John Nye


Chapter One

“Little red light, little green light”, Tom sang ever so quietly. He didn’t want to wake his neighbours as he walked the dimly lit footpaths at The Consortium’s Private Home for the Elderly in Miami. He wasn’t alone. His good friend Dennis was with him, and together they were looking forward to a good night out at the party round at Ralph Ford’s place. “Little red light, little green light”, Tom sang again.

“Don’t you know any more of that damn song”, Dennis had been patient. “It’s like a broken record.”

Tom thought for a moment, then sang: “Stop with the red and go with the green…, and don’t mess with Mr In-between”. He looked over at Dennis and smiled wryly as they turned towards their friend’s front door.

Ralph was waiting there to greet them: “Come in boys, things are just getting under way.”

Inside the lights were low, the mood was right and the long night lay stretched out before them. 

It was the second Friday in January, and despite a chill in the night air, a large crowd of residents had turned out for another of old Ford’s riotous get-togethers. The parties were publicised on the Home’s bulletin board as being “stay till late” affairs, although with the current trend for party goers to linger longer they were in fact fast becoming all night gatherings, or in the case of Ford and a few of his closest friends, all night and most of the following day.

Ford was one of the wealthier residents at the Home and his extra allowance not only secured him a more secluded bungalow, but also guaranteed that everyone at one of his gatherings could have a good time without having to pay out a thing. That night, residents were arriving in ones and twos and occasionally a small group of more timid senior citizens could be seen scurrying along the badly lit narrow footpaths leading to Ford’s bungalow. Tom, who was still feeling a little shaky after a week in the nursing wing suffering from exhaustion, managed to join the throng. He and Dennis had arrived later than the rest and were greeted warmly by Ralph’s wife Minnie when they came in through the door.

“Tom, how nice to see you up and about. You’ve got your old colour back again. This party’s for you, you know. All your friends are here.” Tom glanced around. A week in the nursing wing had certainly improved his standing in the local community.

“Tom. Tom. Look everyone it’s Tom,” Minnie shouted above the chatter. She launched herself at him and took him firmly by the arm. “You look great,” she added as a small crowd started to gather around him. Tom was overjoyed to be amongst his friends once again and greeted as many as he could before Minnie whisked him away. “Now you must sit down,” she insisted forcing a gap in the wall of bodies and she led him to a seat by the kitchen door. “Here Tom, take the load off your feet. I’ll get you a drink.” Dennis had already done so and appeared through the crowd clutching two glasses. Not that he stayed seated for long. For as soon as the hi-fi was turned back on, everyone promptly set about doing whatever they could to the music and Tom, not wanting to be left out, got up and joined in.

As Tom started to work up a sweat on the dance floor, four miles down the road, the man responsible for introducing the late-night gatherings to the Home’s entertainments programme - and a good deal besides - was entertaining his boss from England with a dinner at the Bella Bella Hotel.

“I hope you’ll be comfortable here doctor, the Home isn’t too far away, as you know,” said Spinosa nervously. Willikin usually stayed in a villa on-site when he visited, but on this occasion had been brought here to the Bella Bella instead. This was Spinosa's first meeting with the head of the chain of retirement homes, who had flown over from England especially to meet him. Spinosa added: “If we had known sooner you were coming we could have made arrangements for you at the Home, but we have no available, suitable space at present. We're very busy.” Spinosa had heard quite a lot about his boss but nothing prepared him for the real thing. Rudyard Willikin was so old. The only company personnel Spinosa had met since taking up his appointment in October, had been from the US office in New York, and they were all young. So young in fact that Spinosa had been made to feel that at 50 he would have to adopt the role as the father figure. He had been given just two days’ notice of Willikin’s visit.

“It’s okay, my boy. It doesn’t matter where I stay. I’m here to meet you,” said Willikin with suitable emphasis towards his host. “I’ve heard some stunning things in the short time you’ve been with us. The New York office speak of nothing else. I want to hear everything about you and your plans for the Home. I’m hungry to hear your plans”. Willikin’s smile, although intended to be reassuring, was anything but. Spinosa shuddered at the sight of it. Willikin continued: "It’s you and your fellow executives at the other Homes who have to bear the brunt of the responsibility of caring for the residents. You handle the day to day affairs. Policy is established at head office, but it’s up to you to implement that policy in the best manner to suit your own local conditions.” That smile again. Willikin then sat back and viewed his host as if from afar. “How are you coping with the responsibility?”

His reply was not at all what Willikin had expected. “Now or tomorrow,” said Spinosa. “Because now we ought to get you settled in your room. You’ve got a busy day tomorrow. Then, I have to show you round. You haven’t been down here for a while, and things have changed.”

“Tell me about it, about the changes,” persisted the Englishman, but Spinosa was not to be drawn. “Tomorrow, sir, it’s better we talk about things as you see them,” he said, and got up to leave.

“Not yet, I’ll let you go, in a minute.” Willikin felt it was about time he let Spinosa know who was boss. Spinosa was keen to comply and promptly sat down again.

