Albert Wetherby didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know long he’d been there and he didn’t know why his bed was empty. Where was Val? Their wedding photo was on his bedside table, but where was she? On his bedside table, there was also a veil, a Rubik’s cube and a toy lion. He knew they were important, but why? He shook his head and thought it was time to get up. He smelled sizzling bacon and wondered why. Val never woke up in time for breakfast. He tried to get up, but his legs wouldn’t move. Why wouldn’t they move? The fear rose in him, grappling his throat.
“Help me, Val. God, help me.”
There was a knock on the door. “Is everything okay, Albert?” In walked a middle-aged woman, who with her heavy make-up and dyed blonde hair was trying and failing to look twenty years younger. She spoke with a strange accent. Maybe Eastern European?
“I know you. You’re Maria.”
“That’s right. And this is David. You remember him, right?
Albert watched a young boy walk in. He was tall and skinny with thick black hair and a patchy beard. He looked like he was barely out of school.
“How are you today, Albert?”
“I’m good,” Albert sighed, “was I yelling again?”
Maria stroked his arm. “No worries if you were. Do you know where you are?”
Albert scrunched his eyes shut. “I’m in the Willow Tree. But I don’t understand. Where’s Val?”
“You know she always like to sleep late,” Maria replied, “anyway let’s get you to breakfast. Annie and Gilly are coming to visit you later.”
“Annie and Gilly?”
“Annie’s your granddaughter-”
“Of course. How could I forget that? What’s wrong with me?” Albert growled.
“Hey there’s nothing wrong with you,” David soothed, “when you see Annie and Gilly, you’ll remember.”
“She’s Annie’s daughter. Your great-granddaughter.”
Albert propped himself up and frowned. “I don’t have any great-grandchildren.”
Maria sighed. “Let’s get you out of bed, but first we need to change your pad. Is that ok?”
Albert blushed and nodded. “I hope I’m not too dirty.”
As Maria and David began undressing and washing Albert, his hands sweated and his heart thudded. At one point, he could do this by himself. Why did he need help now? What was wrong with him? Maria and David began changing his pad and Albert felt the colour draining from his already pale face. How useless he had become. He couldn’t control his bladder or his bowels anymore. He couldn’t even clean himself when he was dirty. He whimpered, as a tear rolled out of his misty blue eyes.
“Are you ok, Albert?” David asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Albert lied.
David combed Albert’s last few remaining strands of hair, while he wished that Val was there. She could make everything better. Just by smiling or laughing. Maria announced they had finished and would now hoist him into his wheelchair. David grabbed Albert’s legs, while Maria levered him into a sitting position. Afterwards, a sling was wrapped around his back and velcroed around his front, with its two arms being tucked underneath his own. From the sling’s two arms were dangling plastic hooks, which were then attached to the arms of the mechanical hoist. At the bottom of the machine was a platform, which Albert lifted his feet onto. He then grabbed onto the metal rails, that were fixed underneath the arms of the hoist.
Maria did the final safety checks and signalled for David to begin hoisting. The mechanical hoist began lifting Albert into a standing position. He hated this, being completely out of control, relying on a machine. He was so high up. What if he fell? Why wouldn’t his legs work anymore? When he had been raised into position, he was manoeuvred, so he was hovering over his wheelchair. His arms were getting tired. He was going to fall.
“Put me down. Put me down, now. It’s too high.” Albert sobbed.
“Don’t worry, Albert, you’re fine. I’ve got you. You won’t fall,” Maria reassured, and David lowered the hoist. Albert exhaled, as he felt the wheelchair underneath him. He looked up at Maria.
“I’m sorry, I can’t help getting worked up like that. I can’t.”
“David, take Albert to the dining room. I’ll tidy up in here.”
Albert found himself being pushed out of his room and along the corridor. He passed rooms where there were residents who were completely bed-bound. He felt so sorry for them. What a life that must be. To never leave your bed.
Albert arrived in the dining room. It was brightly lit, with pictures of food on the walls, and a water cooler in one corner. David pushed him to a table and clicked on the wheelchair brakes. Albert chatted to some of the other residents, but who he was really waiting for was Val. Where was she? And then breakfast arrived. A cooked breakfast of bacon, fried eggs and baked beans. Albert ate it up. The bacon was salty, and the egg overdone, but it was tastier than the puree some of the other residents had to eat. Well, it was called puree, Albert thought of it as mush. He was glad his throat hadn’t stopped working.
He jumped, as as somebody shouted behind him. One of the male residents was being calmed down by David. Every day, without fail, his wife would come to see to him. He wouldn’t let anybody else get close. What a dedicated wife, Albert thought. There were few women like that in the world. His Val was one of them. But, where was she?
