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Twenty-One Again by Sarah Akhtar

A touching short story by Sarah Akhtar of Trentham group inspired by the New Year

Michelle stepped down from the bus and looked across at her new place of work. Hugely different from her last job, she was looking forward to making new friends but also worried she might mess up, Jimmy had warned her to tread carefully.

Two hours later she found herself steering a trolley that was heavier than she’d expected and she was having to use all her strength to get it round the corner outside the kitchen.

“Hi Michelle, come to give you a hand. I’ll introduce you as we go.”

She was relieved to look up and see Jenny’s cheery face coming down the corridor and she held open the door to the sitting room while Michelle steered the trolley through, the cups rattling to announce their arrival.

“Coffee or tea folks, what’ll you have today?” Jenny shouted.

Michelle looked around the room, she counted ten residents, all seated and all ten faces looking towards her.

“This is Michelle, it’s her first day today so she needs to learn your names please. Betty, is it coffee as usual?”

The lady nearest to her looked up, peered through her glasses, and blinked.

“Hello Michelle, milk and two sugars please.”

“Thank you, Betty, that’s easy.” She looked down as she poured the boiling water onto the coffee. Was this the time to suggest her idea? Yes – it was now, or never. She swallowed, took a deep breath and spoke.

 “Good morning everyone. I had an idea, as it’s my first day and a New Year for all of us, could I ask you each the same question please to help me get to know you?”

Betty took her coffee and smiled in agreement.

“So, as we start 2021, I would like to ask each of you what you remember about being 21 please, Betty did you celebrate that birthday?”

Betty sipped her coffee and thought back over the years.

“Yes, I do, clear as day because I was 21 in June 1953 and the whole country was celebrating the coronation so my birthday just became part of that! It was wonderful and our dear Queen is still reigning.”

She laughed and many joined in as they thought back over their own memories of the coronation.

Jenny came over to Michelle.

“What a lovely idea this is. This is Joe but he might not recall much.”

Joe took his cup of tea and smiled but remained silent.

“Michelle, this is Madge!” called Jenny from across the room. “She’s 96 and our oldest resident, coffee for Madge please, no sugar.”

Madge put down her Sentinel newspaper and took her drink.

“My parents were wed in 1921, down at Trentham, it was Reverend Graham married them, I came along three years later in ’24 so my 21st fell in 1945, another year for celebration but not until May which was well past my birthday in March when the war was still on.  I think I just went in The Bull’s Head for a drink with my friends.  Cheers!”

She raised her cup as if toasting her birthday self.

Michelle raised the teapot in response.

“Thanks Madge, what an amazing memory you have!”

She turned to the next resident waiting in line.

“Hello Michelle, I’m Bob, coffee please, what did you do before this?”

“I worked in a restaurant up Hanley but they’ve had to close. I’m very pleased to be starting work here cooking for you all.”

Bob took his coffee and spoke to the room.

“My 21st was in 1951 and it was a Saturday so I went the football as normal, Stanley Matthews had gone but we was still in First Division and it was a great game I remember.”

There was a muted cheer from the few Stoke City fans in the room.

“What about you Michelle, what did you do when you were 21?”

She looked around, surrounded by smiling faces and felt truly welcome.

“Oh, my boyfriend, Jimmy, now me husband, took me to Red Lion in Burslem. The idea was to catch sight of young Robbie Williams but all we saw was his proud Dad and loads of photos!”

Everyone laughed and Michelle continued her tour of the room hearing different stories and learning names while distributing drinks and assuring everyone that lunch would be ready at 1 o’clock.

Later while Michelle pushed the trolley back to the kitchen Jenny popped her head into Mrs Nicol’s office and stuck her thumb up.

“She’s great Maureen! We got a winner there.”

After seven more hours at Jerman Court, Michelle put on her coat and started to walk wearily out of the home. As she passed Mrs Nicol’s office she looked inside.

“Thanks Michelle, how did that go?

“Fine, thanks Mrs Nicol, hope everyone was well fed and watered, see you same time tomorrow. Must go for bus, get me home to my Jimmy.”

She left the care home and stood at the bus stop until the 21 bus came into view.