‘Dad, you know it’s the right thing to do, you can’t go on like this.’ Harry looked at his son and nodded, tears blurring his vision, wanting to put his hands over his ears. Jeremy always thought he knew best, even as a child. Now Harry felt like the child. He looked over to Alice sitting in the chair; head lolled forward, a string of saliva stretching from one corner of her mouth to her chest.
‘I know, Jeremy.’ Harry patted his knees and pulled himself out of the easy chair he had been sitting in. ‘I’ll have everything ready by the weekend.’ He gently wiped Alice’s mouth. She looked up and smiled.
‘Who are you?’ she asked.
‘I’m Harry, your husband.’
‘Ooh, that’s nice.’ She looked over to Jeremy. ‘Who’s he?’
‘That’s Jeremy, our son. He’s married to Sally and they have two children, our grandchildren.’ Harry handed her a photograph. ‘That’s Jemima and Jonathon. They’re twins, look and they both have their front teeth missing.’
‘Ooh, that’s nice.’ Alice smiled at Jeremy, who turned his back and walked to the front door without responding.
‘Sunday. Sally and I will come and collect you at 10a.m. sharp. Make sure everything is ready.’ Jeremy closed the door quietly.
Alice and Harry had been married for fifty years, and they had never spent a night apart in all that time. How would he cope? He turned back to his wife. Alice had fallen asleep again. When she was like this, it was okay, though it would be nice if she could remember who he was now and again. But she had started to wander, and last month she had gone missing for an entire morning. Harry had been beside himself, pacing the floor, waiting as Jeremy went out to look. Eventually Jeremy had found her in the park at the end of the road, sitting on a child’s swing. Mud caked the hem of her nightie as there had been a heavy dew and she’d lost one slipper. Harry had hugged her tight, made her a cup of hot cocoa and ran her a nice long hot bath. Now, Harry slept with one eye open, always on the alert even though he locked and double locked every door.
‘Dad,’ Jeremy had said a week later. ‘You need to look at this.’ He thrust a brochure in Harry’s hand.
‘Sunset Villa – Residential Home For People with Dementia.’ Harry read the words in a whisper and shook his head. ‘I can cope. Alice, I mean your mother, wouldn’t want to go.’
‘Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? You can’t cope and mum really won’t notice the difference. They know what they are doing there, Dad. There are lots of people with… like mum there.’ Jeremy had kept his eyes on the floor. ‘It’s about what is best for mum.’
Harry went through to the spare bedroom. A large hatbox sat on top of a pile of clothes, which Alice hadn’t worn for years. She never would throw anything out. Like a hobbit, he had used to tease her, collecting little treasures and trinkets and hiding them away. He took a straw coloured, large brimmed summer hat from the hatbox. It had an orange and yellow silk ribbon tied around the rim, which fell down the back in two long strips. He slumped onto the bed and stroked the ribbon. Brighton, July 1958. They had stayed there a week – on honeymoon. Harry had bought Alice the hat to keep the sun off her as they walked along the promenade. It had been very breezy, and she had tied the ribbon under her chin. She had looked just like Audrey Hepburn.
Alice was standing at the bedroom door, stepping from one foot to the other. Harry wasn’t sure why she did that. It was like a little dance, but she could not seem to stand still and wasn’t aware that she was doing it.
‘You’ll rub a hole in the carpet.’ Harry smiled.
‘My hat.’ Alice pointed at his lap.
‘Yes, that’s right. Do you remember where you wore it?
‘No. Who are you?’
‘I’m Harry. Your husband. You wore this hat on our honeymoon. In Brighton. You had to tie it on after it had flown off down the beach.’
‘Did I? I don’t remember.’
‘You looked quite beautiful.’ Harry took her tiny hand in his. ‘You still are beautiful.’
Alice smiled at him and for a moment, she was his Alice again, running her hands through her long, unruly hair. She would not let him or anyone else cut it. Now, it took all his skill to convince her to let him wash it once a week.
‘Brighton.’ Alice whispered. ‘The promenade. Windy. Ice cream.’ She beamed at him.
‘Yes, that’s right, Alice.’ Harry grinned. ‘You do remember!’ He hugged her. She pulled away from him and he sighed.
‘I’d like an ice cream.’
‘Okay, Alice, you can have an ice cream. Tell you what, why don’t we go to Brighton and have one?’ Harry became excited again and Alice smiled.
The next day, Harry and Alice caught the 10.53 to Brighton. It was only a couple of hours by train; Harry wondered why he hadn’t done this before. It had been a bit of a trial, getting Alice ready in time. First, she had refused to put her petticoat on, then he had found her in a pair of odd shoes, one white with a heel, the other a brown flat mule. She walked up and down, unaware that she limped. Harry would have laughed at any other time.
‘Oh, come on, Alice, you can’t go out like that!’ Harry raised his voice a little. She looked alarmed and bit her lip.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to shout, come on, let me find you a matching pair.’
