“Haywards Heath” is a short story by Aminatta Forna, a Sierra Leonean and Scottish writer. The story is written in the third-person point of view and focuses mainly on the relationship between Attila and Rosie. We learn that Rosie is from Haywards Heath, a commuter town south of London, England. Rosie and Attila met when Attila was studying abroad in the UK. The story is told many years later (the exact number of years is not directly stated, but we can surmise that it’s been approximately thirty years). Attila is now a widely regarded doctor, presumably in the field of mental health, and he decides to pay his old lover Rosie a visit in Haywards Heath. We soon discover that Rosie lives in a retirement home and suffers from dementia.
Attila visits Rosie twice throughout the story. The first time, he takes her for a walk around the retirement home and apologizes for leaving her, for ending their relationship, so many years ago. Attila learns that Rosie does not recognize him; she believes that she is still waiting for Attila to come visit her. Attila also notices a young African caretaker helping out an old woman during this visit; their eyes meet, and Attila, for some reason, is transfixed by this man.
Attila promises to come back for another visit, and when he does, he discovers Rosie dancing with a young careworker whom she mistakenly calls, and believes to be, Attila. The careworker is the same African man whom Attila noticed on his first visit. Rather than approach Rosie and explain his identity, or walk out of the retirement home in anger, Attila sits down to watch the two dance.
Attila’s success is deftly contrasted with Rosie’s demise. In their university years, Rosie used to make fun of Attila and the other international students for not being able to pronounce the name of her hometown (“The overseas students all had a hard time pronouncing it. Ay-wads ‘eat. A sly tease, she would ask each new acquaintance to repeat the name of her hometown”). Rosie also appeared to be embarrassed of Attila in the past (“perversely, many months into their affair, she denied she’d noticed him”). She even admitted that she felt “sorry for him” because he wore suits to class. We start to sense that Rosie, a presumably white British student, was embarrassed to be in love with a black international student. As such, race becomes a hefty theme of the story.
Flash forward to the present day, and Attila is confidently pronouncing “Haywards Heath” perfectly. He is a successful doctor and a visiting consultant. Forna mentions that Attila is called to work in London “because of his expertise in displaced populations, in trauma.” He is called more and more frequently due, presumably, to the increasingly traumatic refugee crisis. He has grown so much since his university days. He is no longer being made fun of by British students; he is now being called upon (by the British) to provide guidance and help.
Forna also highlights the fact that Attila is overweight, but this is not a negative thing; in fact, “had it been otherwise he wouldn’t be driving a Jaguar XJ from the Prestige range for the same price” as a smaller car, which wouldn’t fit his “bulk.” Attila’s weight is another representation of his success and progress.
On the flip side, Rosie’s life has taken a downward turn. She lives in a retirement home, suffers from dementia, and hasn’t “published in years.” Her career is over, and she doesn’t have any family coming to visit her.
This leads us to one of the story’s main themes: caretaking. While Attila is visiting the retirement home and notices an African man taking care of an elderly woman, “something about the scene [stops] Attila: the hand at her back, which prevented her from slumping, the infinite care in the way the young man wiped her slackened mouth with a napkin.” Attila, in this moment, witnesses a true act of caretaking. He learns from this act and plays his own caretaking role for Rosie. Since Rosie does not remember Attila, it is best for Attila to simply let her be happy without him. There is too much distance between them now.
The story’s final moment, in which Attila sits down to watch Rosie dance with the caretaker, is representative of the couple’s relationship as a whole. Attila chooses to follow the age-old adage “If you love someone, let them go.”