You have no idea how hard it was to get there. I had to travel for weeks; then, when I arrived, I found the entrance gate was too small to get through with a backpack. And they didn’t even have a luggage room where I could store it. I didn’t want to leave my pack behind. It had become part of me: its weight straightened my back and balanced my steps. But I so much wanted to go to the Festival of Hope and Prayer. I ditched the pack.
In the first tent, people were huddled around a big model on a trestle table. I recognised some of them: handsome Dr Bhatt from Hornsby hospital’s dementia ward, and the lovely registrar. And there was Keith’s psycho-geriatrician, Dr Wright, talking with them. They were looking with interest at the model in front of them. It was one of those race runs where a marble drops down a chute, knocks over a row of dominoes, that in turn lift a lever that tips another marble into a new chute and so on. I thought that, like me, they were simply admiring this wonderful contraption, but they were testing it. Dr Wright dropped the first marble into its race. It set off a run of dominoes which made a very satisfying clacking sound, then released the next marble, but that marble just stopped dead, in front of its gate. The doctors conferred as they set up the dominoes again. This time they used a bigger marble in the second run. Brilliant! It all went beautifully till the very last gate, where it stopped short. I would have been put out, I reckon, at this setback, but they just talked amongst themselves and added a heavier marble towards the end of the run. You should have heard them cheer when the marbles all triggered their gates perfectly on the next attempt.
A life class was in progress in the next tent. The model sat on the dais, looking irritable. The nurses from the dementia ward concentrated on their portraits. Grace had almost finished a fine charcoal sketch of Keith, and Amelia was working away at a complex pastel portrait. The night nurses were making pencil drawings, looking over the day nurses’ shoulders to check for details they had not seen. I was surprised at the level of detail in their work. In Amelia’s portrait, Keith’s electric blue eyes were vacant, troubled; she had painted him with a hammer in his hand. I glanced up at him. Amelia was right. I could see he didn’t much like being a model. Luckily, just then the food trolley arrived and Keith cheered up a bit. The nurses smiled at each other and continued working on their portraits.
There was still time to visit the prayer tent. It was empty. I took a seat in its vast silent space. No voice spoke to me. Nor did I expect to hear one. But at this festival, hope and prayer seemed to mingle naturally in the soft shadows.