The steady rhythm of the rails was both soothing and consoling for Alberta. She gazed out the train window as it passed through the Lake District, wending its way ever northward, through England’s green rolling hills and valleys, from Hertfordshire to Yorkshire and on to Northumberland. She and Jennifer had arrived at London’s Kings Cross station at mid-morning for the five-hour journey into the heart of Scotland.
The idea had been Robin’s, and it had been brilliant. The seasons had shifted and summer was making its resplendent presence known. The familiar rains were at a minimum only at this time of year, and the sunshine filled every nook and cranny of the British Isles.
In the weeks following their lunch at La Porchetta, there were increasing moments of forgetfulness for Alberta. Most alarming of these was the time when she left the kitchen stove gas on, after failing to light it. It was only the pungent smell of the fuel that alerted her to the danger. She quickly shut it off, opened all the doors and windows – a delight at this time of year – and permitted the house to clear out before Jenny and Robin had returned with groceries. True to her promise of openness, she told her children what had transpired, and the agreement was reached that, from that point forward, someone would stay with their mother every moment. The three of them had helped to pull twin beds into the small glass atrium at the rear of the house. One of the kids would spend the night there, with their mother, under the stars. That, too, had been Robin’s inspired idea.
They talked frequently, most often in episodic narratives that came and went with Alberta’s ability to follow the conversation. In one of those exchanges, Alberta talked about how she would miss the travels she used to enjoy, first with Sandy, and then as part of her work at Society. It was then that Robin suggested she take one final journey before the challenges proved too daunting. Ideas were thrown into the conversation stream – America, Paris, Rome, and, above all, Santorini – but they all understood that such expeditions would likely prove too much for her frail form and state of mind.
“How about someplace by train, and not too far away?” Robin had offered.
It was then that Alberta said how she always wanted to return to Edinburgh, Scotland because that was where she had been sent, along with other children, when the threat of German invasion appeared inevitable at the war’s beginning.
“That’s perfect,” Jenny exuded. “We can take the Caledonian overnighter and arrive in the morning fresh and eager to explore.” But Alberta had intervened, observing that since this might prove to be her last vacation, she wanted to see it all – every hill, river, lake, farm, valley, and historic landmark along the route.
“It will be just like travelling through a Jane Austen novel,” she noted. “However, I’d like to go First Class,” she added with a smile.
In the end, it was decided that Jenny would accompany her mother, while Robin saw to the house renovations that would prove useful in Alberta’s declining condition – an elevated toilet, handrails at strategic points, a bed that could incline, a ramp out into the garden, and light switches that could be accessible from her bed.
And now, here they were – Jane Austen seemed alive and well. The Norman architecture in and around Durham was eye-catching, with the great cathedral’s spire stretching up into the sunny heavens.
Then, as they rode into Scotland, the rolling hills made way for panoramic vistas displaying rugged Scottish coastlines and the occasional castle ruin on the shore.
Jenny frequently heard her mother sighing as they faced one another in their plush seats. “You okay, Mom.”
Alberta took a moment to respond. “I stayed with my uncle and aunt not too far from here, on the coastline. The Royal Air Force ran training exercises and practice missions over the region and all of the children would jump up and down as the noisy four-engine Lancaster bombers lumbered overhead or a Hurricane fighter zipped in and out through the hills. Best of all was when the Spitfires were commissioned into service shortly after the war began. We marvelled at their beauty, and every boy, and the occasional girl like me, wanted more than anything to be one of those pilots. The “Precious Few” they truly were. Those precious boys.”
Her mother went on like this for some time, and Jennifer realized that the older woman was losing touch with the present and drifting into the past. She had been warned about this by Elizabeth Fairborough. “Keep her focused on the task before her; don’t let her mind go idle. Ask her what the time is or where you are at that moment. Help her to remember birthdays or names – anything that makes her brain work to stay rooted to reality.”
“Mom, what years did you live there, in Edinburgh?” she asked, following on the physician’s advice.
