Haywards Heath by Aminatta Forna is a short story written in third-person, with an unnamed narrator and focusses on a man named Attila. Attila visits a place called Haywards Heath to see his old lover, Rosie- who is now suffering from dementia- after many years.
Haywards Heath | Summary
Haywards Heath begins with an African-American man named Attila in the car, driving along the road on a Spring day with the radio playing in the background. A sudden blast on the radio startles him, and he thinks to himself that this new generation cannot live in the sound of silence. Either way, he is in a good mood as he drives towards Haywards Heath to meet someone named Rosie. She and him had had an inside joke back when they were in college- she would try to get her foreign friends to pronounce the name of her hometown for her amusement, and she had done it to Attila too. Attila had felt her gaze on him that day, though she denied it even months into their relationship. He had a goatee and always wore suits to lectures, and she insisted it made her feel sorry for him. They were together for three years, but by their graduation, Attila was already back in his home country.
For the last five years. Attila had been coming to London twice a year as a visiting consultant at a hospital. That’s where he heard Rosie’s name again, and on asking her colleagues, he figures out that she has taken an early retirement- hence deciding to visit her after many years. He stops at a pub to eat, pronouncing the name ‘Haywards Heath’ perfectly when someone asks where he’s headed. He feels inexplicably irked by the smooth tone of his GPS as it constantly redirected him until he finally arrived at the building. The nurse who greets him is African-American, too, and when asked, Attila tells her he is visiting as a friend.
Attila sees Rosie sitting by the window with a newspaper. For a split second, he knows he still has time to turn back- but what’s more compelling is all the things he wants to tell her. They exchange greetings, and Attila remembers the last time they saw each other. They had argued about him leaving back to his home country, but he had to go anyway, as he had big dreams for his career and never planned to stay back in London. Rosie asks him if he ever married, to which he replied he did, but his wife passed away. He then tells her he’s sorry he didn’t stay and give their relationship a chance, which she accepts before asking his name again. Attila takes a deep breath and reminds her patiently- Rosie lights up and says she, too, had a friend named Attila. It proves to be too much for Attila, who excuses himself to the bathroom to calm down.
When he returns, he sees a young African helper taking care of an old woman with great care. Their eyes meet briefly before Attila returns to Rosie and suggests they take a walk. Rosie is easily distracted and switches topics often, and as she stretches her arms and closes her eyes, Attila remembers he has a photo of her looking just like that. As they finish their walks, she says “Shall we do another turn Attila? Another turn?”, which is something she used to say in the past to tease him for being too serious. It makes Attila feel youthful, and when Rosie quietly takes a sweet from an old woman’s box and leans into Attila, he feels the urge to kiss her hair. She asks him to visit again, and he promises he will.
Attila returns two months later with a huge box of sweets for Rosie. There was music playing in the diner, and many residents were dozing or dancing. Rosie herself was dancing with the same young African helper Attila had seen last time. Her head is on his chest and they move slowly. On closer inspection, Attila notices he has a goatee just like his own. Attila sits down quietly and watches them dance, only to hear Rosie say his name. But she is not looking at him- she is looking at the caretaker- not noticing Attila’s presence at all- and asking him “Shall we do another turn, Attila? Another turn? What do you say?”. The caretaker replies that they can do whatever makes her happy, and Attila sits back and quietly continues to watch.
Haywards Heath | Analysis
Haywards Heath by Aminatta Forna is a short story written in third person, with an unnamed narrator. The main focus of the story is on Attila, a doctor, as he visits an old lover after many years. However, she had developed dementia since they last met, and though her memories of him seemed to be intact, she could not recognize him when he came to visit her. She spoke of him as though he was not right in front of her, and could not understand even when he told her his name that it was the same Attila from years prior. Forna has often written about memory- here, it is one of the main elements of the story. The balance of dialogue, description and narration provide the reader with a clear image of what is going on, and the way Attila continuously recalls and reminisces creates a feeling of melancholy in the readers. Further, through Attila’s thoughts and actions, and his subtle interactions with Rosie, we are able to understand his feelings. The key themes of this story are memories, acceptance, happiness, love, connections and letting go.
In the very first paragraph, Forna begins with a description of Attila’s reaction to a sudden blast from the radio. He is startled and takes a moment to regain his composure. This is important to note, because it is the opposite to how he maintains himself on reaching the care home where Rosie lives. There, he feels pangs of emotion at the realisation of how things have changed, but he tries to remain calm in front of her. This contrast between his attitude through most of the story and at the very beginning hints at how nervous he was for the meeting.
