Newport is a sprawling city. Claire struggles to think of it as a single place but a bunch of dense nodes interconnected by a thriving nervous system. Though 53 Ganymede is not far from the crowded centre locals have dubbed “downtown,” she has already discovered a number of equally popular hubs that are nearly indistinguishable in the height of their architecture and the density of their population. Despite this, each varies greatly in its atmosphere; every node possessing a personality as distinct as those of its patrons and inhabitants.
Today, Claire has been a near-constant passenger, transported along the city’s nerves and out along the furthest tendrils of its reach. At first she tried keeping a list, jotting down the names of stations and routes that sound intriguing enough to explore in future. She gave up after half an hour, having stuffed a single page with names and ideas. Though she itched to spontaneously disembark — at the “Museum” platform on the subway, or perhaps the “Favreau Castle” bus stop — she gritted her teeth and withheld. She is not free for whimsy today. No, today is about work.
Now she flips through her small notebook, away from the abandoned list of potential mysteries to another list. This one is written in two hands – one blocky and large, the other small and tidy. The larger writing is Frank Gartner’s: a list of gardens and nurseries within Newport. The smaller is her own: their addresses and directions which she has researched online. Most of the names have all been crossed out and only one remains.
Le Chateau de Verre is the final name on Claire’s list. Though it is midway between her home and the furthest of the locations on the list, she has left it until last as Frank insisted.
“Save the best,” he told her without any further elaboration. She had searched the name online but come up with nothing more than a listing on a local directory with the address, contact number, and the description: “recreational garden and gift shop.”
She tucks the notebook away as her bus approaches the anticipated stop. She rolls her head back and forth over her shoulders, noting the dying sunlight through the window. The days are growing shorter and greyer. Summer is waning.
From the road, Le Chateau de Verre isn’t much to look at: a squat brick building behind a well-worn wooden sign. Its architectural design is what Claire thinks of as “modern,” which she equates with utilitarian and ugly. She cannot yet judge the grounds; behind the building is a tall iron fence laced with bushes and climbing plants that serve to completely obscure the view of what lay beyond.
Claire stops in front of the simple glass doors to adjust the collar of her blouse and wipe away any wrinkles on her skirt from her long day of travelling. She doesn’t feel anxious, at least not unreasonably so. She has passed out many resumes today and had three interviews, all of which she left feeling confident. She isn’t here out of desperation, and she is confident of her own skills. She is in control of the situation.
She pulls the doors open and steps inside the air-conditioned building. Her flats slap against the ceramic tile of the floor, echoing loudly in the wide and open space. The building is empty. Of people, at least. There are shelves lined with pamphlets for various other local attractions and empty benches between them. Either side of the room contains a door leading to a restroom – Men’s on the left and Ladies’ on the right. The walls are goldenrod in colour and filled with expensively framed images of gardens that look like they come from all over the world.
Across from Claire is another glass door, almost identical to the one she has just entered, and beside it is a phone. There is a large sign here in bold, black lettering. It stands out, shouting “look at me, I am important.” Claire looks. It reads:
Thank you for visiting Le Chateau de Verre. Please feel free to continue and explore at your own pace. If you require assistance or would like a guided tour, please lift the receiver and dial ‘0’ and an attendant will be with you shortly.
The gift shop and cafe can be located in the greenhouse to the right of the entrance.
Please note the hours on the front door.
We hope you enjoy your visit!
Claire lifts the phone receiver, her hand hovering over the numbers below. She hesitates, glancing out the window at the greenery beyond. The receiver clicks as she puts it back into place.
The humidity hits Claire like a wall as she leaves the chilly comfort of the AC behind and already she can feel the sweat beading on her brow. She wipes it away with her right hand and readjusts her shoulder bag. Unsurprisingly, she finds herself in a vast garden. The style is reminiscent of an English cottage – overgrown and bursting with colour. At her feet is a path of shiny black stone cutting through the little bit of sod that peeks between overflowing beds of peonies, hydrangeas, and roses. Aside from a constant drone of bees and the occasional chirp of a cricket, there is no sound here. The road Claire knows exists a stone-throw behind her seems an impossible memory.
