They call this a garden but there’s no flowers here, just a dusty brown patch of grass surrounded by a high wall and an even higher fence. I’m standing with my guitar in the only square foot of shade. Staff stand and watch. I’ve been given an alarm.
I’m singing my song ‘Keep Walking’ and facing me, bouncing from foot to foot is a patient, rapping. And he’s brilliant. Other patients surround us, calling out song names ‘do you know this, do you know this’. Everyone wants to sing. This is the intensive care unit at Callington Road Hospital in Bristol.
A care worker appears from the other side of the fence. He and two other workers are supervising one patient. He is built like a brick shithouse with the voice of an angel. We sing ‘One Love’ together, the patients silently listening.
I say goodbye and follow the staff over to the women’s unit. There is the same bare backyard, no trees, no flowers. One woman sits on a bench in a daze, raw patches on her head where the hair came out. She tells me she’d been institutionalised for 18 years and when they finally let her out she couldn’t cope.
Another patient tries to sing to me and then wanders off to sit on the ground and cry. I play another song, terrified that every word and every note is causing her pain. But she looked so much brighter afterwards, says my friend Kirsty, like she needed it.
We go back to the garden with flowers and sit with the patients who are allowed to come off the wards. They’ve been drumming, and eating ice-cream. The air is hot and drowsy. Everyone’s relaxed, sitting in the sunshine. This is as close as you get to happiness in a mental health hospital.
I sing ‘Back Home’ and another Bob Marley song. Then ‘Start Over Again’, looking round at the faces of these people who have seen and suffered so much. I stand under the banner and smile for the camera. The NHS is 70 today. We have so much to be grateful for.
And then we leave, back out into the real world.