Attila reminisces the way Rosie had asked the foreign students to pronounce the name of her hometown, Haywards Heath, as they could not sound it out correctly. The fact that Attila still remembers this after so many years- and so fondly- indicates the theme of love and connection. Though we find out that Attila did later marry, Rosie still held such a special place in his heart that he returned to visit her. However, back when they separated after college, he chose to leave in order to further his career. This is one instance where Forna explores the theme of letting go. Here, they both let go in different ways: Attila let go of his love for Rosie and their relationship to focus on his career. Rosie let Attila go, because she had no other choice- he was not willing to stay.
When Attila reaches the residence and finally meets Rosie, she cannot remember his name. When he reminds her, she says “‘I have a friend with the same name. What a coincidence! He’s coming to see me any time soon. I’m waiting for him. Maybe you two will meet.’” Here, we see an interplay of the themes of love, memory and letting go. Attila has been unable to let go of Rosie emotionally. Physically, they separated years ago, but emotionally he is still attached to her and holds love for her in his heart. Rosie, on the other hand, has lost her ability to remember newer things due to dementia- but we can see from her dialogue that she does remember her old memories with Attila. Unfortunately, she cannot connect the fact that the Attila in front of her is the very same one. In a way, she has let go of him, though it was hardly her choice to do so. However, she has not let go of their memories. And for her to remember she had a friend named Attila at all is a sign of the love she had for him.
Attila takes a moment to himself to come to terms with the situation and regain composure. This shows that despite his patience, it is difficult for him. Here, we see the theme of acceptance. He realises how things have changed, and despite this, he still cares for Rosie a great deal. He quietly accepts this new reality before returning to her. It shows that though he is hurt, he is willing to put her happiness first. He also buys her a box of Newbury Fruits, which symbolises their connection- it is something about her that he remembers for years. It represents the everlasting link and affection they have for each other. When Attila sees the caretaker helping an elderly woman, he pauses for a moment. He is perhaps remembering the way Rosie used to help him back in college, and feeling the emotions of knowing it has come full circle. Now Rosie is the one being tended to.
When Attila and Rosie go for a walk, he is unable to hold a conversation with her as they did before because of her dementia- she does not remember things, and is quick to change topics. However, being with her gives him a renewed sense of youth and happiness:
It was the effect of Rosie’s mood, her enthusiasm for this unremarkable, chrysanthemum bordered square of lawn, also the fact of being the youngest in the place by twenty years, excepting the staff.”
The abovementioned lines show Rosie’s ability to find joy in everyday things, something that is contagious. The way she enjoys their walk reminds Attila of a photo he had of her, one he doesn’t know where he kept. This photo symbolises love and loss. The fact that he had a picture of her in a candid moment of joy and treasured it enough to remember it symbolises his love for her, and the fact that he no longer knows where it is linear to the way he cannot put a name on their relationship anymore. They are not the same as they were before, that dynamic of theirs is lost, just like the photograph. But the image of her still stays in his mind, unchanging- that is the love.
The mention that she has no brothers or sisters suggests that Attila was all the more important to Rosie in their youth. It is possible that she never had anyone as close as him. It is also mentioned that she never married. Rosie taking a sweet from the old lady’s box shows her love for sweets, and also represents her playful nature. When she asks “Shall we do another turn Attila? Another turn?” We once again see the theme of memory. Attila remembers this dialogue of hers, though she herself is unaware that she used to say it to him before. Their physical closeness as they hold each other shows the strength of their connection- though they lost each other, memory is something that cannot be taken away. And Rosie being physically close to him indicates the instinctive comfort his touch gives her- once again, something that has been subconsciously stored away in her memory.
Rosie asks Attila to visit again, and he promises he will. The next time he arrives, he brings sweets again, only to see her dancing with the caretaker he saw last time. He sits down and watches them without making his presence known. His feelings are unknown, but it is clear that he puts Rosie’s happiness above whatever he may be feeling. We see that he does hope for Rosie to remember him, because he smiled when she called out his name, before realising she was talking to the caretaker. The caretaker, being African himself and having a goatee like Attila’s, may have been mistaken by Rosie. In her state, it is possible that she assumed he was Attila, and that is why she calls him by that name and is comfortable with dancing with him. Rosie says, “Shall we do another turn, Attila? Another turn? What do you say?”, from which the readers can assume she really does mistake him for Attila. It may also be an indicator to Attila just how much Rosie did care for him, even if she cannot recognize him now. And this knowledge must be enough for Attila- that, and the knowledge that Rosie is happy, having fun and being taken care of. Because he does not interrupt, nor say a word. He simply watches quietly, content with Rosie’s joy.
Haywards Heath | About the Author
Aminatta Forna is a Scottish and Sierra Leonean writer born in 1964. She is well known for her fiction and non-fiction works, often focusing on memory, history, culture and emotional reactions to conflict.
Forna has also written a great deal from personal experience. One of her books, The Devil that Danced on the Water, is about her search for a group of men who had wrongfully killed her father. She has won many prestigious awards for her work, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.