Across the table his boss stirred his coffee energetically without looking up. He then said: “You know, it’s somewhat ironic I ever got mixed up with homes for the elderly", Willikin was being uncharacteristically candid. "When my father was old and near to dying I couldn’t bring myself to be with him as often as I ought and rather left it to my uncle, Doctor Stone, to see him off. You probably met him in New York. If I were being honest, I would say that towards the end I couldn’t really wait for him to die.”

This appealed to Spinosa, who had been nodding throughout waiting for his boss to leave a space so that he could acknowledge his insight. “Not much has changed,” he said aiming to please. He noticed a glint of dissatisfaction in the doctor’s face. “Not with yourself, sir, I meant generally speaking,” he added hastily and waited for the Willikin’s facial expression to relax before he continued. “We have to care for them of course; the residents, I mean, but they are in fact only waiting for death themselves. In the meantime we give them what they want," he paused for a moment, took a deep breath, then continued: "...and, of course, when they die, we then have...," he paused again, and nodded excitedly at Willikin, "we have vacant accommodation.” He paused yet again to let the significance of what he had said sink in, “and it’s easier to raise our charges on new residents than it is on existing ones.” It was Spinosa’s turn to sit back. He viewed Willikin and considered his new facial expression to be one of approval.

Willikin asked: “Do you enjoy your work?”

Spinosa thought for a moment. “It’s still new to me,” he said. “I’ve only been doing it for a few months.” Spinosa was previously manager of a local laundromat business.

“Novelty value, you mean. It’s still different and holds a certain amount of fascination for you, is that it?” asked Willikin.

Spinosa didn’t quite know what he was supposed to say. “I suppose so, yes,” he said. “But it’s business and in business you shouldn’t express your feelings one way or the other. In fact you shouldn’t even have feelings in business. You have to be impartial, dispassionate. Isn’t that what you meant in the instruction booklet?”

“To a degree, yes,” agreed Willikin. “That has to be your inward stance, inside your own mind, with day to day business. But you have to display an altogether different outward stance to the general public, your residents and potential residents, of sincerity that suggests the opposite.”

This all sounded far too cosy for Spinosa’s liking. “It sounds like you mean to deceive them,” he retorted.

Willikin countered: “You’d agree you have to play your part in local community life - to get involved and be seen as a responsible member of the community. After all, it’s from the community that we get our residents. It makes good business sense.”

Spinosa said nothing but stared myopically at the small arrangement of artificial flowers in the centre of the table.

Willikin continued: “You have to be seen to care and in reality you have to be a caring person to do that. The impartiality is a necessary ploy in business to ensure that you don’t get personally over-involved in your work and let it get on top of you. You understand that point. You shouldn’t adopt a permanent stance of not caring. The most successful businessman, to my mind, is the one who knows how to separate work, rest and play. When he leaves the office he switches off completely, so that when he returns the following day he is completely refreshed and ready for another busy day.”

“But that can’t apply in our line of work,” said Spinosa. “We live on the estate. We never leave the office. I’m like a resident parent. My staff come to me at all hours with their personal and work problems, and the residents look on me as their handy-man son, who can pop in and do the occasional small job for them.”

Willikin had to concede that he understood what his executive was up against. “However, you can still adopt the same principles,” said Willikin. “Shut off your day as you cross the threshold of your bungalow.”

“It’s not that easy,” said Spinosa, "and I don't have a bungalow. I've converted a couple of rooms at the back of the offices. They come round for cosy chats. Mrs Templeton's my right hand. If it wasn't for her I don't know what I'd do.”

“I look forward to meeting her,” said Willikin.

Spinosa was surprised he hadn’t already, considering the length of time she must have worked for him. He told his boss that Mrs Templeton was always never too far away and that it would, in fact, be difficult to avoid her during his visit. “She’s my right-hand girl; I’d be lost without her,” he said and slowly got up to leave. This time his boss didn’t complain. “I need to get back to the Home. I have a few things I have to do. I’ll send a car to collect you after breakfast,” and with that he left.

Meanwhile, back at the home, the party was now in full swing with old Ford and Minnie heading up the conga around the grand piano. Tom Reppard was feeling a new man since his stay in the nursing wing and was prepared to go on all night, despite caring suggestions from friends to go and sleep it off.

“They’re sending some companions over,” he told them by way of an explanation. “Companions, to keep us company, you know, you know.” And they did, although many didn’t approve. The girls were becoming a common addition to the evening gatherings. They were supposed to add a little zest to the proceedings but sometimes forgot their brief to go a little easy on the old folks. But it was all innocent fun, as far as they were concerned. All this meant that when the front door swung open and in strode Caroline and her friends, out stepped the more timid from the gathering. Preceding them, as usual, was the matronly figure of Mrs Templeton.

Caroline was a heavyweight in comparison to Tom. She adored the beast in a man and as far as she was concerned the rougher the tumble the better. As Spinosa searched for his car in the hotel car park, Tom and Caroline, arm in arm - partly to show growing affection but mostly for support - were negotiating the narrow corridor leading to Tom’s tiny and lonely room. Caroline thirsted for punishment and Tom, sensing this, could foresee a night of hard work.