She follows the winding path under a trellis and past a towering fountain whose worn stone basin is speckled with glinting copper coins. There are trees here too, towering oaks and crooked mulberries. Northern red buds adorned with thousands of tiny pink blossoms. Sometimes a bench will rest under one of these, or beneath a trellis overburdened with clematis or wild roses. Occasionally the path branches, splitting off to wend down a different lazy route only to return a short time later. Claire sticks to the main path, enjoying herself but still intent on reaching a destination.
The lush foliage prevents Claire from seeing far down the path, and she is wondering when she will stumble upon the green house when she finds herself at a stone staircase surrounded by a small grove of trees. Ivy, ferns, and wild mustard vie to overtake the steps and metal railing, but someone has been diligent in its maintenance. A few steps and she finally glimpses her destination.
The staircase descends a steep hill in three tiers. At the base of the hill, nestled amongst even more well-tended beds, is a greenhouse. Though the word is a stretch.
“Le Chateau de Verre,” Claire says and chuckles to herself as she continues climbing down the stairs.
There are two small brick wings at the rear of the structure, but the rest is comprised of glass with an intricate metal framework. Unlike the entry building, this one is heavily ornamental. The central entryway stands taller than the rest, the framework extending from the peaked dome in flowing flourishes and spirals. The right and left wings are curved glass, extending from the brickwork behind. Reflections of the moving masses of cloud create a dizzying sensation of motion.
Claire’s footsteps fall faster and faster against the hard stone, finally coming to a halt at the bottom of the hill. She looks up at the moving mass before her, her eyes devouring its every detail before stepping through its open glass doors.
A woman’s voice draws Claire’s attention to her right. She carries a box filled with potted nursery plants. She is middle-aged, tall, and her arms where they emerge from her gold and aqua sari belie their strength. This woman is a hard-worker, Claire can see it in those arms and in the dirt under her short fingernails. She may be dressed for customers, but it hasn’t stopped her from helping elsewhere.
“Hi,” Claire answers, and remembering why she is here shuffles through her bag for the portfolio containing her resume. “I uh… a friend recommended this place to me and I wanted to drop off a resume. In case you’re in need of an extra hand.”
“Come into the shop,” the woman nods to their right toward another open door set against a brick wall. It would be easy to miss were it not for a blackboard sign indicating its presence. The walls are lined with potted hibiscus and various creeping vines reaching up to the framework ceiling. The foliage is so thick that the red brick is nearly invisible behind.
Claire hurries to follow, her eyes drifting to the massive potted plants hanging from thick silver chains. Some of the chains hold more than one container and end with an old-fashioned lantern that illuminates the space against the darkening sky. She almost bumps into one of the French bistro sets resting in front of the shop for the cafe patrons before she forces her focus forward.
The woman sets the box down on a table near the back of the shop where an older gentleman in a wheelchair sits, preparing them for sale.
“My name is Veena Bhatt,” she says, extending her now free hand. A fine layer of dirt covers her brown palm but Claire reaches out without hesitation. Veena looks down at their hands and smiles.
“Claire Brown,” Claire says, handing Veena her cover letter. There is now a thumbprint of dirt smudged across the top, but she doesn’t think Veena will mind.
Veena looks at the paper and her eyebrows rise. “Very impressive. Hey Baba, look at this.”
She slides the papers over to the older man who pulls out a pair of reading glasses from his shirt pocket before squinting at the words. He looks up at Claire as if he hadn’t noticed her standing there.
“We don’t have a lot of staff. It’s been mostly family run for generations. We get some of the students from the local colleges to help as part of their coursework from time to time, but it would be nice to have another hand…” She directs this comment to her father, and Claire is certain this is a continuation of a previous conversation. Baba is still staring at Claire, his head tilted in thought.
“What do you think of our garden?” He finally asks.
