Monday the 10th of January was my first visit to the hospital in 2022. I'd taken a lateral flow test that morning and was thankful the result was negative. Because of Covid, I’d heard that my usual ward was closed, and I was to go the floor below which was partially open for volunteers to visit. I was pleased to see security men at the entrance doors, supervising who can and cannot enter. As usual I was joined by Lucy, a co-volunteer. But looking up to see the name of our first patient, I saw what I thought were the words “Merry Christmas” only to re-read it as Mary Christine. But our stay with Mary lasted only a few minutes. She said her mother’s favourite song was “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” but as I began to sing it in jovial mood, she stopped me saying “it will make me cry”. At that point two doctors came to interview her and asked her routine questions to check for dementia.
However, in the adjacent bed was Kim, probably in her seventies. She was a chirpy cockney sparrow of a woman, wiry and thin with a good old London Town accent. I could picture her in a novel by Charles Dickens. She was full of chat and was hoping to go home that same day. She couldn’t wait to get back home and look after her mother. I joked whether her mother had the same lively chat as she did. “No, no, I’m the one who does the talking” and then “I’d even talk to Jack the Ripper!” And she cackled with laughter!
We moved along the corridor, from one bay to another. Some patients are asleep, open mouthed; some just resting in bed or in a bedside armchair. I was drawn to a lady in the corner lying down in bed. She wore large black rimmed glasses and she reminded me of the agony aunt and journalist, Marjorie Proops. Her name was Marie telling me she recognised me from two years ago when she had previously been in hospital and had challenged me to find the Beethoven tune Fur Elise. “And did I?” I asked. “Oh yes” she smiled. She jokingly asked that I guess her age. “Do you think I’m 21?” I had an idea she was in her 80’s, so I said 68. “I’m 101” she said proudly. She requested that I played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. She told me that she played this tune as a girl and whilst at school as a teenager played the piano in assembly as the girls walked in. One day there was a male guest present and he spoke to her telling her she was really very good, and she ought to apply to go to the Royal College of Music and that she may have a chance of being accepted. Well, she was indeed accepted! I played the Moonlight Sonata on the Bluetooth speaker, as she closed her eyes and probably travelled back in time. I asked her if she’d like me to play anything else and she said she liked Nat King Cole. (A favourite of mine in the hospital.) I usually play the up-tempo number “Let There Be Love” but I chose instead “Smile” written by Charlie Chaplin. I didn’t tell her what I had chosen but as soon as the stringed intro had finished so the unmistakeable Nat King Cole voice began “S M I L E … though your heart is aching.” I swear time stood still, and her face lit up with a broad smile. Better than that, she began quietly singing all the words. I know Lucy had tears in her eyes watching what was happening. Wow, 101 years old. Lucy and I were with her for over half-an-hour.
Until then we were on the 10th floor. It was getting near one o’clock and we could have decided to leave but we agreed to go to the 7th floor and give it another 20 minutes.
One lady patient, sitting at the side of her bed, had a problem hearing us. She had lost a hearing aid battery. As luck would have it, I keep a few spares in my back pocket. Luckily too, it was the normal size battery. I offered to put the battery in place for her and she put the hearing aid in her ear and ABRACADABRA she could hear again. She, Sylvia, was so pleased, she even offered me money holding out a £5 note. “No, no” I said, “It’s my pleasure”. She was especially pleased and told me she had made a new year’s resolution to be more positive, and the fact that I had suddenly turned up out of the blue was a reward for her positive resolve.