Introduced by Holly King
Another week of Write On! Extra begins and we’ve built up a great selection of writing. It’s lovely to connect with so many new writers, and see that people have decided to create something, finding they have something to say.
We’ve all had a lot of time to reflect and to sit with ourselves, which is a new and sometimes unsettling experience when we are faced with so many different impacts from this situation. While influencers and those with a huge social media following are shouting to learn new skills and do more, I think it’s important to remember that just sticking to the basics (if you keep getting up to your alarm every morning, getting fully dressed, eating planned meals, keeping in contact with people, cleaning the house, keeping track of the time, taking long walks or exercising where you can, or cooking) shows great determination in a time when there is no real consequence if you decide to not do any of them.
So, take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself and remember you’re going through a difficult time. If you’re still doing anything, then you’re doing good. And if you want to take your mind off things, while not spending money on any new equipment or memberships or having to move all your furniture about to create space, why not try writing? You can write about anything, and no one has to see it until you’re ready – there are no wrong answers. But if you’re looking for a prompt, then check out Write On! Extra. We’re waiting for you!
The first submission this week is from Carole Edwards, who focuses on our theme of ‘Keep Calm And..?’, reflecting on how her mother went through two viral epidemics in her lifetime. Through Carole’s memoir, we learn how these viruses impacted family life and communities and how the world fought through it and continued.
A Journey Of Hope by Carole Edwards
As we settle into another week of isolation, each of us hoping our forced separation will bring about an end to this pandemic, I know that for countless families who have lost loved ones there will be no return., leaving them to grieve.
With no cure or vaccination in sight, it is indeed a worrying time, but this is not the first period in our history that humanity has faced what seems an invincible enemy. When first reading about the coronavirus in China, I thought, ‘How dreadful, but so far away.’ Considering how global this planet of ours has become with travel and trade, I was somewhat naive. In many ways, staying in my comfortable home, enjoying my garden and being fortunate enough to have a husband to share these unusual conditions, I sometimes find myself detached from what is a very serious situation. Watching the distressing news each day on the television, I admit to seeking solace in listening to Radio 4 Extra, where comedy shows of past decades are broadcast. They are still able to evoke laughter and give us a much-needed morale booster.
The virus we face today is by no means the first time the world has fought such an epidemic. I learned when young that my mother, Jessie, had contracted smallpox as a child. Later in my life, when I began searching my ancestry and historic events, I realised that she had actually lived through two encounters with a deadly virus.
Born in 1911 in Winlaton County Durham, she was the last but one of 11 children. Following the first World War, there was an outbreak of influenza, which soon became known as the Spanish flu. Easily transmitted, as the virus bound itself to cells around the nose and throat, this virulent flu was to last from 1918-1919 and millions were to die around the world. One wonders if the troops from all the countries returning home from the trenches helped spread the disease. Measures taken to stem the spread of this deadly flu included wearing masks and closing schools, theatres and businesses. Cinemas resorted to spreading straw soaked in disinfectant. Sounds familiar, apart from the straw…
As previously mentioned, my mother’s second encounter with a deadly disease was smallpox. Around for centuries, this highly contagious and unpleasant virus reared its ugly head again in 1920. Not as widespread as what we are facing today, it still had a devastating effect on the towns and villages it infected.
A daughter of a coal miner, Jessie’s family had moved a few miles away from her birthplace to the then village of Rowlands Gill, named after the land owner. In 1908 new houses were built to attract more miners to work in the Lily Drift mine. They were to live on Victoria Terrace and my mother’s sister was still living there with her husband (also a miner) and family up to the early 1960’s.
I discovered my mother had had smallpox when there was an outbreak of chickenpox here in Essex, when I was eight years old and my brother was five, in 1952. We were taken to our doctor to ask for vaccinations, which were becoming more readily available. Our family GP explained that our mother would have passed on the antibodies needed to fight this outbreak, which was affecting mainly children. And indeed, neither of us contracted the illness. I didn’t really understand the implications at such a young age but, when older, asked more questions.
