The wonderful Sarah Napper was arguably the loudest person on the planet: a bear-hugging, attention-grabbing, bellowing force of nature and fun who had made it to thirty and walked and talked (usually, shouted) despite all the medical reasons against her.
I met Sarah on one of the fabulous summer camps run by Mencap. We took a shine to each other, both being loud and fond of attention, and on my second year at the camp I ganged up with another volunteer care for her – though I was still called “The Lady” for another two years.
My story is just one incident, really, but it stood for a great deal. Every year, the camp went to Legoland, and it was the highlight of the trip for me, and for most of the campers and volunteers too. Their excellent queue-jump system meant that every camper got a red stamp on their hand, and every volunteer a black one. With at least one of each stamp, we were allowed to enter via the exit gate of every ride, saving a lot of impatient waiting.
Sarah was a trooper, and ran and walked most of the way around the park before getting blisters on her feet. I suggested that the two of us leave our group early and go back up the hill on the lego incline train. She was a little subdued, and so I started off a chorus of her favourite “Where’s Charlie?” – often being bellowed when Charlie, the camp leader, was in full view.
I started competing with her and in a chorus of running and bellowing gleefully, we arrived at the queue-jump entrance: where the young man operating the train looked at one and then the other of us and back, and then asked (in that voice people reserve for young children or the very drunk) “Has either of you got a black stamp?”
At the time, I was somewhere between outrage and side-splitting hilarity.
Three years later, whilst on camp, Sarah suffered a stroke and – despite medical intervention – she died some days later. Never has camp seemed so quiet and so empty than on the day after she left.
The Legoland incident is still pretty funny, but looking back at it now, overshadowing all the humour and the humorous indignation, I feel a sense of huge luckiness. It was a privilege to spend those few weeks getting to know Sarah. And to be grouped together with one of the most fun and courageous people I’ve met is nothing short of an honour.
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