Regular readers of the Femmes Fatales will recall that my husband and I have recently celebrated a significant wedding anniversary. How many? Would you believe that – like Mary Queen of Scots and Francis II of France -- we were betrothed as children?
I thought not.
To celebrate, we booked a riverboat cruise aboard the Viking Skadi, spending an idyllic fifteen days meandering along the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers all the way from Budapest to Amsterdam. Luxurious cabin, five-star cuisine, wine with every meal (mimosas for breakfast!), impeccable service … now this is retirement, I thought more than once.
In recent years I’d commented to friends that perhaps living aboard a cruise ship, like Bea Muller did for almost a decade, would be cheaper than assisted living. Aboard a cruise ship there’s someone to clean your cabin and make your bed every day, excellent food, spas, a beauty parlor, computer center, library, cultural activities, class-A entertainment, dancing, bingo, bridge … plus Raoul the pool boy to bring you drinks with little umbrellas in them. There’s a doctor on board, too, and when you die, they can simply dump you overboard, no additional charge.
Even the Journal of the American Geriatric Society weighed in postively on this proposal.
Happily, Barry and I are still able to put one foot in front of the other, but I’ve been thinking about retirement communities a lot over the past year as I researched my latest Hannah Ives mystery, Tomorrow’s Vengeance. While visiting Florida a couple of years ago, I gave a book talk at a continuing care retirement community near Sarasota that was so posh … well, if you needed to ask how expensive, you probably couldn’t afford to move in. The lobby of the facility knocked my eyes out and I knew, at once, that my next novel would be set there. So I renamed the community, moved it into a former Jesuit retreat near Annapolis and started writing.
Here’s Hannah walking into Calvert Colony for the first time:
"I straight-armed my way through the door, stepped into the lobby and slammed on the brakes. What had once been a dark, claustrophobic gallery where bygone priests had sat, smoked and read such runaway bestsellers as the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola had been transformed into a bright reception area. Light poured into the space from floor-to-ceiling windows, in front of which a double-wide staircase with carved wooden balustrades curved gently up to a mezzanine.
To my right, just beyond the reception desk – which remained where it had always been – an enormous stone fireplace rose like a rockslide, dominating the far end of the lobby, its chimney disappearing into the open rafters. Clustered around the hearth were conversational groupings of comfortable, overstuffed furniture, arranged on oriental carpets the size of your average three-car garage. All around, large, high-quality landscape oils in elaborate gilt frames decorated the wainscotting, which had been painted a warm vanilla.
I whistled softly. The decorators had bought big time into the ‘open-concept’ idea I kept hearing about on HGTV. Blackwalnut Hall reminded me of a ski lodge I’d once visited in Vail, Colorado.
But what really took my breath away was the fish tank. Nestled in the curve of the staircase, it consisted of a cylinder at least ten feet in diameter and perhaps twice as tall, embellished at the base with elaborate wrought-iron scroll work. Outside of the National Aquarium in Baltimore and some kook in his garage on the Discovery Channel, I had never seen a fish tank so huge. Surrounding the tank were two semi-circular, highly polished walnut benches. A gentleman sat on one of them, his back to me, staring into the crystal-clear water where yellow tangs, electric-blue damsels, orange-and-white clownfish (hello Nemo!), a couple of angelfish and, I squinted, yes, even a lionfish, now swam. I stepped forward for a closer look. ‘Was that a . . .?’ I started to ask the seated gentleman, but I was interrupted.
‘May I help you?’ someone loudly inquired.
‘Sorry,’ I said, turning toward the woman behind the reception desk. ‘I was mesmerized by the fish tank, I’m afraid.’
‘It happens to everyone the first time they see it. Spectacular, isn’t it?’
I had to agree. ‘It knocked my eyes out. I’m here to meet Nadine Gray,’ I told her.
The woman consulted a computer screen on the desk in front of her. ‘Right. Mrs Gray called ahead and told us to expect you, Mrs Ives. Would you mind signing in?’
On the highly polished walnut counter, an iPad-like device was mounted on a swivel stand. She turned the screen in my direction, and I used the stylus she provided to scrawl a signature in the box after my name. ‘Thanks,’ I told her. ‘I think I’ll wait over by the fish.’
I settled down on one of the benches and stared into the tank, half expecting a shark or a killer whale to make an appearance. As if it knew what I was thinking, an eel poked his snake-like head out from behind a sea fan and bared its teeth at me.
‘Zen-like, isn’t it?’ a nearby voice rasped. It belonged to the gentleman I’d noticed earlier. In his mid-seventies, I guessed, dressed in a blue, button-down oxford cloth shirt, neatly tucked into a pair of khaki shorts and secured with a Smathers & Branson needlepoint belt with elephants and martini glasses stitched into it. White socks stuck out of the toes of his sandals.
‘It is,’ I agreed. ‘I could watch sea grass undulate for hours.’
‘They cleaned it the other day,’ the old man advised me.
I figured he meant the tank. ‘Oh, yes?’
He nodded, raising one of the grizzled, fly-away eyebrows that shaded his eyes like awnings. ‘Sent two divers down. Masks, fins and all. Extraordinary.’ After a moment he added, ‘But everything about this place is extraordinary.’
‘It’s my first visit,’ I told him.
His gray eyes fixed on me, gave a slow up and down. ‘Checking out one of the town homes, I imagine?’
‘Let’s just say I’m casing the joint.’
‘Well, you’d better hurry, young lady, because from what I hear, they’re selling like hotcakes.’
Young lady. Nobody’d called me that since George Bush was president. The first one. I was a grandmother three times over. ‘I’ll give it some thought,’ I said with a smile before turning back to my in-depth study of the fish.