Tuesday 1 August 2023

Anna and Ethel by Christine Clark, Earl Grey tea

‘I’m so bored, stuck inside,’ Anna groaned as she heaved herself out of her armchair. She wandered over to look out of the window. ‘It’s still raining.’

Anna’s friend Julia looked up from her book. ‘At least in the first lockdown we could get into the garden. And if there was no gardening to do, we could sit in the sun and read. We were so lucky with the weather. But now, autumn’s here and it’s raining cats and dogs.‘

‘Yes, the garden never looked so good as it did this summer! But, seriously, I need to find something to keep me occupied or this winter’s really going to drag. How long can this pandemic go on for? There seems to be no end in sight.’

‘Well,‘ said Julia, ‘the Spanish Flu pandemic went on for over two years so I guess this one’s only just getting started.’

Anna groaned. ‘I like to read, but not for hour after hour … I need something new to do.’

Julia reluctantly put her book aside. ‘How about starting a new cross-stich project? Oh no, that’s no good - we can’t get to the craft shop. How about you find your sketch pad and do some new drawings?’

Anna didn’t seem attracted by either of these ideas. Then suddenly her face lit up. ‘I know! I’ve been meaning to do something with those old family photos I found in the attic. I’ll sort them out and stick them in my album. I should be able to identify most of the photos and if I can’t, I’ll ask Mum.’

The next day it was raining again so, fired up by her enthusiasm for the new project, Anna found the box of photos and settled down to look through them. Most were of family members and friends, some from the early days of the twentieth century, although most were later. Trying to be organised, Anna grouped them into piles, based on the date taken or who the subjects were. Many were not labelled and she had difficulty guessing who they were, although a little detective work usually paid off.

One photo particularly attracted her attention. It was of a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, although it was difficult to tell with her old-fashioned hair style and serious expression. She was wearing a dress that might have dated from the nineteen-twenties and on the back of the photo it just said ‘Ethel’. She was looking straight at the photographer and although serious, her eyes seemed to dance with supressed humour, almost as if the next minute she would burst out laughing. Entranced, Anna gazed at the photo.

She wondered who Ethel was and if there were any other photos of her. She looked through the box and came across some more photos, but she wasn’t sure if they were the same woman. Fashions and hairstyles changed and, of course, she’d have aged. But after a while, she came across another photo that caught her attention. It was a more recent picture of a very old woman proudly holding a baby. On the back is it said, ‘Ethel with Anna, 1988’.

‘That’s me!’ said Anna. ‘I was born in 1988. She’s holding me!’


That evening Anna’s mum Trish rang for a chat. They’d not been able to meet for several weeks, due to the lockdown, so there was plenty to talk about. Anna told her about the photos of Ethel.

‘Oh, that’s my granny, your great-grandmother,’ said Trish. ‘She was lovely. It’s such a pity you didn’t know her - she died when you were six months old. I’d forgotten we took that photo of the two of you, it’s probably the only one of you both together.’


The next day the rain had cleared away and although it was windy, Anna decided to go for a walk along the cliff path. Julia thought she was starting a cold and was feel a bit rough, so she opted to stay at home by the fire. Anna wrapped up well and set off along the path. The wind was quite strong but it was invigorating and after several days of enforced staying in, Anna relished the opportunity to stride out.

She’d been walking for half an hour or so when she found the wind was dropping and there even seemed to be a little warmth in the weak sun. She found a bench with a good view of the coastline and decided to sit down for a while. She was drinking in the wonderful view – she loved this stretch of coast and felt so lucky to live close to it – when she was surprised to see a woman walking along the path towards her. She’d not seen anyone else out that afternoon and was a bit disappointed to find she wasn’t alone. As the woman approached, Anna realised she was a stranger, not one of the locals, most of whom she knew. It was difficult to tell her age as she was wearing a rather frumpy dress and coat, but Anna guessed she was similar age to herself. Without greeting Anna, the woman sat down on the other end of the bench.

Anna wasn’t sure what to do. If she got up and walked away it would look rude so she decided to stay where she was and see if the woman said anything. After a while the woman, who had been gazing at the coastline, said, ‘How are you finding the lockdown? Find staying at home getting on your nerves? I know I did.’

Anna immediately felt as if she could talk to this woman. All her pent-up frustration poured out as she described how she was bored yet restless, wanted to get out yet felt home was the only safe place to be.

The woman smiled. ‘I know just what you mean, I felt the same. Had to stay at home … this so-called social distancing.  Had to wear a mask if you went out. Mind you, lots of people didn’t like that, so most didn’t bother. And if you did go out, there was nothing to do - no cinemas or theatres open. Couldn’t even go to church!’

Anna was puzzled. The woman was speaking as if the lockdown and restrictions were a thing of the past - but here we are, still in the middle of it, with no end in sight.

Her companion continued. ‘With us, they kept the pubs open. They would do, with men in charge! And the football matches were allowed to keep going. Funny, that.’

Anna was beginning to feel confused. She was sure the pubs had had to close and no football matches were being played, with or without crowds.

She was about to ask the woman what she meant when her companion went on. ‘They said it was spread by the troops coming back from the war. Them and the medical staff.  All that mixing with other soldiers over there and then coming home. Bound to spread, wasn’t it?’

Anna was starting to feel this conversation was getting surreal. War, what war? She desperately tried to bring it back to something she could relate to. ‘But at least the NHS has been marvellous, hasn’t it? The hospitals have really done a great job, once the PPE supplies - you know, aprons, masks and other protection - got through. And once we have a vaccine, life can get back to normal.’

The woman smiled. ‘Well, you’re lucky to have the NHS with all your healthcare for free! In my day most of us were nursed at home by the family. People like us couldn’t afford to pay for a private nurse or go to hospital. But you’re right about the protective clothing, that was in short supply for quite a long time. And this vaccine that’ll soon be available for you - that took a long time to come for us.’ She sighed. ‘It would have made all the difference.’ 

She stood up. ‘It’s been lovely talking to you. I hope you find ways of getting through the next few months. But take heart – it won’t go on for ever and in a couple of years, you’ll have forgotten what it was like - it will all be a distant memory.’

Anna was still trying to work out who she was and how she knew these things. As the woman started to walk away, Anna called out to her. ‘Oh, excuse me, but I feel as if I know you. What’s your name?’

The woman paused and looked at Anna fondly. ‘We have met before. I’m Ethel.’

About the author 

 Christine is fairly new to creative writing. As a publishing editor she is far more used to messing about with other people’s work than writing her own. But she finds she loves writing and it is now her go-to creative outlet. Christine writes features, short stories and researches local history.

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