“David,” Albert rose his hand, “do you know where my wife is?”
David pointed to the clock. “It’s only 10, Albert. Val’s still in bed. Anyway, I’m going to take you to the lounge. Annie and Gilly will be here soon.”
And with that, Albert found himself being pushed back through the corridor and into the lounge. There was a plasma TV mounted in one corner and in another was a bookcase full of unread books. The curtains were open allowing a cold breeze to invade the room. David was joined by Maria and together they transferred Albert into one of the huge armchairs.
“Is that ok for you, Albert?” Maria asked.
“That’s great, darling. But can you change the TV channel? Antiques Roadshow is going to put me to sleep.”
Maria put her hands on her hips. “Albert, you’re not the only one watching this.”
“I am. Look around.” Albert gestured to the other five residents, three of which were asleep, one was babbling to herself and the last was staring out of the window.
Maria sighed and began flicking through the channels. Per Albert’s request, she stopped on a cooking channel. She told him that Annie and Gilly would be there in an hour, before she and David left the room. Albert yawned and watched the TV. A supposed celebrity was slicing up spring onions for a healthy stir-fry. He yawned again and said something to another of the residents who just stared back at him. Albert sighed and closed his eyes.
The year was 1960 and Albert was sat in the Richmond Gate Hotel. Despite being 28, he was still a bachelor and had been convinced to come here by a friend. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the music. He loved a bit of Elvis and Buddy Holly, but he just felt silly. It didn’t help that his friends had deserted him in favour of the girls there. As people were cha-cha-chaing, Albert stiffened, as he saw a young woman approach him. She was beautiful with a sculpted face, rich brunette curls and eyes that shone.
“Are you okay by yourself there?” She smiled, as she spoke.
Albert cleared his throat and pushed his bryl-creamed hair into place. He tried to speak, but no words would come.
The woman laughed. “Do you want to dance with me?”
Albert blushed. “I’m not much of a dancer, Miss urm…?”
“Valerie Belle and you are?”
“Albert. Albert Wetherby.”
“Well, Albert, Albert Wetherby, do you want to dance with me?”
“I have two left feet. I’m no dancer.”
“You must know some dances. The Twist? Swing? The Bop? No? Not even the Bop?”
Albert shook his head, but then frowned, as the Host announced that everyone should take their seats for the Hand Jive.
“Come on. You must at least know the Hand Jive? Really? Oh, it’s easy. I’ll teach you.” And with that Valerie sat next to Albert and performed the Hand Jive in a few seconds. She laughed at his bewilderment.
“Okay, do it with me slowly. Firstly, slap your thighs twice. Yeah, that’s right, now clap twice. Now move your hands over each other. No, not like…oh dear God, what are you doing? Watch me.” Valerie held her hands out, palms down and crossed one over the other and then back again. She made fists out of her hands and tapped one on top of the other, before finally pointing over each shoulder with her thumbs.
“Okay your go. Altogether now.”
Albert’s eyes widened.
“I’ll count you in. A 1, a 2, a 1,2,3,4.”
Albert’s mind went blank. He clapped his hands, slapped his thighs and then poked himself in the eye when he tried pointing over his shoulder.
Valerie burst out laughing and Albert couldn’t help, but join in.
“It’s a good thing that only our parents do ballroom dancing, now, isn’t it? Oh, they’re playing Willy and the Hand Jive now. Just try your best. Everybody’s too drunk to care.”
Albert did just that. He continued making mistakes, but he didn’t care anymore. There was this amazing woman next to him who was loving every second of it and so was he. And as the night wore on, he found himself dancing more and more. Valerie taught him how to twist and how to bop. He tripped over his feet, making her erupt in laughter, but he loved the way she sounded. The confidence she had. How she just didn’t care. And, suddenly, it was 4.am.
“Do you live around here, Valerie? Maybe I can give you a lift home.”
“Please, call me Val. Only my mum calls me Valerie. Anyway, I only live in Barnes, so you can definitely drive me home.”
Albert smiled, and taking her arm, he led her to his car. They drove to Barnes in silence, although Albert was laughing in his head. He couldn’t believe his luck. To have met Val. And then, they reached her house.
“You know, Val, I really didn’t want to go this dance. I hate things like this, but I’m glad I came. I’m glad I met you.”
“I’m glad you came too.”
Albert smiled and stroked Val’s face. And then he leant in and kissed her.
“Granddad, wakey wakey. We’re here now.”
Albert opened his eyes and his heart cheered. “Val, thank God, you’re here. I’ve missed you so much. What is it?”
Annie sighed. “I’m not Val, Grandad. I’m Annie, your granddaughter.”
