Elizabeth Sings



Elizabeth sings

Too long her voice was silent

Her throat swells open

The image here is of a Clematis Montana ‘Elizabeth’ in my May back garden in Leeds. It has taken a few years to establish, and its flowering was delayed by a long winter. But now, here she is! The haiku celebrates the May blossom. It also commemorates my beloved paternal grandmother, who had the most beautiful contralto voice. I am named after her. I, too, sing.    My grandmother and I, each in our very different ways, were silenced for long periods of time, by circumstance, sex or (in her case) class. Difficulties not withstanding,  both our voices have been heard. To all Elizabeths everywhere: sing on!!



‘For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.’



JULY. Life changes in an instant. One moment I am upright, and hurrying to the shops in the London rain. The next, a crash: a fall from full height, to flat out, cold, motionless, stunned. Total silence – no shrieking – and a searing, terrifying pain. I am smeared across the wet concrete – foot caught in the looped lace of the other boot (a borrowed pair, far too big) – my right shoulder taking a direct hit from the pavement beneath. Too shocked to speak, or even draw breath. Shoulder mangled and trapped under my right side. Smashed to pieces with a hammer, or so it seems. Pain like a hot rod of lightning to the brain. The people around me on the busy street are as shocked as I am – “Don’t move!” “You came down with a hell of a bang!” – and are solicitous, very kind, as they help me to my feet. But standing is impossible. I have forgotten how to walk. My right arm hangs loose: falling – fractured – from my back, all moorings lost. And I am a bag of loose screws and nails. A thundercloud, angrily rolling and boiling. A collection of bones that no longer belong to a body, just break off and separate, and go their different ways. I am a frightened empty space, and life has changed in an instant. Broken.

Speech does return, cognition too. Sugared water from the nearby cafe, stops me fainting and falling again. I find the words to call my friend, who drives me to the hospital – every speed bump an agony, every corner turned, a roller coaster of jingle jangled nerves. Every second a head burst of jagged colours, and splintering zig zag lines. The Accident and Emergency department is Sunday quiet, which is a mercy, and the nurses are kind, though mostly cool and disengaged. An X ray reveals a deep fracture – the head of the femur is split from the impact of the concrete. A collar and cuff supports my arm, and opiates ease the worst of the pain. But I feel sick and fatigued. No longer myself. Split apart, body and soul.The immediate days and nights pass in a fog of bewilderment and disarray. I cannot dress myself, cannot wash – I find the descent towards the toilet, in order to pee, almost impossible to navigate, and feel the victory, when I achieve it, like the conquering of an Everest. Life is reduced to the smallest detail of survival. And on it goes, endlessly, day into night.

AUGUST. Sanctuary is sweet in London, despite all the trauma: my friend is a Florence Nightingale, who brings pieces of toast on a tray to my bed, and carefully cuts them into uneven pieces, for easier eating – and for amusement; and she sneaks in small glasses of wine, despite all the opiates swimming round my body, and with the head nurse’s approval, it has to be said: “With what you’ve been through, I think you deserve it, don’t you?” But through all the kindness, the solicitude and love, I am suffering a lot – am sick and feeble and shocked – and my home is two hundred miles away, up North, in Leeds. I have to get back there, no matter what, though the thought of the journey is making me cold. London, Kings Cross is insanely busy, bad tempered, bullying. The escalators are a nightmare – how to get on, how to get off? Everything is awkward, impossible to manage, trudging along one-handed, suitcase dragged behind me – the fear of being knocked in the shoulder, haunting me at every step. But I do it, because I must, because that’s why we do anything in life – and because I have to get home. The train journey picks up such speed that it almost breaks me all over again, as it hurtles north along the tracks, mangling my damaged shoulder, with the glee of a big kid in a school playground, picking on the little kid without mercy, and everybody else gathered round, cold-eyed, watching. But somehow… I do it. I am home and I am safe. If not quite in one piece. For everything changes. And I am not who I was.