Alberta turned from the window and looked oddly at her. “Well, I’m not sure. It was for the years 1939 and 1940, I think.”
“Good. Good. And what were the names of your aunt and uncle? Do you recall?”
Her mother now seemed somewhat downcast. “William and Audrey Wiseman,” she answered, almost too quickly. Clearly, she was perturbed.
“Were you in school?”
Now her mother turned fully to face her. “I know what you’re doing, you know? But I want to journey back there – to Edinburgh, my relatives, the beach, the marvellous castle. I was happy there. It was a childhood interrupted, to be sure, but we hardly heard of the war or the killing. We pretended to build castles in the sand, even on the cold days. We went to the Firth of Forth and watched the great train bridge and waited for the steam engines to trundle over it. I missed my parents, but they were always writing me. I would be the first to meet the postman.”
It was quiet for a moment. Jennifer felt remorse for her actions but, at the same time, wanted her mother to stay in the moment.
“I’m sorry, mother. You remember what Elizabeth said, don’t you?”
“I remember very well, and my friend was wrong.”
The words were out, and both women were startled by their candour. For the briefest of moments, Jenny thought her mother angry. Seeking to deflect it, Jenny said, “The research has said that we won’t be able to alter the outcome of the disease, but we could build supports around you that could change the journey.”
Silence was followed by more silence.
“It is my journey, honey, not science’s. I don’t wish to change it. I want only to be respectful in my decline and to not purposefully hurt anyone, especially you or Robin. But there is magic and wonder just outside of our reality. I can feel it and my mind, with all its troubles, embraces it. There is imagination, enchantment, spellbinding things in my youth that might not even have been real, but they were real to me at the time. And they were peaceful, safe, loving, and rapturous. I shan’t be hurt by going there, especially when the reality here is defined by decline and my end.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jen in supplication. “I guess Robin and I are just trying to follow advice and keep you from going into your childhood.”
Alberta smiled kindly. “Which is where you’re taking me right now.”
Jenny saw the irony immediately. When they had informed Elizabeth Fairborough of the proposed trip, she had brought up no objection, so long as one of the kids was with her. Now she realized their oversight, and it was too late. She inwardly chastised herself.
Each remained lost in her thoughts as the distance to Edinburgh shortened. Alberta’s mind journeyed back to where it had been prior to her daughter’s intrusions. She had been short with Jennifer, but hadn’t noticed. Her daughter, on the other hand, still felt the sting of her mother’s responses.
The tea service began, offering teas of every kind, along with slim sandwiches, scones, and strawberry tarts. Jennifer poured her mother’s tea but received no response. She was learning to accept that these kinds of distances frequently had more to do with Alberta’s retreat into somewhere in her mind than with any kind of anger towards her daughter. The older woman had never been one to rise to anger quickly and, the more Jenny thought about it, the more she understood that the ensuing silence didn’t really mean anything.
Except that wasn’t fully true. She had discovered in these last few moments that her mother had thought through her Alzheimer’s situation more than anyone had realized. She understood that her mind was going and that, for anyone in her condition, the mind most naturally moved back through time, to simpler days, simpler pleasures. The literature had been clear on all of this, but rather than resisting it as a means of retaining as much of the present as she could, Alberta Alexander felt it was a natural occurrence and wished to take the journey. This was difficult for Jennifer to accept, but the realization that it wasn’t happening by chance, but through a beautiful sense of purpose, made the situation somewhat more bearable. She is a remarkable woman, my mother,Jennifer thought to herself, surveying her mother, whose thoughts escaped out through the window pane and into another era.
Just then she heard the train whistle blare as the dark stone buildings of Edinburgh rolled into view. A voice over the hidden speakers said that Waverly Station was the next stop. The two women began sorting their belongings and tidying up. Alberta looked up and smiled as beautifully as Jennifer had ever seen, and her daughter realized that the tensions of the last few miles had completely lifted from Alberta’s consciousness. In their place was a youthful enthusiasm for a new adventure.