Number 17 Kingsley Gardens presided over a leafy street on the south side of the river, protected from the traffic of Trinity Road by its own substantial grounds and a low-rise 1950s development of flats and shops. A flight of stairs led to an imposing front door, beside which a brass plaque engraved the Albany was discreetly obscured by a well-pruned yew tree in a terra-cotta pot. Only a wheelchair ramp spoiled the illusion of an exclusive gentlemen’s club, though its expansive width and polished gold rails implied a superior sort of disabled access.
Eloise helped her mother from the taxi and put her arm around her shoulders. “Here we are!” she said.
“Yes,” said Joan. “Here we are indeed.”
They stood together on the pavement, admiring the building’s exuberant exterior. As the Albany’s full-color brochure informed potential residents on its opening page, the home occupied a “Grade II listed Victorian mansion, sympathetically restored to the highest standards and retaining many of its original period features.” Above them, the architectural fashions of a thousand years competed for prominence on a densely crowded façade across which turrets, cupolas and bay windows had been liberally scattered by an effusive architect of the late nineteenth century. Medieval arrow slits sliced through Jacobean gables; slate roofs rose
steeply, dotted with oeil-de-boeuf windows. Gothic arches, Norman columns and Corinthian pilasters jostled for attention across a frontage of white stucco stamped, above the door, with ornately intertwined G’s and C’s.
“Goodness me,” said Joan.
“This looks like the best one so far.” Eloise spoke with the slightly hysterical optimism of one who has spent too many successive Saturdays examining residential care facilities for the elderly.
“It’s certainly better than that place in Enfield.”
“I’d never have let you live there.”
Joan squeezed her daughter’s hand affectionately. She did not remotely condemn Eloise for putting her into a home. She had not brought her into the world, given her life and loved her, raised her and cared for her as best she could, in expectation of return. She gripped her hand more tightly and said, “No, of course not, darling.”
They rang the bell and were met in the pillared entrance hall by a smartly turned-out nurse in a uniform of gray and white, whose name tag read “SISTER KAREN.” “And you must be Mrs. McAllister—or may I call you Joan?” She enunciated each word with sprightly professionalism. “I am the Nursing Manager here. Welcome to the Albany!”
There was something representative, Joan thought, in the tone of Sister Karen’s voice. It carried in it the well-scrubbed tiles of the Albany’s entrance-hall floor and suggested scrupulously tidy, air-freshened public rooms. She was amply built and moved with careful purposefulness. “If you’d just follow me,” she said. Joan glanced behind her to make sure that the pair of burnished brass piano pedals that had materialized in the taxi were with her now. They were. She was glad of that, for this was their first visit in a week and she was eager for their company. They had not made a single appearance at the nursing home in Enfield, a fact that had heightened the impact of its dank passageways and paved concrete “garden.” Buoyed by their lively presence, she followed Eloise and Sister Karen to the reception desk and waited behind them while Eloise wrote “Joan McAllister, Eloise McAllister, 10:53 a.m.” in a visitors’ register and the Nursing Manager asked them if they would like a hot drink.
Eloise worked long hours, Joan knew, and she was anxious that this visit should not consume more of her daughter’s precious free time than was necessary. She was also eager to enjoy the pedals’ unexpected reappearance in private, as one never knew how long they would remain once they had come, or where one might find oneself without their kindly guidance. So she said, “I’m quite alright, thank you. Perhaps we could begin the tour?” and turned expectantly toward a majestic staircase, the banisters of which appeared to end in a pair of winged mahogany angels.
Joan was quite accustomed to seeing extraordinary things in matter-of-fact places, and the sight of these heavenly figures did not unduly astonish her. The first visit of the piano pedals had been shocking, to be sure; a little disturbing, even. They had materialized over her bed in the early hours of a dark morning three years before: an alarming spectacle at first, though once she had put away her fears and learned to befriend them, they had taken her on many adventures. She was now seldom, if ever, surprised by the curious things she sometimes saw.
“Not even a slice of cake?” Sister Karen was herself a little peckish. It was her custom to entertain potential clients to refreshments in her office, while she explained to them the advantages of the world-class geriatric care provided by the TranquilAgeTM chain of nursing homes.
