Moments after leaving home, I return to put my shorts on. Goodness, it is warm – the hottest Halloween, no doubt, since records began. I usually walk there but today I cab it, hoping I might see Nick who has been with Hazel this morning. (Richard is going tomorrow). I see from the visitor’s book Nick left half an hour ago.
“Where are you taking Hazel today?” asks Linda on reception, “Shanghai?”
“No, we went there last week. – San Francisco today, I think.”
The door through to the dementia wing is the physical embodiment of the ‘deprivation of liberty’ document we have to sign soon. Attached to it is a note telling visitors not to let residents out – apparently two old ladies recently managed to bluff their way through and were apprehended leaving the home.
The leader of this escape attempt I know to have been Hazel. Sometimes, we are told, she gets distressed at what amounts to her imprisonment. Occasionally when I arrive she is lurking here with her friend and fellow escaper, the largely silent Joy.
But today she is sitting quietly in the main lounge. Her face lights up to see me “Dear Boy!”
“Happy birthday mother!”
“Is it my birthday? How old am I? I’m not 3 figures am I?”
Although she lacks her front teeth, she looks far better than those last years she spent living alone in Tonbridge, when she had given up washing and changing her clothes. Today, on her 86th birthday, she is clean, fresh and smart and her neat hair is as blond as it is grey.
She opens birthday cards from Brenda and Sasha, relishing Sasha’s word ‘spooktastic.’ Then it is time for her lunch. I sit with her and 2 other ladies, one of whom blurts angrily, “Where is the salt? You can’t eat this without salt!” Hazel polishes off her meal in style and I announce we are going for a walk. This is, as it has been ever since she was evacuated to the countryside 75 years ago, a favourite thing of hers.
We skirt along one side of the golf course and around the fine lawns which surround the handsome Victorian building that is Springfield hospital. We sit on one of our regular benches, admire the trees and watch the planes go over, two pastimes we never tire of. The sky is cloudless and Hazel is excited by the lengthening white line one plane carves upon the blue. “And look at the little pigeon. “ she says, “He’s having a good day.”
“How is Beth?” She asks, surprising me again with what she sometimes remembers. As she does when she picks out her grandson James from one of the old photos I have brought. We are basking in the sun now. “Look at the trees, aren’t they beautiful? The leaves coming down now…”
Walking back we stop off at the golf club for a drink. “Coffee or a white wine mother?” She hesitates, “A white wine please dear boy.” But this is fine, she hardly drinks alcohol these days. She praises the green-ness all around us and we laugh at some small boys struggling with big golf bags.
“So how was San Francisco?” asks Linda back at reception.
“Lovely, says Hazel, “but I’m pleased to be back.”
Now comes the part I find hardest. Sometimes she becomes unhappy when I leave and I have to console myself that she will have soon forgotten this distress. In the lounge a table is set with pink glasses and the carers welcome Hazel back for her birthday party. I slip away as she is toasted.
Walking up the road from the care home my eyes are a little damp but I pass a couple of drunken zombies who make me laugh. It is a beautiful late afternoon in Autumn and, before I head home. I decide to take a turn around the common.