I cancel all my summer plans  – including a much-prized scholarship to study in Hungary – and spend the whole of August in almost total seclusion, walking from bedroom to bathroom and back again, with monotonous regularity. I am sleeping fitfully – waking, but not quite awake. Never fully. Not myself. Someone strange. And when the four quiet walls of the house press in too close, I make it down to the local wood, and then the park, and I walk and I walk and I walk, to exhaustion. Because even though it jars my arm, I know my legs, at least, are in good working order – and I need to find my body again: little by little, limb by cautious, trepidatious limb. The nights are horrible – full of pain and every kind of discomfort. “You can take a lot more codeine, you know”, says the doctor at the fracture clinic. But when I do, the nightmares crash my sleeping hours, and I wake with a violent gasp, heart leaping from my chest like a wild panicked bird. And it feels like I’m falling, all over again.

The days, meanwhile, are full of boredom and ennui. I have no mind for reading, cannot drive, to get myself away from here – and avoid most company, except my daughter’s, because people tire me and confuse my brain. The speed of crowded bars, and the business of city streets, are impossible to manage. I get fearful and unsteady, too quickly, in society. So the society I keep, is mainly my own. Claustrophobia comes in little anxious bursts – and then I am out the back door to the nearby trees, to soothe it. Then the opposite hits me : and I scurry back to the comfort and languor of my room, the security of my own trusty bed. I wonder at the kindness of people: the woman in the supermarket who packs my shopping and lifts my bag and smiles with a sympathy that is not strained or manufactured. And I wonder, too, at people’s cruelty. The man who pushes at my broken arm – hurried, irritable, and quite unapologetic. The bus drivers who lurch into motion the minute I’ve clambered on board, sending me flying for support, whether it’s a roof strap,  the handle of a buggy, or some poor person’s outstretched leg. And the cars, the cars, the cars – that hurtle past me on the road: blind to the blue sling binding my neck and arm. Blind to the blasted broken wing, on this strange, stork-like creature, wafting anxiously at the pavement edge, waiting endlessly to cross to the other side.

There is tiredness. Boredom. Empty, empty time. And I find myself waiting for the night to come, so that I can lose myself in sleep, and while away another day. For even the nightmares are more interesting than this. And always there, at the back of my mind: the deep black hole of depression. More than anything, I must save myself from that particular dark and vertiginous fall.

SEPTEMBER. In the end it is the sea that rescues me. I book a week in a tiny cottage, called, with beautiful exactitude, The Little House, in Robin Hoods Bay, on the North Yorkshire coast. Train and bus is worth it for this. It is a house that wraps itself round me and it tells me I am safe, that this will be the place where I will heal. So I listen. And I hear the rhythmic sound of the waves – and the water that rushes through the stream outside my window,  pouring down with enthusiasm to the ocean’s edge. And I wake every day, and walk the few steps to the edge of the shore, and I gaze at the distant horizon. I feel the sea spray fill up my lungs – and it makes me bolder and stronger, minute by minute, day by day. Till I can climb the steps, one-handed, to the steep cliff edge above, and sit on the old wooden bench, and lose myself there. I follow the flight of the seabirds, arcing and swooping through the wide grey-blue skies. I look at the sea. I look at the clouds.  I breathe myself better, and I dream myself free. And I end each day with a smooth pint of Guinness, in a hotel bar, that perches right at the water’s edge, and plays hits from the seventies on a permanent loop, which suits my tastes just fine. This is a place where no one judges or pushes me, or wonders why I am there. They just leave me to my pint – and they let me get well again. And I do.




‘A strong emotion is like a storm. If you look at a tree in a storm, the top of the tree seems fragile, like it might break at any moment. You are afraid the storm might uproot the tree. But if you turn your attention to the trunk of the tree, you realise that its roots are deeply anchored in the ground, and you see that the tree will be able to hold. You too are a tree. During a storm of emotion, you should not stay at the level of the head or the heart, which are like the top of the tree. You have to leave the heart, the eye of the storm, and come back to the trunk of the tree…’

(Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Master)

THE TREE stood on its own in a shallow dip, holding on, quietly. We passed it twice as we tramped the well-trodden path from the Brontes’ family home in Haworth, towards the ruined farmhouse of Top Withens – supposed inspiration for Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The day was unusually still and bright – for this early in April; for this high up on the Yorkshire Moors.

“I wonder if Emily knew that tree?” said my companion. “I am sure she must have – it looks more than 150 years old.”

It was a strange and thrilling thing: to be here, looking at this shabby, crumpled tree, covered in lichen, bent over at the hip, as if crippled with arthritis, but still standing, weathering all its storms – and to stare into the face of history.

