That was me, muttering to myself.
I was standing on the pavement, where the bus had just dropped me, staring up at the façade of Cuckoo Court.
It was e-normous!
A modern structure, all yellow brick, hanging tile, and acres of glass, it soared upwards for three storeys above ground floor, and along in both directions for an eternity.
The main entrance, glass doors protected by a weather-proof canopy, was a good fifty yards from the road, and both wings of the building ran back at angles from the canopy, leaving increasing depths of what eventually would be landscaped gardens separating the building from the road. Eventually. At the moment the court was fronted by a small tarmac-ed car park and by a moonscape of churned, baked mud, with intestinal-looking, multi-coloured pipes and cables poking through, desperate for connection. Distantly, from somewhere behind the building, I could hear the sound of labouring earth-moving machinery, and a tarry aroma hung in the air. Cuckoo Court was brand, spanking new and wouldn’t be finished for weeks.
A low brick wall, broken by a pillar-flanked driveway, bordered the property. The tarmac drive ran in from the road and took a circuitous route around an unplanted flowerbed which as yet sprouted but two tall flagpoles, one flying the Union Flag, the other the Stars and Stripes. Interesting. Nothing in the details Mimsie had given me indicated it was an American company, though the fact that Pete O’Shea was American was a strong indicator.
Just inside the property, to the right of the driveway, a tall advertising hoarding was planted in the concretion. It sported the mandatory, glamourised artist’s impression of the finished place, with delicate shade trees, luxuriant gardens, and several unbelievably contented retirees strolling amid the splendour, grinning their good fortune at living here.
The message on the board ran thus:
A CASTELLA RETIREMENT APARTMENT PROJECT
100 LUXURY STUDIO, 1-BED AND 2-BED APARTMENTS
AND A LIFESTYLE OF YOUR DREAMS!
Ask inside for details of our
TOTALLY NEW CONCEPT OF LUXURIOUS RETIREMENT LIVING
My gaze drifted from the hoarding to the long line of picture windows that ran the entire length of the ground floor of the right wing of the building. Though the reflection of the street obscured most of the room beyond, I could see dining tables positioned close to the windows, and human movement as uniformed staff set up the tables for the next meal. So – a dining room. Was this what constituted the ‘new concept of luxurious retirement living’? Not just a block of flats, but total hotel-style living?
I took a step back and another close look at the place.
Holy Nora, it was huge.
Suddenly not only the size of the building but of the job itself overwhelmed me. Could I see myself managing this lot? A virtual hotel? Hiring and firing dining room staff…housekeepers… kitchen staff?
Sorry, Mimsie. Enticing though the deal – and desperate my situation – was, I’d rather sleep on the beach than make a total idiot of myself. I just didn’t have the experience.
I was about to turn and leg it back to town when a Fedex van came speeding down the road, turned into the Court driveway, swirled round the flowerless flowerbed, and screeched to a halt beneath the canopy. The driver, a Jack-the-Lad, all of eighteen years old, headphones glued to his ears, jumped down and headed for the brass button plate on the wall beside the glass doors.
Whistling, he aimed a fore-finger at a button and stabbed it to death. There was a flash of sparks, a crackle I could hear from the street, and with a howl they could’ve heard in Bournemouth Jack flew backwards, smashed into the opposite wall, and slumped down on his bum. And didn’t move.
That did it.
As a courier, learning First Aid was obligatory. I ran down the drive and crouched beside him. He was breathing, but his eyes were closed.
I shook his arm. ‘Speak to me. Hey, SPEAK TO ME!’
I was now aware that one of the glass doors behind me had opened. A tough American voice I recognised said, ‘Take his freakin’ headphones off, the asshole can’t hear you.’
I turned and looked up. Pete O’Shea, in white shirt, striped Brooks Brothers tie, and navy pants, was tall, athletically-built, good-looking, with the Irish colouring of dark hair and green eyes I’d seen so often when I worked in Dublin. These eyes expressed mischievous, cynical, good humour. They’d seen a lot of life. I sensed affinity and liked him instantly.
‘This asshole,’ I protested, ‘ has just received one hell of an electric shock from your button panel.’
‘Yeh, the Tradesmen button. I’ve been meaning to get that fixed. You a doctor?’
‘No. I’m Russ Tobin. I’m here for an interview.’
He beamed a grin of genuine delight. ‘No kidding! Hey, that’s great, come on in!’
I grimaced. ‘But what about him?’
Pete came fully through the door, leaned down, pulled a headphone away from the lad’s ear and yelled, ‘Get up, Alfie, it ain’t gonna work!’
Alfie opened one eye and muttered petulantly, ‘Yeh, well, I’m getting fed up getting a shock from that thing. I’m goin’ to sue’
‘And I’m getting fed up telling you to quit jabbing at it like Sir frigging Lancelot at a joust.’
With a wink at me, Pete pulled the kid to his feet, unlocked the doors with his key, and led us into the foyer.
‘I’m still goin’ to sue,’ grumbled Alfie.
‘Your momma,’ muttered Pete.
Ten minutes later, Alfie had departed with a package of papers for the States and ten pounds in his pocket from Petty Cash to deflect legal action, and Pete and I were sitting in the spacious main office, adjacent to the front door, whose windows looked out at the flagpoles. The office contained a large wooden desk, filing cabinets, a water cooler, and a huge cuckoo clock on the wall behind the desk. Surprised at the time it was showing, I checked it against my watch. It was thirty-seven minutes fast.
An internal door led to a smaller office which, I could see, also had a desk and filing cabinets, and a second glass-paneled door which led out into what I later learned was the atrium, the heart of the building.
