To find Bluebell Ward you have to enter the grounds of Winterwood Hospital through a pair of tall gates at the end of an ordinary, residential street. You walk down a tarmac road past the entrance lodge with its white gabling, past the car park next to it and round a bend in the road. Buildings of various ages and sizes cluster around small lawns. You walk slightly downhill, following the road, until you see a low level red-brick building in the distance in front of you. You walk towards it and find the path which leads across neat grass to a low, wide window next to a white door. The grounds are very quiet. Through the window you can see people, older people, sitting asleep in armchairs while staff move to and fro. You press the button on the entryphone beside the door.
Josh and I are let in. We sign our names in the visitors book in the small lobby between the outer door and the door to the ward, which isn’t opened until the outer door is shut. A member of staff in pale blue overalls and a name badge opens the door to the ward and we walk into what looks like a large doctors’ waiting room, with plastic-upholstered armchairs and sofas arranged together next to an office. And there, straightaway, is Dad, appearing from somewhere just to our left, beaming.
‘Ah, Josh, Chlo, you’ve saved my bacon!’ We hug and kiss him under the gaze of two women sitting on a sofa, one holding a black handbag to her chest, the other wearing a sari and wrapped in a blanket. Dad is looking at us expectantly. ‘Well, are we off then?’ he asks.
Josh and I grin inanely at Dad, trying to take it all in. Dad is wearing a thick, cabled, navy jumper. His hair is sticking up on the top of his head and his grey beard is untrimmed, giving him the air of a castaway. It’s so good to see him, his loved face so familiar in this strange place. Behind him are tables and chairs arranged around a large open space with a food serving hatch at the end of it. Through an open archway we can see a lounge area with plastic chairs lined up along its walls and a TV showing the news. There seem to be doors everywhere, some operated by keypads, and to our right is a set of double doors which appears to lead out into the garden which Ellie has told us about.
‘Let’s go and sit outside,’ I suggest, and Dad comes along with us. There are heavy benches set along the side of the building and we sit down in the full glare of the sun.
‘How are you Dad?’ Josh asks.
‘Ah, not too bad, I’ve been down to the beach, the islands are OK really. But what I really need is a pair of bolt cutters to get through this fence. Do you think you could get hold of some for me?’ Dad gestures to the tall chain-link fence on three sides of the pleasant, spacious garden with its flowerbeds, octagonal greenhouse and little wooden summer house. He suddenly sucks his cheeks in to make a fish-face pout.
‘Does my face look thin?’ He laughs. Josh and I laugh too, bewildered. I’m holding a packet of chocolate covered biscuits which I realise are melting in the heat. I open them and give one to Dad. He eats it quickly and asks for more.
‘Well it’s a good thing they’ve sorted out the locks on these windows,’ he says. ‘I think you could make a half decent club out of this building. Weights room over in that bit, changing rooms down the side there.’ He notices an Afro-Caribbean man with white hair sitting two benches along from us. ‘All right? Lovely and hot isn’t it?’ The man is fast asleep, his chin on his chest.
‘You know, I’ve been thinking you could turn this garden into a cycling track,’ Dad says, looking at us seriously. ‘Yeah, yeah…’ Josh says, looking around at the circular path. ‘I want to go home,’ Dad says. He makes a sad little face, turning down his mouth.
We try and distract him by asking him how he is sleeping and what the food is like, and telling him some bits and pieces of news from outside this place. ‘Dan says hi,’ I say.
‘Ah, and how is he feeling about impending fatherhood?’ he replies, lucidly.
An Asian nurse comes out into the garden, wheeling a metal trolley with a blood pressure kit. She pulls up a garden chair and sits opposite us. ‘Blood pressure, give me your arm.’ She wraps the thick grey nylon band around Dad’s bicep.
‘Do you know,’ he says to her, smiling mischievously, ‘with a bit of warning I can slow my heart rate down to five beats a minute.’ He looks at her, his lips twitching. ‘I’m like an elephant. They can live for a hundred years.’ The nurse makes no response.
Leaving is awful. We haven’t planned it. I mutter to Josh that we should try and slip away but it’s impossible because Dad follows us back in and right up to the door. ‘Right, well we have to go now, Dad,’ I say. ‘Annabel and Ellie are coming tomorrow.’
‘You don’t have a spare mobile on you, do you?’ Dad asks worriedly. ‘I don’t have mine here for some reason.’ He has a paper napkin in his pocket and asks me to write my mobile number down on it. ‘In case I need to get in touch with you,’ he says.
We have to say no, we don’t have a spare phone. We have to kiss him goodbye, and we have to leave him there, making his Stan Laurel now-I’m-in-trouble face in a last, anxious attempt to make us laugh, locked in, confused.