Authors: Peter King
A Healthy Place to Die
Open Road Integrated Media
OME ALONG NOW, MR.
Armitage—we haven’t drunk our spa water yet—swallow it right down.”
I had three objections to this proposal.
One—I didn’t intend to drink spa water without tasting it.
Two—I don’t really like water.
Three—and most important of all—my name is not Armitage.
This was not the best time to debate these points though. Instead I said, “Nurse, if
are going to drink spa water, you take yours first. Leave some for me.”
She smiled, a wide beautiful smile that made full use of her generous red lips, glistening white teeth, and slightly smoky blue eyes. “Now, Mr. Armitage—remember your briefing when you checked in this morning. My name is Julia and that’s what you should call me. See—here it is, right here.”
She used one long, exquisitely manicured forefinger to tap the smart plastic badge with its thin metal trim. My eyes involuntarily followed her motion, and it was hard to tear them away for the badge was attached to that part of her trim uniform that molded one of her two most prominent features. I looked at the badge—it confirmed that she was “Julia” just as she had said, but I kept on looking anyway.
that she disapproved of was nonetheless appropriate according to that morning’s briefing on my arrival here at the Alpine Springs Spa and Health Resort in Switzerland. All of the staff were qualified nurses, but they avoided use of the term as they emphasized that this was not a hospital or a sanitarium.
The female members of the staff were certainly carefully chosen. I had seen only half a dozen of them so far, but all were blond, buxom, and beautiful. None of them was more than an inch below six feet and a further distinction from the “nurse” classification was the uniform. The fit was more suited to a Fifth Avenue fashion show runway, and the color was a soft, warm cream that had anything but clinical connotations.
She smiled again and I could not resist. “All right, Julia. Leave the water. I’ll drink it in a minute.”
“Good. I’ll be back in a little while. Here’s our handbook—you might want to look through it, get familiar with us.” I doubted that a double entendre was hidden there, but she added, “An analysis of our spa water is on page thirty-seven.” I watched her walk away until she was out of sight and wished she had walked slower so I could enjoy the view longer.
I was sitting in a wrought-iron chair with a comfortably padded seat and backrest at a wrought-iron table with a thick glass top. The lawn I was on was not quite big enough to accommodate the landing of the space shuttle, but it was flat and smooth as a billiard table and intensely green. The main spa building looked as if it had been transported from Tuscany, and behind it, sweeping toward the foothills of the Alps, tier after tier of grapevines were in geometrically perfect rows.
Housing was in minichalets around the main building. They were sumptuously furnished and decorated in light pastel colors. Shuttered French doors at the back led to a private terrace. The emperor-size beds had fluffy pillows and the bathrooms were large for Europe, with sunken tubs that had more controls than a jet fighter. The refrigerators were stocked with champagnes, wines, Swiss cheeses, and snacks, and a fireplace was laid with logs. The rooms were not only air-conditioned but offered a dialed choice of room fragrances.
I looked across the lawn to where a small group was doing tai chi exercises. All were dressed in loose-fitting track suits, each one a different color—sky blue, lemon yellow, carmine red, bright purple. … Arms outstretched, feet wide apart, they looked from here like toys whose batteries were running down. Near to me, a man sat at a table reading. He was ruddy faced and heavily built with a magnificent shock of white hair.
In the other direction, leading into hundreds of acres of grassy slopes, were pathways and wide staircases leading to the hydrotherapy center. All were built from a wood with a color that gave them a distinctly Japanese look accentuated by curlicues and carved trim. The tour that was part of the initial indoctrination had been conducted by Norma, a clone of Julia but even more voluptuous if that was possible. She had explained that the hydrotherapy facilities included Roman baths, Turkish steam baths, Swiss high-pressure shower jets, Japanese soaking tubs, Hungarian mud baths, a tunnel that provided seaweed flagellation, herbal Jacuzzis, and even prosaic whirlpools, saunas, and just plain pools. To be fair, they were not really that plain … the sides and base of the pool were perfect mirrors.
It was a gorgeous day with a few streaky cirrus clouds trying desperately to break the monotony of the light blue sky and not being very successful. It was warm, in late summer, and Norma had reminded us of the unequaled purity of the air here in the Swiss Alps. She had taken us through the environmental center where banks of instruments and dials and digital panels gave a vast amount of information, including a continual analysis of the air.
On the table, the cut-glass tumbler of water sat waiting to be drunk. I could not disappoint Julia even though that might make her pout in that delightful way she had. I drank a sip of water, leaned back, and gave it my own taste analysis. It wasn’t that bad, not too salty, and the mineral content was on the verge of effervescence.
Forgetting about page thirty-seven, I drank the whole glassful.
The tai chi group concluded its session, and a few minutes later four women came out in brief outfits and started tossing a clear plastic ball the size of a VW Beetle. I could not understand their purpose—if there was one—but it did not matter as the players were more watchable than the game.
“Perhaps you’d like to join them the next time they play.”
I had not heard Julia’s approach—the lush lawn muffled her footsteps.
