Ethel & Ernest

My life isn’t perfect but it does have perfect moments

Anon

I mentioned in a previous piece that I’m donating many of my books to charity as I prepare to move home. Unfortunately, there is just not enough room for all the books I currently have in my new place.

I’ve made deliveries most days, to the charity shop, for a couple of weeks or more. When I now enter, I enjoy seeing some of the books that once graced my shelves awaiting ‘adoption’ by a new owner.

The memory of where and when I acquired many of those books, or where I read them, will long live with me. However, there is one particular book in that regard. Raymond Briggs’ (he of Snowman fame) ‘Ethel & Ernest — A True Story’. A graphic novel that recounts the lives of Briggs’ parents. From their first meeting in 1928 to their deaths in 1971. It is a humorous yet poignant tale of the lives of two ordinary people. All families have an ‘Ethel & Ernest’ story, yet Briggs brings a magic touch to his.

It was 1999, and I’d bought the book to take on a family holiday in Cornwall as part of my reading material. It was a holiday within which my birthday would fall.

Nothing special was planned for the big day itself, and my wife, children and I discussed what we might do over breakfast. They wished to visit a donkey sanctuary about an hour’s drive from our holiday cottage. While I respected those who had set up the sanctuary and cared for the plight of the animals, it wasn’t a visit on which I particularly wished to join my family. So, we agreed that en route to the sanctuary, we would seek out a quiet pub where they might deposit me for an hour or so. I suspected there would be several such establishments along the way, and it would allow me to read ‘Ethel & Ernest’. Afterwards, they could pick me up, and we’d have a celebratory lunch.

It was a warm day in the middle of July with a clear blue sky and golden sun. Around half an hour after setting off, we came upon an establishment that could have come straight out of a Hollywood movie as a stereotypical English pub. The place I espied was squat in stature and sat within a small sun-drenched courtyard. The pub sported a thatched roof, and its sturdy stone walls bore a whitewash that dazzled in the sunlight. Above the pub’s small windows hung baskets that held a profusion of flowers in a cacophony of colour.

It was not much past noon when I said my goodbye to the family and became the pub’s first customer of the day. The inside matched the outside in its quintessential Englishness: low ceilings, polished wooden floors, benches, and tables. The interior walls showed off the stones of the pub’s construction without the need for decoration other than the crisscross of supporting dark wooden beams. Tankards of varying shapes, sizes and materials hung above the bar. Not for decoration. It was clear that each had a long-term user. Standing stiffly to attention, along the bar was a line of pumps offering a selection of local ales and ciders.

Everything suggested Orwell’s ‘Moon Under Water’.

The young Landlord offered me a warm greeting along with his enquiry about what I might have.

Taking his recommendation, I was soon ensconced on one of the polished wooden benches with my freshly drawn pint. I opened ‘Ethel & Ernest’ and began to read.

I was only a few pages in and had supped little of my pint when the Landlord apologised for interrupting. As it was so quiet (I was still the only patron) in the pub, he wished to water his hanging baskets and, therefore, would be outside for a while. If I happened to want a second pint before he got back, he was happy I pulled that myself, and we could settle payment later. An excellent arrangement, I thought. I returned to ‘Ethel & Ernest’.

Then, a brief time later, something brushed up against my leg. Looking down, I saw an old retriever whose glistening coat matched the colour of the Noonday sun. The Landlord’s dog soon settled down and rested its paws and head on my feet.

I eased myself back into ‘Ethel and Ernest’, and for the next hour or so, the pub remained empty save for the Landlord pottering about, more outside than in. All was silence other than the rhythmic ticking of a large wall clock and occasionally the contented sigh of a relaxed golden retriever as she shifted her position against me.

It was the personification of peace. Through the open windows came a cascade of shimmering sunlight flinging shafts of gold across the room. Also drifting through those open windows came the busy buzzing of bees going about their business. And in that peace, I read while sipping slowly at my beer (and a second, delivered courtesy of the returned Landlord) and lost myself in the story of a loving couple and the decades of their marriage.

I have enjoyed many happy birthdays. Some that stand out include a ‘mystery’ tour around London. A fantastic food tour in the Testaccio area of Rome. Of drinking Sassicaia while sitting on Rome’s Palatine Hill and experiencing a performance of Aida in the Roman amphitheatre in Verona. But this quiet interlude was different. A golden moment both literally and metaphorically.

If we are lucky, we might bask in a few such moments in our lives. A decade after ‘Ethel & Ernest’, I discovered the tranquil magic of the Villa Monastero gardens in Varenna on Lake Como's eastern shore. I spent a few hours there reading. Surrounded by the sounds of nature and lulled by the gentle lapping of the lake.

These are moments when the confluence of our mood and ambient surroundings minimises the need for the company of others (except a sleepy old animal and an enjoyable book). To lose ourselves in the comfortable timelessness of our own company.

The new owners of ‘Ethel & Ernest’ may not experience reading it in quite the same circumstances as I did. But I trust that they, and all the new owners of my collection of books, gain the pleasure I have found in their pages. I envy those owners their discovery to come.

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