield a disappointing, shapeless smudge of a person, much less substantial than the paint and the canvas it protected.

I tried to speak but my voice came out hoarse with disuse. The sound of my heels on the floor was reassuring though. It sounded like me. A distinctive sound, one’s footfall, I’ve always thought. Sometimes I would stop and listen at approaching footsteps. I always feared it would be him, haunting me to the last, unrepentant, still persecuted by his demons. But it is always a harmless visitor out for the day with the family, or on his own, taking stock of history, marvelling at the jewels on Queen Elizabeth’s dress and the elaborate embroideries of the fine clothes so painstakingly rendered by the artists.

As for myself, at the beginning I had no favourites. I divided my attention equally between the portraits. I stood in front of each one holding my breath, looking at those closed faces, coaxing their secrets out.

When I gasped for air I would move to the next portrait and thus I would do my daily round diligently, leaving no one out.

As time went by, the people on the walls had a change of heart. They no longer averted their eyes but looked at me instead, at first dispassionately and later with a hint of interest, as if they had fathomed that, unillustrious though I was, I could tell them things no one else could. But they remained silent.


One day they came and took them away. There was a war on, I heard. They laboured for days till there was no one left on the walls, only the empty rectangles of lighter colour where they had stood. I supervised the removal anxiously, as if tending to my children, and winced when a worker was heavy handed with a painting.

But mostly they were gentle and lowered the portraits tenderly into wooden crates reminiscent of coffins. The Gallery resembled a mass burial ground, the dead staring up glassily from their confines.

It was when they put the lids on the crates and secured them with nails that I felt the wrenching of loss.

Now I would have to do without them. I prayed for the war to end soon as I wandered listlessly around the empty rooms watching the dust gather in furry balls. For once the building was silent. It was as if the spirit of the Gallery had followed the portraits in their hide out.

Of course, they had believed him.

‘It is your mother’s delicate health,’ he told them when he announced we were moving to the other side of the world. ‘It will be good for her by the sea.’

I remonstrated to no avail. He knew best and he was to take me away from my children. At the time only I knew the real reason for this retreat to Hove, East Sussex. It had started innocently enough as a hint that a man of our acquaintance was making derogatory remarks about us. He wouldn’t tell me the man’s name.

I didn’t pay much attention although I was perplexed because my husband had always been an affable man with a wide social circle. As for me, I was a model mother and wife, and a good friend to many women.

We led a content if uneventful life. But then we had a lot to be envied for. We were cultured, we had a solid marriage, our children were popular, we

travelled a lot; and, of course, we were very prosperous.

For a while I forgot all about it. Little by little, though, I noticed changes in my husband’s behaviour, and dark moods he had never manifested before. He became more irritable and, at times, abrupt with me. His appetite was gone. He would sniff the food on his plate and leave most of it untouched. At night he lay awake and when he thought I was asleep he would slip into his study. In the silence I would hear the clinking of glass and decanter. I tried talking to him but he brushed me aside.

One evening, his eyes rimmed red with lack of sleep, he poured it all out.

He was trying to protect me, he said. ‘You don’t know half of it, my dear. He is running us to ruin.’

‘But who? Who?’ I cried.

‘I’m fearing for our lives,’ he said.

I did not know what to think or whom to turn to as my husband had sworn me to secrecy. Was there something in his past that was haunting us? He wouldn’t tell me.

He spent more time at home and forced me to decline invitations. When we did meet up with people I nervously noticed that everyone was enquiring solicitously about my health. I noticed certain looks. And then I would look across the room at my husband seemingly in excellent spirits with a group of friends around him.

At home he would revert to his silent musings and his rants against the unknown enemy.

The decanter of whiskey was always within reach.

It was a measure of the love and regard I still had for my husband that I eventually conceded to this self-imposed exile. I hoped it would end the persecution but things only got worse.


Time does not matter to me any more. Unlike you, I do not have places to go, people to meet, holidays to arrange. I am always here, watching you.