She recalled how the village had been shut off from the neighbouring towns and hamlets, and the sound of a handcart being pushed along the road past her home to the outskirts of their village. On asking her mother why there was a white sheet on top, she was told it was to cover the bodies of those who had died.
For young Jessie, her most vivid memory was of being taken to the isolation hospital, where the nurses tied her hands to the iron bedstead to prevent her scratching at the awful blisters and spots forming on her body and face. I found this detail quite horrifying, but had they not done so, she would have had the most dreadful scars. Having survived when many patients didn’t, she eventually returned home. Smallpox was finally eradicated by a global vaccination programme.
Leaving home at at just 14, two years later, Jessie went into service in London. She never returned to live in the North. Marriage and children followed years later, which is why I’m a Southerner. Each June, up until I was 15, we would return to Rowlands Gill for a week’s holiday with my mothers’ family. I was to discover, years after her death in 1997, that the isolation hospital she was taken to had been a single structure made of timber, with a corrugated iron roof, poor heating and lighting, and 72 beds for smallpox victims. It was built in 1882 and demolished in 1958.
The irony of my discovery was that the hospital was situated at the far corner of the huge Town Moor in the centre of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which played host each June to the largest fair in England (and still does). Called ‘The Hoppings’, so named because hopping and dancing was a major part of the early fairs. For me, the Town Moor represented a week of riding the dodgem cars and other attractions that made me scream with delight, such as the many bizarre sideshows, including the mouse circus. A really big treat, however, was being allowed to stay up late. For me, memories of happy moments in my childhood; to my mother, a reminder of when, over 35 years before, she, too, had come to the Town Moor to fight for her very existence.
Today, we face another crisis which, like our predecessors, we will overcome. We may be isolated in our homes but, thanks to the wonders of television, radio and mobile phones, we are not isolated from the world.
Now our regular Write On! contributor Patsy Middleton remembers two occasions in her early childhood, when she began to understand what panic was.
Two Moments Of Panic by Patsy Middleton
I remember when I was three.
Every day, Grandmother went shopping with me in a go-car, (now called a pushchair). My best memory of this was going to the butchers. The floor was thickly covered with sawdust. She would make sure the door was shut, then would release me from my go-car and let me play with the sawdust, while she bought the meat for the evening meal. They didn’t have fridges then, so everyone bought perishable food daily.
I loved playing with the sawdust so much, my grandmother gave me an empty registered envelope which was made of thick paper, and I would fill it up with the sawdust.
At home, my sawdust kept me quiet for ages. I loved the woody smell of it and the way it sifted through my fingers.
One time when we went shopping, Grandmother stopped to talk to Owen, the newspaperman whose pitch was beside Nelson’s Pillar in O’Connell Street.
I got bored watching people’s legs passing by, so I undid the strap holding me in the go-car and got out to go for a walk.
Grandmother was so engrossed in conversation with Owen, she didn’t notice me. I can only imagine how frightened she was when she saw the empty go-car.
I don’t know exactly where I went, but I remember seeing a lot of people passing this way and that. I didn’t know any of them. Then I heard a bright voice say, “There she is,” and Owen picked me up. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man who wore a dark brown cap on his head and a big, heavy black coat, the buttons undone to reveal his waistcoat. He held me high on one arm, and I could see all the people around us from a great height. “There y’are now,” he said with a big smile, and carried me to where Grandmother was waiting by his pitch. She took me from Owen’s arms and hugged me so tight I could hardly breathe. Then her worry spilt over into fury.
“Where did you think you were going, you bold child?” she said, in her scolding voice. Then she hugged me again.“When I think of all the things that could have happened…” And she continued to go on and on, as she put me back in the go-car, tears streaming down her face.
Owen bent down and fixed the buckle on the strap so I couldn’t undo it again.
Grandmother calmed down at last as she stood watching him. “Thanks, Owen. I’d better get this child home before I lose her again.” With that, she hurried away and was very quiet for the rest of the day, until Flo and Momma came in from work.