“I’ll have more energy then from all these minerals,” I told her, aware that she had looked at my empty glass.
“I’ve brought you the luncheon menu.” She handed me a tall card in pastel colors. “I thought you might want a little time to study it. Can I bring you a cocktail first?”
“You know, Julia, this is an extraordinary place.”
Her big smoky blue eyes widened, and she treated me to a miniversion of that delicious pout. “Extraordinary? In what way?”
“Well, it’s true I haven’t been to a spa before, but I had a completely different impression of what they’re like. I wouldn’t have thought that cocktails were a part of the diet.”
She looked hurt. She pressed one hand against her heart. It had the effect of squeezing the already tight fabric of her uniform up around her breast.
“Diet! My goodness, that’s a word we never use here. In fact, you’ll find that there are a lot of words and expressions that we never use. As you will recall from our brochure, our entire approach is to provide a lifestyle that is opulent in every way. You can eat and drink as much as you want—and anything you want, exercise only a little—in fact, you come here to enjoy yourself in every way.”
It sounded great, and I told her so.
She took her hand away and gently smoothed her uniform back into place. The effect was as erotic as a stripper on Bourbon Street. “But this is why you came here, I’m sure,” she said. “Our brochure stresses that this is our central theme. You can enjoy a luxurious holiday with every amenity you could wish and at the same time, you can lose weight, recuperate from an illness or an addiction, be treated for a physical or mental affliction.”
“I can have my cake and eat it.” I did not want to admit that I hadn’t read the brochure and didn’t know all this.
“You can enjoy the bliss of eating a cake but have none of the drawbacks associated with having eaten it.”
“How do you do all that?”
She looked coy—or at least as coy as a six-foot buxom blonde built like a brick outbuilding can look. She did an awfully good job of it too.
“Come now, Mr. Armitage, you wouldn’t want me to reveal any of our secrets, would you?”
“And I’ll bet you have a lot of them.”
She shook her head and the blond hair danced.
“You’d be surprised how much of it is common sense and careful planning. Miss de Witt is very good at both of those.”
I had met Caroline de Witt, the executive director, on my arrival. Raven-black hair (did she select blondes for staff as deliberate contrast? I wondered), statuesque, cool as ice, and capable of charming a hungry cobra. “I’m sure she’s good at a lot of things.”
“She is.” Julia was sincere. “She’s exceptionally good at everything. Did you decide on a cocktail?”
“As this is my first day, I think I will. Make it a whiskey sour. With rye.”
“Very well. Did you make your luncheon choices?”
“Not yet. I’ll make a decision by the time you get back with the drink. By the way, my name is not Armitage.” Her wide blue eyes opened wider as I explained.
When I finished, she nodded and walked away with that swinging long-legged stride that strained the seams of her tight uniform.
Another clone of Julia was talking to the ruddy-faced man at the nearby table. They were having a discussion about the menu, but I could not hear what they were saying. The blonde was nodding and picking up the menu. The man had evidently made his choice for luncheon. She walked off with the same stride as Julia—well, no, not exactly; this was a little looser but just as visual. I got up, taking the menu with me, and walked across the impossibly green carpet of grass. It was time to do something.
After all, I wasn’t here for my health.
O WHY WAS I
It was a fair question, and I mentally debated if the answer was also fair. It seemed straightforward enough. I had been sitting in my small office in Hammersmith in West London, answering mail. The first letter was from a soft-drink producer that wanted to know if I would be one of the judges in a lemonade-tasting contest. I set that aside under a paperweight that was the base of a one-hundred-year-old champagne bottle. That was my “decline” stack, and I thought it very appropriate.
The second letter was more interesting. It was from a man who had contacted me on a couple of previous occasions. He was a technical specialist at the Elmwood Film Studios and had asked me for advice on ancient foods and cooking equipment. This time, he was working on a film set in the seventeenth century, and he had a banquet scene to shoot. He was looking for any help I could give him to make this authentic. He had access to studio experts, but he liked to check with me too, he said.
I jotted down a few notes. First, he should make sure that no forks appeared on the table, as these had still not become common usage in 1600. Most people still ate with their fingers, although knives would be on the table. These would be the dagger type of all-purpose knife that could be used for both cutting and eating. Spoons were common, and several sizes would be evident.
Large roasts of beef and pork would be on platters—of silver if it was a really rich household, or wood otherwise. On the table would also be large whole salmon, geese, capons, crabs, lobsters, oysters, mussels, eels, and smoked herring. When the host wished to impress, his guests would be offered carp, three to four feet long, lampreys, turtles, and giant frogs. If the filmmakers wanted to risk some of the food becoming talking points for the audience, they could add peacocks and swans to the spread.
Bowls of soup and grain puddings full of meat strips would be seen, as well as plates of pastries, pies, and fritters; bowls of sauce; and loaves of bread of different kinds and shapes—but, of course, none with the shape of a mass-produced loaf, as that is merely a modern packing convenience. Guests would be drinking wine, mead, and beer.
It was the practice until the nineteenth century for all of these dishes to be on the table at the same time, so this feast would be authentic as well as photogenic.