“Go on, Mum. You always have a snack around this time.”
“Do you, now?” Sister Karen smiled approvingly. “One of the advantages of our staff-to-patient ratio,” she went on to Eloise, lowering her voice, “is that we can continue any little routines the old dears are used to. We have the personnel to treat each client as the unique individual they are.”
Joan, whose hearing and eyesight were rather more functional than her joints, pretended not to have overheard this aside. Instead she said: “Well, I do like my levenses.”
“That’s settled, then. Why don’t you follow me?”
The Nursing Manager led them down a corridor tiled in stylized cornflowers, its arched ceiling reminiscent of a cathedral’s nave. “We acquired this property nine years ago,” she said, beginning her routine, “with the aim of making it TranquilAge’s European flagship. Can you believe it was once a family home? Though, of course, we still think of it as such, because”—here she put her arm around Joan’s shoulders and squeezed—“each and every resident becomes a member of the TranquilAge family.” She opened a solid-looking door and ushered her guests into a large, pleasantly furnished room, lavishly adorned with silk flowers. “Let’s get some tea on the way, then. Would you prefer carrot cake, or coffee and walnut?”
Sister Karen’s pre-registration talk generally took around twenty minutes, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the self-confidence of her audience. Some prospective clients found her air of clinical omniscience so intimidating that they asked no questions at all, and very few who heard her friendly and sincere exhortation of the “TranquilAge Experience” did not sign on the dotted line a short while later. Those who held out tended to be daunted by the exorbitant costs involved, which was why, on the whole, Sister Karen preferred having the dear old people present while she got down to basics with their younger relatives. In her experience, middle-aged professionals were reluctant to appear stingy in front of their elderly aunts, uncles and parents, and she was expert at implying tactfully that they were welcome to look at cheaper alternatives—provided they remembered that you got what you paid for in life.
She was quite taken aback when Eloise did not once mention the expense of a private room at the Albany, and further surprised to encounter a series of detailed, technical questions that suggested an unusual familiarity with the workings of geriatric institutions. She went through, at some length, the qualifications of the Albany’s staff; the extensive background checks undertaken before any offer of employment was made; the arrangements in place to deal with a wide variety of medical mishaps. As she did so, she wondered whether Eloise had, perhaps, some personal knowledge of geriatric medicine. She hoped not, because relatives with experience in the field were prone to interfere—and this, though understandable, was an aggravation and a distraction. Was she a medical professional? Sister Karen glanced at the file on her lap. In the “Occupation” box Eloise had written “Fund Manager”— which was a relief. “I do like a client who has done their research and thought about the issues,” she said, leaning forward and smiling.
Joan listened vaguely to her daughter’s interrogation of the Nursing Manager, content in the knowledge that Eloise was sure to get to the bottom of things. Had she known the cost of care at the Albany, she would have intervened and chosen a different establishment—even, if necessary, that hideous place with the concrete garden in Enfield. But she knew nothing of the Albany’s rates—Eloise, in any case, handled all her money now—and in blissful ignorance she composed her face into an expression of placid concentration and looked about her for the piano pedals. These materialized, moments later, on top of Sister Karen’s filing cabinet.
Quite unbeknownst to Eloise, Joan inhabited a rich inner world which she disguised from her daughter, and from everyone else, with a feeling that had begun as embarrassment but was now rather closer to the delight with which certain children hoard a secret. The piano pedals were a portal to adventure—but she should not, she knew, begin a game now; she was sure to be disturbed in the middle, which was tedious. So she drank her tea and ate a slice of oversweet carrot cake, thinking that there was more than a little of Astrid in the Nursing Manager: they had the same, slightly damp air of unquestioned authority.
For a moment her mother-in-law came vividly to her, but a glance at the pedals banished her; and betraying no sign of this small victory she waited patiently for the conversation between Eloise and the nurse to subside. Once it had, she answered the few questions put to her as best she could and said that she would, indeed, very much, enjoy a guided tour. Then she followed both younger women out into the cathedral-like corridor and back to the entrance hall, where the winged angels remained where she had left them. Were they real? Perhaps.
