The outside of the building has kept its elegant facade, and the cool black and white tiles of the hallway, the low-hanging chandelier and the multicoloured blaze of the leaded light window are about as perfect as you’d want for a Regency costume drama – so long as you were careful to keep the burnished steel lift out of shot.
The voice on the intercom was pretty direct.
Come inside, get in the lift, don’t touch the buttons.
I do as I’m told, and wait.
Did I hear her right? I can’t understand why I shouldn’t press anything. Maybe she thinks I’ll be confused by the mezzanine floors? Maybe when the place was converted into flats there was some architectural kink, and people are always getting lost. I can’t believe it, though. It all seems straightforward.
I wait some more – for what, I’m not sure.
Eventually the lift shudders and I start moving up.
Mrs Rouncewell is there to meet me.
‘Hello!’ I say, slipping off my shoes and then immediately wondering where to leave them.
‘Oh – you don’t have to do that,’ she says, obviously relieved that I have. I put them down as neatly as I can side-by-side beneath the enormous, floor to ceiling artwork that dominates the hallway. We both look at them a moment, in the confused and slightly disappointed way two people visiting an art gallery might look at something they’re not sure is an exhibit or littering.
‘So… what’s with the buttons?’ I say at last, as she leads me through to the lounge.
Mrs Rouncewell gives me a measured smile that I take to mean she’s explained this a few times before.
‘The lift opens directly out into the flat. You have to use a code to make it work, but that’s too difficult to explain over the intercom, so it’s easier just to say don’t touch the buttons.’
‘That explains it!’
‘It’s a security issue.’
‘Unusual? In what way?’
‘Having a lift that opens directly into a flat. I’d never thought about that before.’
She waits to see if there’s anything else, then leads me up a short staircase into a gigantic room that must be the footprint of the house, the furthest wall replaced by a panoramic plate glass window, a section of which stands open, revealing an immaculate rooftop garden, bistro table and chairs, and beyond the filigree railings at the edge, a wide city vista of houses and office blocks, all on a shining blue sky.
Her mother is lying in a riser-recliner chair, a halo of fine white hair ruffled by the breeze from the window. She looks comfortable, but her dementia has left her with a flushed and approximate look. She orientates herself to the change in the room like a newly-hatched chick.
‘Hello’ I say, putting my bag and folder down and offering my hand for her to shake. ‘Lovely to meet you.’
She reaches up and takes my hand – then suddenly cups it with both of hers, so strongly it’s quite a shock, and keeps it there, like she’s scared if I let go she’ll rise up and float off through the window, and see the two of us, her daughter and me, hurrying out onto the patio, waving from the railings as she trails helplessly away across the rooftops.
Calling out, maybe.
Waving, and calling.