The electric gates swing open; I drive past the gate house and on to a private road that curves round and down through a meticulously groomed corridor of conifer and camellia to a D-shaped drive around a rocky waterfall; behind it rises the Altrincham’s residence. A boxy, red-bricked place, unweathered, pristine, it has an affected but strangely guileless look, as if a child had won the lottery and designed its ideal home with a crayon. A portico of Portland stone is stuck on to the front of the house; beneath it a pair of massive oak doors. A terrier barks and barks from somewhere deep inside the house, but otherwise the place is dark and quiet.
Just as Frank is about to flip the lion’s head knocker, there is the sound of rattling chains from the other side, a heavy bolt, and then one half of the door swings open. Mr Altrincham stands looking at us from inside – or rather, he seems to sense our presence, swaying slightly from side to side and sniffing the air.
‘Ambulance?’ says Frank after a moment. Mr Altrincham lets go of the door, turns and heads back inside, which we take as a signal to follow.
We find ourselves in a colossal atrium. A wide staircase sweeps upwards on the opposite side to a gallery of rooms. On our left is a glass fronted library; on the right, an oak panelled wall with a couple of corridors leading off. But essentially the feel is of a house built around a great cube of space, with a geometric glass canopy above, something like a museum, or maybe the lobby of a grand hotel. What pictures and objects there are have a lost air, as if they were used to a smaller place, and struggle to justify the emphasis their new surroundings have put on them: a couple of small, country-themed oil paintings; a bronze of a running child; an medieval oak chest, a tattered rocking horse.
‘You’ll be careful, won’t you?’ says Mr Altrincham, beginning the long haul back up to the gallery. ‘When I had to go in a few months ago, they dropped me down the stairs.’
‘Don’t worry. We’re professionals,’ says Frank, giving me a look as I follow up behind him.
‘What sort of dog have you got?’ I ask him, but Mr Altrincham either cannot hear me or chooses not to.
‘She’s just about ready to go,’ he says.
He leads us up to the gallery and along to the main bedroom. It suddenly strikes me that the whole place is modelled on a medieval great hall. A thousand years ago this would have been the Lord and Lady’s retreat, the inner court set apart from the rabble below. But if the idea is the same, the fixtures and fittings have changed. Instead of tapestries there are professional family portraits; instead of a scattering of straw and lavender, acres of fitted beige carpets; instead of serfs, two ambulance men with a carry chair and a blanket.
‘Now you promise me you won’t drop her?’ says Mr Altrincham, fussing around with an overnight bag.
‘What on earth have you done with my dressing gown?’ says his wife from the edge of the four poster. ‘My flannels?’ She clutches the bedclothes to her, overwhelmed by the horror of the situation.
‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘Your husband can always bring the rest of it up later.’
She stares at me like someone being addressed by an owl in a nightmare.
‘My slippers!’ she gasps eventually.
From far off, the dog continues to bark.