“These are original,” said Sister Karen, confirming their tangibility by patting an intricately rendered wing feather. “As is the picture window. We did our best to preserve period features, where consistent with our health and safety policies.”
Above the staircase, three portraits of a woman in radiantly stained glass gleamed down and made the shadows gaudy. In the first, her hands were raised in welcome above a Latin greeting, salve. In the second, her arms were thrown open beneath a banner proclaiming hospitalitas, and she stood before a sumptuous feast. She was sorrowful in the third, waving goodbye above the legend vale. The effect of the whole was somewhat spoiled by burglar bars which interrupted the vivid shadows and suggested the sinister possibility of forced confinement, but Joan turned her back emphatically on this thought.
“Do you use a Zimmer frame?” asked Sister Karen, kindly.
“Aren’t we independent! Good for you.” The Nursing Manager pointed to her right. “The dining room is down there. To the left over here is the smokers’ Recreation Lounge. Are you a smoker?”
Joan shook her head.
“Well, we’ll just look in quickly then.”
She took them to a large door, recessed within a neoclassical pediment on which was mounted an electric red sign that read smokers only. “This is one of our two Recreation Lounges,” she said grandly, leading the way into a substantial room in the center of which a group of people were clustered on pine armchairs as if for warmth, around a television set. The walls, doors and ceiling were painted magnolia and the air was thick with cigarette smoke. “Yoohoo!” she cried. “We have visitors!” But this news attracted the attention of only one resident, an elderly man in a wheelchair who turned wide, startled eyes to Joan and Eloise and raised a hand in an enigmatic gesture that fell somewhere between a welcome and a warning. The others remained intent on the television set, which showed a haggard-faced woman screaming at a man in a pub. Sister Karen approached the elderly man and patted his shoulder. “Hello, Lionel! And how are we today?”
Lionel nodded but said nothing. Sister Karen shook her head and took Eloise’s hand, drawing her away. “We care for people across the ability spectrum,” she said in an undertone. “Medical science can only do so much. Often it’s a case of providing emotional support and the right kind of comforting routine.” She pursed her lips in a smile of appropriately concerned resignation. To Joan she said, more loudly, “What luck you’re so sprightly! Your daughter tells me you’re a pianist. Is that so?”
“Well, I’ve got a treat in store for you, just you see if I don’t.”
She led her visitors back to the staircase, which boasted an electric chair on a reinforced steel rail. “You’ll find that we combine the latest in modern functionality with respect for our heritage,” she said, helping Joan onto the gray leather seat and sending her up the stairs at a sedate pace that somewhat belied her enthusiastic talk of a “home fairground ride!”
Noting with approval Sister Karen’s deft manipulation of the equipment’s safety harness, Eloise followed her mother up the steps. They were shallow and wide, carpeted in a pattern of green and puce, their banisters gleaming with polish. It would not be so bad, she thought, to live for a few years in a place like this. There was no trace of urine beneath the smell of disinfectant, a fact which distinguished the Albany from a number of its competitors, and the rooms were decently sized. The staff were well-qualified and there were more than enough of them. She thought of the activities schedule that Sister Karen had just shown her and tried to imagine her mother passing a happy afternoon with the Trivial Pursuit Club. She would surely settle down and make friends. She spent too much time in her flat, sitting alone all day.
Reaching the first floor, Sister Karen helped Joan down and led them both to an imposing door, identical to the one on the ground floor except for the fact that it was painted mushroom and sported a red electric sign that said thank you for not smoking. “We’re very proud of this room. I’m sure you’ll remember it from the brochure.” The Nursing Manager stood back, ushering them inside.
The Recreation Lounge (Nonsmokers) had once been the principal reception room of 17 Kingsley Gardens, in the days when the property had been a private house. It ran the length of the building and its seven windows looked out over the 1950s development and onto the busy lanes of Trinity Road. At one end stood an ornate mahogany fireplace, garlanded in Flowers and supported by two figures of mythic proportion; at the other, a series of classical bookcases, in the style of Robert Adam, displayed a large selection of romantic novels and aging magazines.
Excerpted from Natural Elements by Richard Mason. Copyright © 2010 by Richard Mason. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.