Jill climbed the service steps of the retirement village slowly. Not one for confining spaces, she avoided the lift. Besides, it gave her time to brace herself.
Hospital Level 2, and she opened the heavy doors into the lounge, looking around for her mother. No sign of her, or anyone else, which seemed rather strange. So onwards down the corridor to her room. Again the ponderous bracing on the threshold, but she was not there either. It seemed the air had just been swept clean. Whoosh! They had all gone away. But where?
She went to the reception desk, and a bright nurse pointed to the atrium below. ‘They’re having a rock n’ roll party! Look, I can see your mother down there.’ She pointed, and Jill looked down towards the huddled figures. In various forms of disarray, they lay or sat in wheeled chairs around the atrium, blankets trailing on the gleaming floor. Her mother was on the other side of the room, curved and hunched against the strangeness of it all, blue cardigan buttoned tight. Jill calculated she just had time to reach her before the entertainment for the residents began.
Racing downstairs, she negotiated herself across the floor. ‘Where did you come from?’ Surprise lit her mother’s face. Jill gently tucked frail hands into her own, lamely trying to explain how she had managed to materialise at that moment, in that time. In that time just before a rock n’ roll party which was now about to begin. In that space after travelling endless kilometres and coming to a sudden halt. She slid herself into a space behind her mother’s chair.
A singer appeared, in a maroon suit with maroon shoes and slick brylcreem short back and sides, beginning a superficial patter about how glad he was to be there. Jill stood stiffly behind her mother’s chair, still braced against what she saw around her. Decay and frailty, the vacancy of stares not seeing, not comprehending, not wanting to comprehend. Simply wanting the escape of lolling into sleep, or just drifting, drifting through the day until the nightly escape, assisted by sleeping tablets.
Detached, she stared cynically at the crooner, his microphone gripped tightly in staccato gestures searching for some response, some recognition. Vainly he sang on, searching the atrium, with its streamers and balloons, steel and glass skylights gleaming high above the lush plants. Across the floor brown patterned slippers spread beneath the sharp leaves of a palm tree, revealing pale flesh softly veined, enclosed in carefully dressed trousers.
Then Jill noticed one slipper beginning to move, tapping on the smooth hard floor. She too had begun to feel a faint movement pulsing through her, the movement of a song. A Beatles song she hadn’t heard for years. She remembered how she too used to croon, holding a microphone as she sang. A hairbrush for a microphone, the bathroom mirror her audience.
The singer’s face was beginning to soften through the mask as music flowed. Jill heard the rich timbre of his voice, noticing the relaxed sway of his body as he began to move amongst his audience. Traces of grey beneath his black hair, traces of laughter around his gentle eyes betrayed the caricature before her. She slid around the side of her mother’s chair, sitting cross legged at her feet. She felt her mother lightly touching her hair as she used to do so long ago, until a bright pink ice cream soda appeared. It was served on a tray by a nurse in a short gingham pinafore. Jill tentatively guided the straw into her mother’s mouth. Adult to child, child to adult.
‘Hey, did you happen to see…’ A Burt Bacharach tune. The still life scene shifted. Tentatively opening his mouth, a man sat hunched forward, chin buried in his chest, beginning to sip through a straw. Lime green soda this time. Next to him a woman broke into sudden applause in the middle of the song, pale hands fluttering like a dawn sparrow, in that moment glad to be alive. The man in the slippers across the floor was gently shuffle dancing his curved body in the arms of his carer, her stiff petticoat swaying under her red polka dot skirt to their separate memories.
Jill quietly warmed her mother’s hands after triumphantly negotiating the soda glass. It sat half finished on the trolley amongst discarded pineapple on toothpicks and miniature sausage rolls. She noticed a paper plate slipping off a lap next to her, a white straw with purple stripes lying on the floor. As she picked them up to put on the trolley, she looked up and saw the bright nurse looking down from the window above, where Jill herself had stood earlier, rigid, surveying the scene below. She smiled. Jill smiled warmly back.
‘Hey, did you happen to see…..’