Pete was sprawled in his chair, one elegantly shod foot propped on the desk. Pete wore very good clothes. ‘So, Tobin, tell me…no, hey, let me get you a coffee…’ He was on his feet in a blur of movement. This behaviour I soon came to realize was typical of him – very generous, very impulsive. It was to get us into considerable trouble down the line.
‘No, I’m fine, thanks.’
‘Beer, gin, scotch, vodka? You do drink, don’t you?’
I laughed. ‘Sure – vodka, usually.’
‘Thank Christ for that. Okay, you’ve got the job, when can you start?’
So help me, I wasn’t sure if he was joking.
I said, ‘D’you think I could get to know just a teensy bit more about it? Frankly, right now the prospect of managing this place scares the daylights out of me.’
‘Nah, nothing to it. I’ll teach you all you need to know in a week. What the company is looking for is attitude- towards the residents –what they call the Castella Caress. Stroke ‘em right, they’ll stay the night. You’ve got it naturally, you don’t even have to try. Saw the way you rushed over to help that sonofabitch Alfie. That’s all you need for this job, The Caress, the rest is technical.’
His glance suddenly went out through the adjoining office’s glass-paneled door and into the atrium. He did a double-take, said, ’’Scuse me, gotta speak to the maintenance man about that button panel. Answer the phone if it rings.’ And was gone.
Answer the phone if it rings!
For twenty seconds nothing happened. For another twenty I prayed nothing would continue to happen. My prayers were ignored. I heard a faint shuffling behind me, from the doorway that was open to the foyer. Then the voice…the voice I was come to dread…the voice of Victorian Raj India…peremptory…instinctively demanding…a female voice that had never done a sodding day’s work in its life.
‘Ah, there you are, Peter, I was hoping to find you here. I wonder if you could…oh, you’re not Peter. Oh, what a nuisance.’
I turned, and stood to face her. She was a puffy woman, constructed of dough, ill-kempt, dressed like a bag of washing, bulges everywhere. She was pushing a wheeled walker laden with empty plastic containers of various sizes. She peered at me myopically, as though awaiting an explanation of my presence.
I said, ‘Hello. Peter’s just popped out, I’m sure he won’t be long.’
From her reaction I might have said ‘Your husband’s just shot himself and the Fuzzy Wuzzies are climbing the gates.’
‘Oh, dear oh dear, how very unfortunate, and all I wanted was a firm banana.’
‘A banana. Peter always provides me with a nice small firm banana at this time. I really don’t like big ones.’
She frowned. ‘Is it? I’ve always preferred small ones.’
And how is the Colonel? crossed my mind.
‘And how does Peter do that?’ I asked instead.
‘Provide you with a small firm one.’
‘Ah. Well, he goes to the kitchen, of course. Who are you?’
‘Do you work here?’
‘Not yet. I’m here for an interview.’
Her Pilsbury features radiated sudden cunning. ‘Oh, how wonderful! Peter desperately needs help he works such very long hours and I’m sure you’ll fit in beautifully. I wonder, Mister Turpin…’
‘…if you could just pop down to the kitchen and find me a small firm banana? And perhaps two raspberry yogurts. Only the raspberry, mind, I cannot abide the peach or…’
‘I’m awfully sorry, Mrs…’
‘…Mrs Templar-Smith. I’d be delighted to help you but I don’t even know where the kitchen is. And even if I did, I doubt they’d hand food over to a complete stranger.’
Her face took on the miffed grimace that must have been observed around the world when Britain was obliged to hand back its empire.
‘Oh but surely…I mean, if you told them it was for me…’
‘Well, if you’ll point me towards the kitchen I’ll certainly give it a try…’
At that moment, miraculously, Pete O’Shea appeared from the atrium carrying a small, very firm-looking banana, and a couple of raspberry yogurts. ‘There you go, Mrs Templar-Smith, saw you heading this way and guessed you wanted the usual.’
‘Oh, Peter, you are an angel. I was just about to explain to Mister Turban, here, that I don’t usually come down for supper and I’ve had such pain today and such a busy day sorting through my papers and I simply can’t miss Coronation Street so I’ll go and lie down now for a while and he very kindly offered to help and I do think he’d be a great asset here once he finds his way to the kitchen and I do hope Dan doesn’t forget to turn my mattress in the morning but before the housekeepers come to do my room there’s no earthly use him coming after the girls have made my bed so if you’d just make certain that it is written and underlined on his work board I’d be very grateful goodbye Mister…it was so nice meeting you…’
At least half of this diatribe was uttered as she exited the office with her shopper and disappeared around the corner into the foyer.
I stared at Peter. ‘You did that on purpose.’
‘You saw her coming, skipped out, left me to handle her.’
He grinned diabolically. ‘You sure got the old Castella Caress, boy, stroked her with the old mink glove. She really likes you.’
‘Gosh, I’m so relieved.’
‘You want the job?’
‘Christ, no. How many Templar-Smiths you got here?’
‘About thirty, so far. Well, no, they’re not all like her.’
I stuck out my hand. ‘Pete, it’s been really nice.’
‘Think of the money.’
‘It’s not enough.’
‘Think of the apartment! Great apartment!’
‘Think of the food! You eat free, save all your salary!’
‘Still not enough.’
‘Think of the nurses! All those nurses!’
The bastard. ‘What nurses?’
‘Oh, didn’t they tell you – we’ve got a nursing care wing next door. The residents can’t look after themselves here, they move there.’
He roared with laughter. ‘Tell you what, Tobin, I’ll give you a complete tour of the place – including the nursing home. Then you’ll have supper, try the food, and then you can go home and think about it, sleep on it. If you still don’t want the job, give me a call in the morning, that’s it, finito. Deal?’
What could I lose?
I really must stop asking myself that question.
The answer always turns out the same.