Albert groaned. “I’m sorry, darling. You look so much like her. The same eyes, the same hair. Everything. You’re beautiful like she was.”
Albert frowned, as he felt something prodding his side.
“Am I beautiful, great grand-dad?”
Albert looked down at the ten-year-old girl with her brunette hair in a plait, and she was wearing a yellow summer dress. She was holding a soft toy. “Of course, you are, Gilly. You’re the most beautiful of all. What do you have there?”
Gilly held it up. “It’s a beanie baby. An ox. Mum bought it for me.”
“Of course, you’re collecting the Zodiac line.”
“That’s right. Anyway, how have you been?”
“I won the…what do you call it? That game where somebody calls out numbers, oh bingo. I won that yesterday so that was good. But how’s your husband, Annie? What’s his name?”
“Ben. He’s with a client today, but he wishes he could have been here.”
“He’s a good lad, Val. Good lad, I always liked him.”
“I’m Annie, remember? Anyway, in her English class, Gilly wrote a poem for you. Read it for granddad, Gilly.”
Gilly read it out, making Albert smile and cry, with the tears tumbling past his lines, creases and wrinkles. For the next two hours, the three of them laughed and chatted. They shared jokes and stories and played games. Annie took something from her bag. It was a CD. The other residents were asleep and so she turned off the TV and played the CD. Albert laughed at her song choice: Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha by Sam Cooke. It was about a boyfriend’s disbelief at his girlfriend’s ignorance of the Cha Cha Cha dance. He appreciated the obvious joke.
“This is great. You’ve got such a good sense of humour. That’s why I love you, Val.”
But then Annie’s lip began quivering and her eyes became wet. Gilly hugged her.
“I’m Annie. Not Val. Annie! Why can’t you remember?” She screamed.
“What are you talking about? Of course, you’re Val. Who’s Annie?”
“Your granddaughter. I’ve been telling you this for two years. God, I can’t handle this.”
“Handle what? I don’t have any grandchildren.”
“I’m your granddaughter, and Gilly is my daughter. You’re upsetting her, so please stop this.”
“Stop what? Ok fine, if you’re not Val, then where is she?”
Annie sniffled, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “Val passed away, nine years ago, remember? We buried mum and dad soon afterwards too.”
“Mum and dad? Val and I never had children, and she can’t be dead. I saw her last week at the…at the…at the…I saw her, I’m telling you. Look, just go away. Get out of here, I don’t know who you are.”
David returned to investigate the commotion. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“You, all of you,” Albert growled, “you’re all lying to me. You won’t tell me where Val is. And I don’t know who these two strangers are. Get out of here. Go, just go away, go on. Go.”
“Stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it,” Gilly shrieked, pummelling Albert with her tiny fists. She was pulled away by her mother.
“I’m sorry,” David said, “it’s for the best that you two go now.”
Annie nodded and sniffed, before leaving with Gilly.
David knelt by Albert. “Why were you saying those things? You hurt Annie and Gilly very much.”
“I don’t know who they are. I don’t know where I am. Where’s…” Albert trailed off, as one side of his face sagged down. Was there something burning?
“Oh God. Tell me your name now.” David ordered.
Albert tried to speak, but his tongue was in the way.
“Raise your arms above your head.”
Albert tried, but his body wouldn’t obey.
“Maria, I need you now.” David yelled.
“What is it?”
Somewhere David was yelling to Maria, but Albert was no longer listening. He felt somebody grab onto his hand, as his surroundings faded out.
Albert Wetherby didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know how long he’d been there. He had been flickering in and out of consciousness, staring at the world passing by. The shapes of the people he had once known. The names he couldn’t place. Maria? Annie? David? Val. She was still missing. He tried calling out, but his mouth wouldn’t work. His body wouldn’t move. Sometimes he would hear music. Jailhouse Rock, That’ll be the Day, Everybody loves to Cha Cha Cha…and then one day, there was a voice talking to him. It sounded like Annie. Who was Annie again?
“Granddad…sorry…snapped…love you…love…” Albert felt somebody hug him and then a younger voice, a little girl, spoke in his ear. One final voice cut through the rest of the noise.
“It’s been 58 years, Albert, Albert Wetherby. Have you finally learnt how to dance?”
Albert felt the tears run down his face. He took Val’s hand and allowed her to lead him off for one final dance.
This is a sequel to my short story: Lines, Creases and Wrinkles, which first introduced us to Albert Wetherby. In this story, we see Albert come to terms with the fact that he needs to go to a care home. Thus, One Final Dance was the logical follow-up to this. Also for the last few months, I’ve been working in a care home, so a lot of this story was based on my own experiences.