It’s 1953 in Perth, Australia and thirteen-year-old Frank Gold is awake during nap time at the Golden Age, a children’s polio hospital. Rolling through the halls in his wheelchair, he checks on his friend Elsa, but does not see her, then goes outside with a cigarette purloined from his mother.
The Golden Age was once a pub, but the government has converted it into a convalescent home due to the increasing number of polio cases. Its residents are children who have survived the onset of polio but whose parents work too much to supervise their recovery, or who live too far away to receive outpatient care. Frank has arrived here after a stint at a hospital for adults (the IDB). The hospital feels isolated from normal life, but it’s a “cheerful place” that gives “fair shelter and homely comfort” to the children.
Meanwhile, Elsa has been comforting a crying baby named Rayma. Because she’s always looked after her younger sisters, Elsa is an adept caregiver and knows instinctively that Rayma is crying for her mother. As she encourages the baby to look out the window at the sky, she thinks of her own mother. Since the onset of polio, Elsa has felt distant from her parents and everyone else around her, and she reflects that Rayma too has to “learn to be alone.”
While the children eat their dinner at the Golden Age, Frank’s parents, Ida and Meyer Gold, are just getting home from work. Hungarian Jewish refugees after World War II, the Golds had hoped to go to America and have never felt at home in Australia. Before the war, Ida was a brilliant pianist, and now Meyer asks her to play for him. Ida refuses; she hasn’t played since Frank got sick.
After dinner at the Golden Age, Frank sneaks outside to write poetry. Frank became a poet in the IDB after meeting an older boy named Sullivan Backhouse, who was confined in an iron lung because his entire body was paralyzed. In the IDB Sullivan told Frank about the autobiographical poetry he composed in his head, and Frank was attracted by Sullivan’s humble approach to art. Sullivan was the son of a prosperous Australian bureaucrat, and prior to polio he was a prefect at a boarding school with brilliant prospects. Though Sullivan briefly seemed to be getting better, one night he suddenly got a fever and died.
After thinking of Sullivan, Frank’s thoughts drift to Budapest during the war. For a long time he and Ida lived in a cramped apartment in the Jewish ghetto, but after a particularly large roundup by the fascist party that controlled the city, Ida hid Frank with her piano teacher, Julia Marai. Although Julia and her companion, Hedwiga, were kind, Frank felt “exposed” without his mother, from whom he’d never been separated. Ida missed Frank but felt things were “simpler now, alone” and she smuggled food parcels to Meyer, who was working in a labor camp in the Ukraine. One day at Julia’s house, Frank had to hide in the attic while Julia gave a piano lesson, and Frank was so frightened by the experience that he didn’t talk for several days.
After the Russians conquered Budapest in February of 1945, Ida retrieved Frank from Julia’s house. The apartment building had been bombed but they’d been living in the cellar. Meyer also survived the war, and often says now that they are “a lucky family.” However, apart from two of Meyer’s brothers, everyone in their entire extended family was killed during the war.
Frank recalls his parents’ visit on his first Sunday at the Golden Age. Ida felt tense and anxious because she sensed Frank’s unhappiness, and Frank was thankful when she left. After visiting hours all the children were emotionally drained because seeing their families reminds them “how much [they] had grown apart.” Frank reflected that for most of his life he and his parents had lived in close quarters with strangers, and that the Golden Age was too small to allow him any real solitude. While wheeling restlessly through the halls, he caught a glimpse of Elsa, who seemed graceful despite her disability. Tears came to Frank’s eyes, and afterwards he thought of the title for a new poem. Frank and Elsa quickly became friends. Now he values the peace and tranquility she seems to emit, and she is attracted by his confidence and cultural knowledge.
Sister Olive Penny, head of the hospital, is getting ready for bed when her lover, one of the new constables, taps on her window. Sister Penny enjoys the sex but gets dressed briskly afterwards; she has many lovers and doesn’t let them intrude on her life or work. Her husband, Alan Penny, died in the first days of the war, forcing Sister Penny and their daughter, Elizabeth Ann, to move in with her mother-in-law, Enid. Sister Penny began to have trysts, and in revenge, Enid bequeathed her house to a distant relative when she died. Sister Penny moved to the Golden Age while Elizabeth Ann went to live with a friend and attend college. Since then, Sister Penny has felt distant from her daughter; it’s nursing, a career she originally intended to give up after marriage, that is now central to her life.
Precocious and intelligent, Frank is bored during lessons and passes time contradicting the teacher and watching Elsa. When he looks at her, he stops feeling ashamed of himself as a cripple. He sneaks out of class to visit Elsa in the therapy bath, but is unceremoniously ejected when Lidja, the therapist, catches him. Frank knows he has a penchant for getting in trouble and feels his days in the hospital are numbered.
In the evening Meyer decides to walk to the Golden Age. Though he’s resolved not to feel nostalgic for Hungary, he’s depressed by the arid Australian landscape and feels he’ll never be at home again. When he arrives, he notices how much Frank looks like Ida. However, Frank gets along with Meyer much better than he does with his fractious mother. As he’s leaving, Meyer runs into Sister Penny, whom he finds attractive and intriguing. They share a certain connection but part without much conversation.