Grandmother told them all about the incident. I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about and remember their stricken faces as her story unfolded.
Momma sat down heavily on a chair, her face white with anxiety.
One thing my family has always been good at is turning any unfortunate incident into a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions: with faces long and drawn, their eyes dark and mournful.
Flo had the family expression on her face, which suddenly brightened. “I know!” she said, and rushed to the end bedroom. She came back moments later with the reins they put on me when they took me for a walk. “If you put this on her and fix it to the rings that hold the straps you buckle to fasten her in, she’ll never get that undone.”
The following day, Grandmother tried out Flo’s idea. She put the oval leather bib on me, the straps over my shoulders attached to another strap at the back. But instead of fixing the long leading reins to the harness, she attached the clasp onto the rings on the go-car.
Having tasted freedom once, I wanted to do it again, but I couldn’t get out, no matter how hard I tried.
Another incident happened that frightened me to screaming pitch when I was playing ball with Flo in our back yard. There was a step up from the yard into the kitchen. I was standing a little way from it, and Flo was at the other end of the yard throwing the ball to me. I couldn’t catch it as she could, but nonetheless I was determined.
Flo threw the ball. I lunged to catch it, tripped up the step and fell on my face. My nose started to bleed. This frightened me, as I had never seen blood before. I didn’t know what this red stuff was that was pouring out of my nose.
My mother always panicked in a crisis, and this time was no exception. “Oh my God. Oh my God,” she said, over and over again. “She’s haemorrhaging!” she shrieked.
“It’s all my fault, it’s all my fault,” Flo wailed.
Grandmother took charge – although, thinking back now, she hadn’t any more idea of what to do than her daughters. She picked me up and, leaving a trail of blood behind us, she carried me into the kitchen, stood me on a chair by the sink and bent my head over it (I think it was more to do with stopping the blood messing up the floor she had just washed than medical intervention).
I was never a noisy child, but that afternoon I made up for it. I screamed and screamed and couldn’t stop. Looking back, I think my mother and aunt in hysterics did nothing to calm me but exacerbated my panic. A pool of bright red blood formed in the sink below my eyes, making me scream and cry all the louder.
Then I remembered Mrs Halligan, also known as Aunt Maisey. She lived opposite us and was Grandmother’s best friend. A stout woman with a calm personality, something in me felt she would help. “Get Mrs Halligan, get Mrs Halligan!” I shouted.
There was a short family conflab, then Flo ran across the road to fetch her.
My instincts were right. Mrs Halligan, calm and efficient, told Alice to make a cup of tea. She sent Flo to get an old towel, then lifted me from the sink and asked Grandmother to pass her a mixing bowl. She sat Grandmother down with me on her knee, holding the bowl under my nose. Flo arrived with the towel from which Mrs Halligan tore a wide strip, put it under the cold tap and put it on the bridge of my nose. Then she pinched my nose below the bridge. Within a short while, the bleeding stopped, and I stopped crying.
Flo continued to sniff and blame herself. She was Grandmother’s favourite, being her youngest child, so as I showed signs of complete recovery, she began tending to her.
I must have damaged something in my nose as, for some years after that, my nose would bleed now and again for no apparent reason.
Lastly, a bit of humour from Wallis Eates. Titled Brace for Change, Wallis shows us what can be achieved with patience and co-operation.
Visit Wallis’s online shop – www.etsy.com/uk/shop/WallisEates
She is also involved with several initiatives:
Like An Orange – a graphic novel about brain injury and creativity: www.unbound.com/books/like-an-orange
Wings – a visual storybook from prison. Coming soon: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/littlemule/wings-a-make100-visual-storybook-from-prison
The virus we face today is by no means the first time the world has fought such an epidemic. I learned when young that my mother had contracted smallpox as a child. Later in my life, when I began searching my ancestry and historic events, I realised that she had actually lived through two encounters with a deadly virus.