These days I feel more at home in the Victorian Galleries. It is where I belong, I suppose. The East Wing has been turned into offices, much to my relief. I will never have to go back there. It was strange to me when my own contemporaries started appearing on the walls. It almost had the poignancy of an obituary or a death notice.

And still I hunt for tragedy: the unfulfilled love affairs, the consumptives seeking health in the South and failing, the maimed by illness or accident, the dishonoured, the incarcerated, the ones who succumbed to mental illness.

I am not by nature a morbid woman but I have affinity with the unfortunate. I seek them out as once I sought the company of old friends with whom I had many things in common.

Most of all I am seeking out those few female companions who adorn the collection.

Nowadays in my daily rounds I stop in front of them and greet them with affection: Queen Anne, who lost eighteen children; Nell Gwyn, renowned for her beauty and wit, who died young and in abject poverty; Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to the equally brilliant Mary Shelley; Elisabeth Browning; the Brontë sisters.

And there are the women of sheer pluck like George Eliot, Lady Montagu, Angelica Kauffmann, Mary Moser, Fanny Burney and, my favourite of all, the aviator Amy Johnson.

For years I was starved of the company of women. In the old days all the warders were spindly men of retirement age. I used to look forward to the charwoman coming in early every morning.

I have always followed the female visitors around the Gallery mystified, full of envy, noting the new fashions, listening to their idle talk.

Recently I saw this young woman walking along the Balcony Gallery, a slow steady walk, paying no attention to the portraits as if engrossed in the dream of her own beauty. She was wearing a pale blue dress of gauzy material and her heels were clicking cheerfully. Her hair was pinned up untidily and held together with small butterfly pins. One of them fell to my feet. I slowly picked it up and pinned it on my hair.

From time to time she comes into my dreams and I wake up startled because it is as if I see myself as I was in my youth: self absorbed, pretty, a whole life ahead of me – leading where exactly?

But gone are the days of the spindly old men with the foul smelling cigarettes. Most of the warders now are young and female.

My dear warders, you are much like me. You are playing ghost around the Gallery, looking at your watches every so often. Closing time always seems far off. Time goes so slowly in the Gallery. I should know.

I feel for you in your stiff, unbecoming uniforms. I know all about your backaches and the sore feet and the boredom.

‘Cheer up’, I cry. ‘You can go home at the end of the day. I stay on.’ But you cannot hear me.

I feel for you, young warders mostly. You come here full of dreams – artists, actors, would-be academics – and you think this is only a stopgap. Yet you come back year after year, the hold of the Gallery too great to let go. I should have warned you when you started that this is not a place you can easily leave.

You come through the doors carrying with you the smells of the city. I watch you with interest but little do you know how much of me I see in you and how I recoil. I was once just as innocent as you are, and just as vain – free from the terrible knowledge I have now. I listen to your conversations and pity you this innocence.

Sometimes I think if only. If only I had turned and looked at him just at that moment when he was taking aim at the back of my head. Perhaps he would not have had the heart to go through with it.

To this day I do not know why he chose this place to put an end to both our lives.

He never came back to explain; although for years I was expecting him to turn up with an apology. It’s just as well he hasn’t because I wouldn’t forgive him. I can’t. Perhaps he knows that.

So here I am walking past you, unseen and unheard, watching you, always watching you. I have come to love you and hate you in equal measure.

If only you knew I can see you. You would be scared out of your wits, wouldn’t you? But I don’t want to scare you. I have a message to impart.

I watch the visitors asking you nervously for the exit, as if they know that this building has the power to keep them forever. I watch you watching them leave, envying their freedom to come and go as they please.

And still you can’t see me. I wave at the security cameras, those little glass eyes on the ceiling, hoping, always hoping.

I see moments of your life ebbing away, turning to hours, months, years. I watch you grow old in front of my eyes. And still you can’t see me.

Yet I know for certain that, one day, perhaps not too far in the future, you will see me at last. And there is another terrible certainty. These portraits, which you so innocently admire, will outlive you all like they once outlived their sitters and the artists who painted them. And this, beyond doubt, is the biggest tragedy of all.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.