On the same night, Elsa’s flustered mother, Margaret, arrives, having spent all day scheming and hitchhiking to get to the hospital. Margaret adores her eldest daughter and the two are very close. Still, Elsa feels “a sense of invasion” at the unexpected visit, while Margaret thinks sadly that her daughter is quickly leaving childhood behind. As Margaret leaves, she reflects that Elsa is “the compensation for everything,” from the drudgery of housework to her bad-tempered husband, Jack.
Frank’s parents serve Christmas lunch at the Golden Age so the nurses can be with their families. Ida plays carols on the piano. Sister Penny returns early from dinner with Elizabeth Ann and her friend’s family, a stifling affair during which Sister Penny notices her daughter’s infatuation with the family’s eldest son. She feels relieved to see Meyer, while Meyer watches Ida play and feels sorrow for her lost career. Seeing that Ida is a professional, Sister Penny resolves that she must play a benefit concert for the hospital.
The children who have gone home for Christmas return exhausted and cranky after stressful days with their families, who treat them like invalids or expect them to recover more quickly. After bedtime Frank sneaks over to lie next to Elsa, who tells him her “onset story.” One day, Elsa felt sick during her tennis lesson and collapsed in the driveway after returning home. Jealous of her older sister’s lessons, Elsa’s younger sister Sally shouted at and kicked her until a neighbor intervened. After hearing the story, Frank kisses Elsa.
The nurses take the children to the ocean for an outing. Everyone enjoys it except Elsa, who has always lived near the ocean and is now reminded of things she’ll never be able to do again. Frank spends the day thinking of poetry and realizes that all his inspiration now comes from Elsa. Not knowing the children are away, Meyer drops by the hospital with a crate of soft drinks as a treat. Sharing a soda with Sister Penny, he admires her beauty and aloofness, while she senses the tragedy that lies behind his calm demeanor.
Lidja, the therapist, drowns in a sudden boat accident. All the children are devastated, because her death reminds them that “they [are] alone” in overcoming polio. Soon afterward, the Queen of England visits Perth, although she can’t accept gifts or eat food due to the city’s rising number of polio cases. Everyone—including Frank—is captivated the hubbub of her arrival. The Queen leaves the city uninfected, while newspapers report on Jonah Salk, a Jewish doctor developing a vaccine for polio.
Meanwhile, Ida, who hasn’t played formally in years, prepares furiously to give a concert at the Golden Age. The day of the event the emerges on the stage haughty and impressive in a new dress, slightly scornful of the humble venue but also anxious to give the best possible performance. The patients and parents are immediately captivated. Frank feels an unexpected closeness to and respect for his mother. Meyer is proud of both Ida and Frank, but as he sees other patients surrounded by large families he remembers his siblings and parents who didn’t survive the war.
After the concert, a very young boy runs away from the hospital while another girl’s father arrives suddenly to take her home. These departures create a sense of disorder and instability among the children and the nurses. Unsettled, Sister Penny goes to visit one of her lovers for the day. When she returns, she finds that a nurse has discovered Frank and Elsa kissing in bed and alerted the hospital board. The board expels both Frank and Elsa. The trustees question Elsa, seeking to blame Frank exclusively for the incident, but she refuses to incriminate him. Sister Penny knows that, after two mishaps in quick succession, she needs to start looking for another job.
Bored and lonely at home, Frank goes to the library every day. He’s returned to the setting of his childhood but feels estranged from that part of his life, as well as from his parents. Moreover, he feels intensely conscious of his disability among so many able people, and worried about the prospect of going to normal school.
On a “hunch,” Meyer drops by the beach and runs into Sister Penny, who is swimming. She’s moving to a hospital in another city, while Elizabeth Ann is getting married. Meyer tells Sister Penny that she taught him “how to live here.” Despite their mutual feelings of closeness and respect, they quickly depart in their own cars.
Ida happens upon Frank listening to birds in the backyard, and he tells her their song sounds like “You’re-just-in-the-way.” Alarmed at this obvious evidence of depression, Ida phones Margaret Briggs and arranges for the Golds to visit for tea. Like Frank, Elsa feels lonely and displaced at home and worries that people think of her as a “cripple.” Still, she enjoys being near her mother and tentatively reconciles with Sally.
Despite the awkwardness of the arranged reunion, Frank and Elsa are relieved to see each other again. Suddenly, it begins to rain and the adults run outside to help Margaret bring in the laundry. Taking advantage of their parents’ distraction, Frank and Elsa rush into a secret bower of trees and embrace. Both take comfort in being together, even though they know they’ll spend their lives apart.
Years later, Elsa’s son Jack visits Frank, now an elderly poet living in New York. Jack says that his mother is now retired after a long career as a doctor. Until the past year, she’s been able to walk and swim. She also enjoys Frank’s books. Jack himself is the editor of an online Australian literary journal, as well as a fervent admirer of Frank’s poetry. He interviews Frank about his new collection, entitled The Golden Age. Frank says that he thinks of this collection as both the “sequel” to his most famous poem “The Trains” (which shares its name with the chapter that describes Frank’s childhood in Hungary). After Jack leaves, Frank walks to the window and watches him disappear into the crowd on the street.