I live beside the Shannon and it’s beautiful. My husband is my full-time Carer because I have limited mobility. Our adult children don’t live nearby, so we’re used to living alone. But in March, when Lockdown began, I struggled with the sudden reality of not being able to see our grandchildren … I was fraught with anxiety, fear about Coronavirus, and my brain felt like scrambled eggs. As a writer, it was awful. Well, I thought, if I can’t write, then I’ll read.
I’ve always been an enthusiastic reader influenced, without doubt, by my father reading aloud to me as a child. When I was nine, I stayed awake one night reading Great Expectations, impatient to discover what happened to Pip. I once found a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare in a neighbour’s barn, near a pile of rubbish for burning. That rescue mission resulted in me, aged eleven, spending two days reading a Midsummer Night’s Dream.
But, oh, during those initial weeks of Lockdown, I found it difficult to concentrate on anything. Then, I began to read again. Keeping a list of titles helped me stabilise the uneven keel of Lockdown life. My handwritten reviews were concise and marked out of five, like this:
‘I Found my Tribe, by Ruth O’Neill Fitzmaurice – Powerful, authentic, fearless. Stunning portrayal of chaos in an upside-down, curve-ball world. Made me laugh, cry and gasp. 5 / 5.’
As the ‘new normal’ settled in, my book reviews fizzled out:
‘From a Low and Quiet Sea, by Donal Ryan – Loved this. Read it in three goes. 5 / 5.’
By June, I’d abandoned my reading list altogether, accepted that Coronavirus is here for the long haul, and was resigned to video calls with our beloved grandchildren. Besides, I was writing again, and able for light domestic tasks. While I was tidying a chest of drawers, in among family trivia – photographs, greetings cards, school reports – I found an inherited WH Smith A5 ring-bound notebook.
It had belonged to my grandmother. She called herself ‘Nora-Without-an-Aitch’, as if it was all one word. Nora was born in January, 1910. Her family, the Thompsons, were Quakers who originated from Durham, England. During the late-1930s, Nora married my grandfather, Jack Starke, also a Quaker. She managed a launderette and he was a probation officer. Until I was three, I knew them both well, but when my family moved away in 1967, we became separated. I was in my forties before we met again. Nora died eighteen years ago, not long after Jack. She was ninety-two years old.
Abandoning everything, I sat with Nora’s notebook on my lap, overwhelmed with joy at this unexpected glimpse into her life. On the cover she’s written, ‘Books Read, January 1990 to January 1995.’ Each page has book titles on the left, her comments on the right. In 1992, she read ninety-six books, and fifty-six books in 1994. Impressed, I began reading her reviews:
‘When the Green Woods Laugh, by H.E. Bates. Basis for the TV series, The Darling Buds of May. Quite splendid.
‘Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene. I don’t like Greene’s style. Never have. I must remember this.
‘Wild Swans, by Jung Chang. Terribly tragic, but historically interesting.’
Inside the back cover are two handwritten rough drafts of letters to a mail order company, enquiring about a walking aid. Nora’s handwriting in the first is shaky, but legible.
‘I understand, from a friend who has one, it enables an arthritic person to walk more easily.’
There’s a question mark beside a date: ‘July 7th 1992?’ And a note-to-self, perhaps reflecting her own slide into dementia: ‘Did I put my address on this letter?’
The draft of her second letter ends: ‘I shall be glad if you will write as soon as possible to the address indicated above on this letter. With profuse apologies, Yours Truly.’
Through necessity, I use a walking aid myself. And I am, as one consultant confirmed, ‘riddled with arthritis’. Sitting, turning the pages of Nora’s notebook with my creaky fingers, I felt a profound connection with her. Engrossed and distracted, I was unaware that an entire afternoon had passed. At least I wasn’t thinking about Coronavirus.
(c) Esther Hoad