Claire doesn’t answer right away. “Beautiful” is obvious. She’s sure they’ve heard it a hundred times. “Beyond words” sounds cliché. What is it he wants to hear? No, what does she really think?
“The garden was beautiful, but I’ve seen a lot of beautiful gardens today. This place,” she continues, gesturing around her, “This isn’t a garden. This is something else. Another world.”
She can feel her face burning when she says it. It’s silly, she knows, but the old man smiles.
“Though, to be fair, I haven’t really seen much of it yet.” Claire looks longingly behind her.
Veena and Baba look at each other for a moment, a flicker of guilt sparking between them. Claire’s stomach drops and she wonders when she set her heart on this place. She looks down to inspect her shoes, giving them time to convey their silent thoughts. She looks up when she hears Veena’s father laughing.
“I like her,” he says and then returns to his work inspecting and repotting the plants in front of him.
Veena’s smile seems relieved. “We might have an opening for you, I just have to finalize things with… management.” Veena glances behind her but her father ignores her.
“Oh, thank you. That would be wonderful.”
“When can you start?” Veena walks away, over to the shop desk with the cash register. The shelf in front of the table is stacked with various herbal teas. Claire wonders if they are made in house. She files the question away for later.
“Any time. I’m new in town so I don’t have any notice to give.”
Veena produces a pen from somewhere behind the desk, jotting down some notes on Claire’s resume. “Perfect, but I’m afraid I have a bit of bad news.”
“Oh?” There is the gravity again, pulling at Claire’s insides. Did she misinterpret something? Has she gotten excited for nothing?
“We are closing up in five minutes, so I’m afraid you’ll have to wait to see the rest of the gardens another day.”
Claire is genuinely disappointed, but also tired; she is content with the idea of going home and leaving the unexplored reaches of Le Chateau de Verre to her imagination for now.
Veena walks Claire to the entrance, stopping here and there to check for stragglers. There aren’t any, but Veena promises that things aren’t always so quiet. Claire is glad – it would be a shame for such a spectacle to remain undiscovered. Veena leaves her behind to give the restrooms one last check before locking up. Claire thanks her again, heads for the door, and stops.
There is something on the bench closest to the exit. It is a parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. Claire turns but Veena has already disappeared into one of the rooms. Claire bends down and lifts the package up. It is rectangular and small enough to fit into the palm of her hand. It weighs almost nothing. A tiny sprig of lavender is tucked beneath the knot of twine at its top. Claire’s heart dances in her chest.
There is a tag. It reads:
Claire hesitates, wondering if it is a misplaced item from the gift shop, but she eventually slides it into her bag and walks out toward the bus stop. Claire has learned a lot about coincidences in this past week, and she has seen a package like this before.
She refuses to open the package on the bus, forcing herself to wait until she is in the privacy of her apartment. It’s late when she gets home – the skies dark and starless. There is a spicy aroma wafting from the back of the house, it follows her up the stairs and her stomach growls. She finds a container of pasta with a fresh roll on top resting in front of the door to her apartment. She reminds herself to thank Sara later.
The food is still hot and she sets it onto the table before hurriedly retrieving the package. Her fingers tremble, but she unwraps each fold of paper with care. The lavender she places next to the container where its scent mingles with that of oregano and red pepper.
Inside a thin cardboard box lies an egg. Claire lifts it up, inspecting it in the light that filters into her bedroom from the kitchen. It is empty – she can tell from its weight – and its shell is painted brown, mottled with black and yellow. She runs her fingers over its surface and feels tiny fractures laced over it, almost as if it has been broken and put back together.
The egg tugs at a memory, but Claire isn’t sure exactly why. The details flit, like darting fish, through her consciousness. For a moment she feels them within her grasp but when she looks there’s nothing but flowing water.
She sighs, standing to retrieve a small dish. She fills it with rice from her cupboard and rests the egg in it. She places the dish on a small shelf she has squeezed across from her bed. For now the egg will remain a mystery, she decides. A beautiful mystery – like Le Chateau, like Sara, like her new home.
Claire smiles and turns back to the kitchen for a fork to enjoy her late dinner.