Haywards Heath

road sign for haywards heath

Aminatta Forna

Forna’s story is very short and gently melancholic, in a way that its opening ‘blast of sound’ from a car radio does not prepare the reader for. It is a tale of memory, ageing, lost opportunities and regrets.

A Background Established by Hints

Forna establishes details subtly. By focalising Attila’s perspective in the third person narration, the story creates a careful portrait of him. The comment on ‘the new generation’ indicates that Attila judges younger people, suggesting that he is at least of middle age. He is an imposing man – there is a reference to his ‘bulk’ – and enjoys the unusual experience of driving a luxury car. The reference to the pronunciation of Hayward Heath, which challenges ‘all’ the overseas students, indicates that he was one of them. He is at ease in England, but not English, though he can now pronounce the name of the town ‘perfectly’. His student days in ‘a Malcolm X goatee and a suit’ indicate an allegiance to the African-American civil rights leader. The six-year degree course suggests medicine. Forna also slips in the key element into these early paragraphs – Attila’s relationship with Rosie, but also the end of that relationship. This is conveyed in a brutal, factual sentence: ‘By the time of their graduation ceremony he was already 6,000 miles away.’ The implication is that he abandoned her.

The Role of the Satnav

Many of these details are confirmed as the story progresses. The older memories circling in Attila’s mind change to the more recent ones of Attila’s return to a ‘London hospital’ for work and making enquiries about Rosie. In this way, the reader discovers the motivation for his journey. The satnav is an interesting device in the story. One the one hand it is just a detail about the car, but it can also be read as an ironic metaphor. It becomes clear that Attila has missed clear directions in his life and although he arrives at his destination, it proves not to be the destination he anticipated. Even the ‘unflappable’ voice can be compared with Rosie’s, but again the reasons for Rosie’s unflappability are cruelly different.

Attila’s Destination

Forna does not tell the reader that Rosie is in a care home. Rather like watching a film, the reader picks it up from the observation of details, like the reception ‘desk’, the ‘white nurse’s uniform’, the bleakness of ‘the smells of cooked food’ as the ‘residents’ group ‘in a semicircle round a radio.’ We quickly understand why Rosie has not ‘published in years.’

The pathos of the meeting is emphasised by Forna deceiving the reader as Attila is deceived. There seems to be easy companionability between the two after their long separation – he ‘took her hand’ and the ‘silence felt comfortable’ even as Attila remembers his departure from her. They speak with relative comfort about Attila’s wife and her death. He finally apologises for abandoning her all those years ago, which she accepts easily, ‘patting him on the arm’. But in a shock delayed for the end of the same paragraph, she says ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to tell me your name again, dear.’ She does not know who he is; she is not just an elderly resident, but is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Even more poignant is her statement that she is ‘waiting for’ her friend Attila, who she expects ‘anytime soon’. This devastating dialogue collapses the earlier assumptions created by Forna’s use of Attila’s perspective.

The Second Visit

The story creates anticipation for Attila’s second visit with Rosie’s extraction of a promise to make it and Attila’s ‘slender hope’ that she will remember him. Forna creates the sense of his emotional longing with the phrase ‘he hung his heart.’ However, even his box of special Newbury Fruits are not enough and Forna gives the reader a devastating final picture of Rosie dancing with a nurse who bears a resemblance to Attila’s younger self, down to his ‘small beard.’ It is he whom Rosie addresses as ‘Attila’.

Forna makes clear the emotional connection between Rosie and Attila, felt acutely on both sides. What the story shows is that Attila’s leaving after their education, and now Rosie’s mental state, have created a void across which they can now never truly meet each other. It is a small tragedy of time.

 

Narrative methods to consider:
  • Focalised third person narration
  • Structure
  • Gradual revelations
  • Twist/surprise