I have written about the Brontes before, here. The world is still obsessed with them: their gothic excesses, their prodigious, precocious talents. And Emily, wild child of the moors -dead at just 30 years old, in 1848 – was the most extravagant and untrammelled of them all.

The Japanese seem particularly enamoured: old wooden way posts to the Bronte Waterfalls and Top Withens are marked both in English and Japanese. It seems incongruous – too exotic by far – for such a quintessential Yorkshire scene: bleak and bare, even in the happy sunshine of our April visit.

The heather was still dry and dead – the path still waterlogged from winter storms and rain. There were  certainly plenty of walkers about. Much happy chatter – dogs running, children shouting. But beneath it all: a well of silence. A quiet expanse of emptiness. And the blunt and beautiful Yorkshire moorland caught me, as it always does, and made me stop in my tracks, hold my breath.

In the middle of it all – unassuming, hanging back from the crowd, just as Emily herself  did, according to sister Charlotte – was this solitary tree. A little anchor between past and present. Between the living and the dead.

I think Emily DID know and love this tree, as she loved everything that moved and grew on the moorlands where she lived and roamed. I am sure it gave her solace, in the middle of her wild wanderings – her desperate escapes from the difficult and suffocating life she lived, as an unmarried woman, in a Victorian time, in a buttoned-up country Parsonage. And if she didn’t, it doesn’t matter. Because I love this tree now. For the moment of  sweet anchor it offered: on an ordinary day, in a perfectly ordinary life.

Flowers of Spring

THE CLUMPS of snowdrops in the garden and in the park. Stems of daffodils, standing to attention on the high banks, yellow crocus in fat bud, lining the avenues. Even the squat and star-shaped leaves of bluebells, already lying in wait for their moment, later in May,  in the little local wood. Everything tells the same story – down to the sour clods of mud, stuck hard on the bottom of boots, and the feathered fringes of my Thursday dog’s fur. Spring is on its way. And even the thinnest ray of sunshine, filtering through our grey northern clouds, brings a little skip to the heart, a lightness to the step.

We follow the seasons particularly closely, in a creative arts project I help to run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, for people with dementia and those who care for them. Bringing in the fruits of autumn – pumpkins, squash – and the signals of winter – bare branches, images of snow – helps stabilise us all, within the rhythms of the natural world. It is a concrete reminder, to minds that may be confused, and hearts that are sometimes sore with loneliness and worry, that we can always rely on one fact: the world that disappears, like Persephone, deep into the underground at the end of every year, will always return, come the spring.

Snowdrops are the first harbingers. Then, hot on their heels, come the gaudy yellows of narcissus, the soft mauves, whites and blues of the woodland flowers, and then the heavenly mass of forest bluebells. Everybody loves spring flowers.

And though there is talk in our sessions, sometimes, of a dark  and wintry mood – of sadness at things lost: a once-nimble mind, a youthful body, friends and family that may  be dead or far away – there is always a ready access to joy. People with dementia are often more direct, less inhibited, in their emotional expression: as if the pipeline to their mind, which has grown furred and blocked, has been re-directed, opened wider, straight into their hearts.

Singing, writing song lyrics and poetry, and dancing to the powerful rhythms of spring, brings genuine delight to this group – and to those of us who lead it. Always, people’s  humour is diverting. Always, their creativity surprises and delights. Always, their own words and ideas are faithfully recorded and celebrated. In the last two weeks, new beginnings have been the dominant theme. Spring is calling everyone to attention.

Snowdrops have brought forth a tune of survival…”Snowdrops, snowdrops, snowdrops…Soft white petals, musty and sweet…smells like winter…pushing through the earth… Heralding the spring!” Parallels between the natural world – and the human need and determination to survive, to thrive, whatever the odds – are never far away. “The light makes the shoots come through/Coming out from the dark earth/Flowers dancing, swaying, springing back/They won’t break/I won’t let them…”  The whole of life is starting to pulsate. “One bird feeding… a whole flock comes gliding… dancing through the sky.” “Lovely to feel the sun on your face…What a relief!… Spring has sprung.”

My colleague, singer songwriter Fran Woodcock, co-presents the dementia-friendly Our Time workshops and provides all the glorious music that accompanies our exploration of  images, words and movement.  Visit her website here.

Nicky Taylor, Community Development Manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse, has pioneered all the dementia-friendly work in the theatre. Her latest triumph is a ground-breaking festival of theatre for people with dementia. Read about it here