Everyone at The Laurels Retirement Village was there by choice. It just was not always their own, though often they only realised that once they were well established there and agreed it was the best decision they had ever made in their lives. Then they might say things like, “My daughter Olivia was quite right to nudge me in this direction,” or “My doctor mentioned this when I had that spot of bother with my heart last year – all cleared up now, of course, and I’m glad he did.”
The brochures and the website liked to say it offered all the facilities of a good hotel (they avoided the word luxury, as if it were too ostentatious) but in truth it was, as it said on the packet, more of a village. There were little closes called Honeysuckle Close and Wisteria Close and Bluebell Close, and each had neat, bright little bungalows with pocket handkerchief gardens that the residents could either tend themselves or have attended to by Jackie the gardener who was, everyone agreed, a treasure. But there was a large central building, the kind that seems to be made entirely of windows, with a dining room – except, of course, they called it a restaurant, and comfortable chairs with upholstering patterned with laurels, honeysuckle, wisteria, and bluebells. There was a little library, and some state of the art laptops, and a widescreen TV.
“It was right, what it said on the website,” Agatha Henderson said, with ever such a slight emphasis on the word website, reminding people that she was fully computer literate. “It is like constantly being on holiday. My son Thomas did entirely the right thing when he suggested it!”
“But what if you don’t want to be constantly on holiday?” Florence Marks enquired, not in a belligerent manner, but still making it clear it was not just a rhetorical question.
Agatha suppressed a sigh. Of course, all were equal at The Laurels, but she still considered herself more equal than others, and the minute she met Florence she suspected that she might not fit in. Now like any other institution (not that anyone ever used the word institution) from the local nursery school down to the Houses of Parliament, The Laurels had its share of rebels and misfits and characters, and Agatha thoroughly approved of that. Cecily might insist having her hair dyed that silly shade of red that fooled no-one (and then wearing bright pink and orange sweaters that clashed with it quite abominably!) and Albert might sometimes play music on the communal piano that was not of the subtle and tasteful kind at all, and had once been heard to say that if anyone dared to bring in a troupe of condescending kids singing songs that were already out of date in his grandpa’s day he might just commit infanticide. Mind you, Agatha did not necessarily disagree with him on that, though not the infanticide bit, of course. But for all their little ways, Cecily and Albert still fitted in. They made the effort.
Florence, it appeared, was not prepared to make any effort whatsoever. It didn’t even look, half the time, as if she could be bothered to do her hair properly, and the services of a hairdresser were available at a very minimal charge to the residents of the village. Teresa was an absolute delight, everyone agreed. And such a charming accent. Agatha often wondered what she thought about that colour Cecily insisted she used on her hair, but supposed she must have tried gentle persuasion and failed. But at least Cecily’s oddly coloured hair was generally neat and well-cut. It goes without saying there were no rules of dress or hair at The Laurels, but the ladies there had their hair in those very flattering cuts Teresa was so good at, and it was amazing how she could make a little hair go a long way or, more rarely, had it up. Something about Florence’s plait was – well, nobody could call Agatha uncharitable, but it was vaguely ridiculous. Still, though it pained Agatha to admit it, it did look as if that rather nice mid brown shade were natural. At times it was very hard to try to put an age on Florence. Agatha knew she must be at least 67 years old – that was the minimum age for admission to The Laurels, though it used to be 65. Occasionally, exceptions were made for slightly younger spouses, but the rule was adhered to rigidly for single folk. But she still had a remarkably clear skin and had once said, almost rudely, that she had no time for one of those expensive creams that Ruth, one of the vainer of the residents, was waxing lyrical about, and it was a waste of money. Again, rather to her annoyance, Agatha, who stuck to Oil of Olaz, did not entirely disagree, but you just didn’t say things like that. At times she had the curious thought that Florence looked more like a younger woman who had let herself go. Or, at any rate, who paid scant attention to her hair and her clothes. Look at her now! That ridiculous sweater with the multi-coloured poodles on it and that skirt with what Agatha believed was called a “ragged hem”. Which might be all very well for a little girl who aspired to play Cinderella, but was utterly inappropriate for someone in her maturer years. But her looks and her apparel were the least of Agatha’s worries. Florence had made it plain – and only in her second week at The Laurels, if you please! – that she was not going on the Outing. Every fortnight, an Outing was arranged, and this was a specially interesting one, to a local stately home. The Outing was free, and often with refreshments provided. New residents were supposed to be delighted when they found out about this treat. Florence simply said no, thank you, she didn’t feel like going. She didn’t even plead a minor illness. This was Bad Form. Cecily, who might have strange tastes in hair colour, but liked to see the best in people, said maybe she was just a bit nervous and found it overpowering, but Agatha knew it was no such thing.