Alice smiled and nodded.
And she had only asked who he was three times so far.
Alice wore her hat tied under her chin. It was a bright day, but the balmy wind flicked at the ribbons. They walked along the stony beach, removing their shoes to paddle in the tepid water. The beach was full of families and children, laughing and playing. Alice allowed Harry to hold her hand as they walked in silence.
‘Fancy some fish and chips, Alice?’ Harry asked as the familiar salty smell of batter and potatoes wafted through the air. Alice nodded. They sat on the harbour wall, swinging their legs as they ate out of yesterday’s newspaper shaped in a cone.
‘Careful Alice, they’re very hot.’ Harry warned, blowing on a big fat chip before taking it between his teeth and biting at it. Alice ate in silence, glancing around her. Harry licked his fingers, screwed up his paper and flicked it into the bin. Rubbing his greasy hands on his trousers like a young boy, Harry watched as Alice finished her lunch. Despite her hearty appetite, she looked like a tiny china doll, so fragile and vulnerable. He thought about Sunday. A lump formed in his throat and he found it difficult to breathe. Mustn’t think about that now, he thought. Today is to be enjoyed. This is for Alice.
‘Who are you?’ Alice asked, handing him her newspaper.
‘I’m Harry. Your husband. Now, do you fancy a walk along the promenade? And maybe that ice cream?’
‘Yes. Oh yes, Harry.’ Alice hadn’t used his name for a long time. His spirits soared at the sound of her familiar voice.
Ten minutes later, Harry ran up and down the promenade. He had turned his back for a moment to chat to the old fisherman sitting in a chair, surrounded by fish baskets and the strong salty smell of the sea. Alice had disappeared and he couldn’t see her anywhere. The old man had poor eyesight and hadn’t seen her leave. Suddenly he felt terrified. If anything happened to her… he looked towards the busy road, full of cars beeping their horns and revving their engines. Perhaps Jeremy was right; it was the safest place for her to be. In a home where they could keep a proper eye on her. Be with others just like her. But there were times when she was his Alice, times when she talked about their past. Who would she do that with, if Harry wasn’t there?
‘Oh Alice,’ he whispered, ‘where are you?’ He scanned the beach to the left but could just see a mass of bodies, ranging from pastry white to bronze to lobster red, but not Alice. She couldn’t have got down there that quick – could she?
He ran into the toilets clearly marked ‘Ladies’ and shouted her name. Several elderly women were combing their hair or washing their hands. They all stopped and peered at him with disdain.
‘Um,’ Harry coughed with embarrassment as he realised where he was. ‘Um, my wife, I’ve lost her.’ They continued to peer without a word, as if he was some kind of pervert. ‘Oh, sorry, it’s just that she’s not well. Well, that is, she doesn’t, can’t remember… I just turned my back…’ Harry panicked and with a hasty apology, he ran back up on to the promenade. Then, in the corner of his eye, he caught sight of an orange and yellow flash towards the end of the pier and his heart lifted for a second. He half ran, his heartbeat rising, keeping an eye on the summer hat and the apple green dress that Alice was wearing. The crowds dispersed as he approached the end of the promenade to where Alice was sitting, asleep on a bench, head lolled forward, hands clasped in her lap.
‘Oh Alice,’ he whispered. ‘I’ve found you.’ Alice lifted her head and smiled at him.
‘Ice cream. You said we could have an ice cream.’ She looked over at the wooden kiosk with posters advertising ‘double 99’s’ for a pound. ‘I’d like two flakes, please.’ She squeezed his hand. ‘And Harry,’ Alice faltered. ‘I don’t want to go in a home.’ Two large tears fell from her eyes and splashed onto their entwined hands.
Harry pulled her close. ‘No, Alice. I don’t want you to go either.’
Alice pulled away. ‘Who are you?’
‘Harry, your husband.’
‘Are you getting me an ice cream?’
‘Yes.’ Harry smiled. ‘Yes, I am.’
Jeremy stood in the lounge, hands on hips, and stared at his father.
‘What do you mean you’ve changed your mind?’ He was tapping his foot. It reminded Harry of how Alice used to do that when Jeremy was young and in trouble for some little thing or another. ‘Everything is arranged. We agreed it was the right thing to do. ’His voice clipped and terse.
‘Yes, that’s right, Jeremy. We agreed it was the right thing to do, but we hadn’t asked Alice and she doesn’t want to go. I don’t want her to go either.’
Jeremy turned to look at his mother. ‘But she can’t make any decisions. She can’t even remember who you are for God’s sake!’ Alice looked at Harry and smiled.
‘She can, sometimes. I’ve been looking into some other options. Where we can be together.’ Harry took Alice’s hand. ‘There are some perfect flats in Brighton. With a warden and help every day. And we can go for a walk on the promenade and paddle in the sea.’
‘And have ice cream.’ Alice beamed at Jeremy. ‘Who are you?’