The matter must be taken in hand, she thought, before it went too far. It was for Florence’s own good. Nobody expected her to undergo some kind of miraculous transformation, but a little tactful chat was entirely in order.
“I can think of worse things than being constantly on holiday,” she said, lightly.
“My dear Florence, I’ve always looked forward to my holidays!”
“So have I. And looked forward to coming back home afterwards.”
“I can understand it if you want to make yourself useful – that’s an entirely laudable sentiment! Have you thought of helping Lynette out with her knitted caps for the premature babies?”
“I’m all for helping with the premature babies,” Florence said, “But they have more than enough knitted caps already, and a lot of the time they can’t be used in sterile conditions anyway.”
“You sound as if you know what you’re talking about,” Agatha’s tone was still smooth and polite, but it was not meant as a compliment. Still, thought Agatha, maybe this has possibilities. Perhaps she’d been a nurse. Perhaps I can get her to open up and start to fit in by talking about that.
“Maybe,” Florence said, “If you’ll excuse me.” And then she took off, and she had had the last word.
What really piqued Agatha was that Florence was developing a following at The Laurels. Of course (Agatha told herself) she didn’t expect to be unanimously recognised as the Queen Bee. In fact such things could get rather tiresome. And so far, she only seemed to have gained acolytes in such lesser mortals as Dorothy, who was a rather silly woman, and Sidney, who sometimes appeared in the restaurant wearing a football shirt. Not that there was anything wrong with a man having an interest – Agatha’s own late husband had been quite a keen Arsenal fan. But he knew better than to wear a football shirt at all, let alone at the dining table.
Another of the Florence faction (no, Agatha reminded herself, it was not a faction, it was a disparate collection of individuals who would soon grow out of it), Lulu, came in to change her library books. And what on earth possessed a grown woman to call herself Lulu. But she wouldn’t answer to Louise – that was as if she answered at all, especially when she had her nose in a book. Agatha was quite partial to a decent biography herself, but didn’t take it to extremes. Lulu and Florence stopped to have a word, and seemed to be – Agatha remembered an expression her headmistress had used, and not favourably – extremely hugger-mugger with her.
“Have you signed up for the next Outing yet?” Agatha asked her. “We’re going to the Periwinkle Perfumery, remember.”
“I don’t think I’ll be going,” Lulu said. “It doesn’t appeal. And Florence says that for all their posh labels and the bunches of herbs and all that around the place, it’s just cheap chemical rubbish and could even give you a skin rash.”
“Florence says,” Agatha would not go so far as to mimic someone’s voice, it was vulgar. But she came as close as she could while preserving her dignity. “And since when has Florence been an expert on such matters?”
“She is, actually,” Lulu said, with vaguely subversive mildness. “She’s a dermatologist.” Ah, thought Agatha. She has wasted some of her money on one of those online courses for some Mickey Mouse qualification that means nothing at all. But as Lulu prattled on, it became plain that Florence had been a consultant dermatologist at the local General Hospital. Lulu might be irritating, but Agatha had to acknowledge she hadn’t lost her marbles and she wasn’t a liar. So it was almost certainly true. And Agatha had a regard for professional people. Of course it wasn’t a requirement for residence in The Laurels that one had to be a professional person or the spouse of one. She refused to use that mealy-mouthed politically correct word partners. There had always been couples who hadn’t, for whatever reason, been through the necessary formalities, but they played the game and didn’t flaunt the fact. Anyway, though there was no such screening, to pay the costs it would almost always be a prerequisite. That was the generally used word, costs. Fees would have made it sound too much like a nursing home, and rent too much like a council house. That would explain, though it wasn’t her speciality, why Florence seemed to know about premature baby units. She expected that the various consultants and specialists talked.
For the first time that Agatha could remember, there were empty seats on the coach for The Outing. Oh, an odd empty seat for illness or some (very) pressing alternative engagement was one thing. But now about a third of the seats were unoccupied.
Cecily, she noted, was on the coach. Agatha nodded in approval. Despite her odd ideas on matters to do with hair colour, she was sound. But that approval was to be short-lived. Just as they were doing their perambulation of the Periwinkle Perfumery, Cecily said, out of the (presumably periwinkle) blue, “I can see exactly what Florence means about this place. It is all horribly pseudo!” And what kind of word is that, thought Agatha, the kind that a petulant teenager might use. But what she most resented was that she could see what Florence meant, too, and what Cecily meant. The Periwinkle Perfumery was neither high end nor a haven of the natural and artisan. Involuntarily, she wrinkled her nose. There was a nasty whiff of chemicals interlacing with the floral aromas, and even they were more like something you’d find in an air freshener. It was basically a cynically run business to pull in the tourists – and coach parties of old biddies and whatever the male equivalent was – and though Agatha was no advocate of women’s lib, yes, it did rankle that there was no exact male equivalent of old biddy.
Not that she was grateful to Cecily or to her mentor for having made her realise this. So she made a point of oohing and aahing over the various perfumes and appreciative to the staff, who were always scrupulously polite, though even Agatha, who believed firmly in good manners, decided that they did rather overdo the “Madam” business. She bought a bottle of Gardenia Goodness but knew perfectly well that it would either gather dust in a drawer or be given as a present to someone she didn’t much like.
Though Florence might be able to attract a following, she still wasn’t, evidently, a flawless judge of character. Agatha could have told her that asking Belinda to keep something to herself made Canute’s task with the waves look easy in comparison.
Her tongue loosened by one two many sherry at the Saturday evening cocktail party (though cocktails were rarely consumed) Belinda, her face flushed a little, said, “Oh, Agatha, Florence has this most wonderful face cream. All absolutely medically safe. She forlu – formalu – invented it herself.”
“Well, I’m not sure if that’s a suitable use of what the NHS must have spent on her training,” Agatha said, tersely. “Not to mention hospital resources.” But despite herself she was weighing up Belinda’s face. Yes, it might be flushed because she was slightly tipsy, but even in the artificial lighting, she could swear that it was smoother and plumper, and that even those lines around the eyes showed up far less.
Agatha had a sherry more than she had intended herself, but despite that, she spent a restless night. She might insist that she had no time for vanity and that she was quite happy with her Oil of Olaz but there were still times when she wished that those who designed the bungalows at The Laurels, so thoughtful in other ways, had installed kinder mirrors in the bathroom. Agatha was one of those women who had never been conventionally pretty, but had a fresh-faced, bright eyed look that more than compensated for it. And, whilst telling herself such things didn’t matter, she had always rather liked the fact that she looked younger than her years without having to be silly about it. But now that was beginning to change. This is an old woman’s face she told herself, and once you have thought that, you can’t unthink it. She sat down on an armchair in her living room, knowing that it would be pointless trying to sleep, and gave herself a stern talking to. There was no shame at all in ageing. Wiser civilisations valued the elderly and did not make them strive to emulate the young. She knew all that, and she believed it, but she also had to admit that she would have preferred a complexion that looked more like Belinda’s – or Florence’s – and less like her own. Well, thought Agatha, I have two choices. Either I admit I’m having a bad night, and may have had too much to drink, and have a little weep, if I must, and then get on with things and forget this stuff and nonsense, or I bury my pride and go and ask Florence for some of that cream. She knew, of course, that on a symbolic level, that was far more than asking for a jar of face cream.
Even having decided on the latter, it was still essential to maintain some dignity. What she must not do was knock on Florence’s door, and, with an air of desperation, ask for a jar of the cream. She engaged her in conversation in the lounge, and said, oh so casually, “I was having a chat with Belinda at the party.”
Florence smiled. “A lovely woman, but I suspected she might not always hold her tongue. Would you care to come to my bungalow, Agatha?” Agatha nodded. She had never been in Florence’s bungalow before, and had to give her credit, it was well-kept and pretty; she wasn’t quite sure about those fuchsia coloured cushions, but that was just a matter of individual preference. “Here,” said Florence, passing her a very ordinary looking glass jar.
“Er ….” Agatha got out her purse and Florence shook her head, with a dismissive hand gesture. “No charge.”
“That’s very kind,” muttered Agatha, thinking she would prefer not to be beholden.
She had barely taken off her coat before she was curious – and told herself that was all – to try the cream. It felt good. Light and fresh, and yet rich at the same time, and with a delicate herbal scent that was nothing like the synthetic travesties at the Periwinkle Perfumery.
In her own bungalow, Florence smiled. Everything was going to plan.
But of course, this was only the first step. Gently does it. It would be a few years before it started to dawn on people that nobody at The Laurels was getting any older. Not just their skin, but their organs, and their minds, and their limbs.
And nobody would be sure whether to call it a miracle or a nightmare.