39 Grand Street. She double checked the address on the card. This was it. It was a quaint house in what she took to be a street of heritage homes. A placard was mounted beneath a brass doorbell.
A garden to walk in and the immensity to dream in – what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.
She knew it from Les Misérables. Another of her Nana’s favourites. On the front door was a knocker cast in bronze in the shape of a seahorse. She deliberated for some time on whether to use the doorbell or the knocker. Finally deciding that the knocker might seem too familiar, she rang the bell, nervously ironing out her blouse with her clammy palms. When the door opened, she was greeted with a broad smile and a man she assumed to be Jack Walsh. From the card she’d been given. No older than in his mid-sixties she estimated, he was ruddy in complexion with gentle grey green eyes the colour of the ocean on a cloudy day and a head of unkempt soft brown curls showing their age only here and there around the temple.
“Why, good day! How can I be of assistance?”
“One of many, I’m sure, but the only one I know of at this address.” He beamed at her.
“Um, perhaps you could help me, you see... The lady at the nursery...”
“Of course! Do please come in,” he interrupted her, saving her from herself, bowing and sweeping his right arm by way of invitation. She instantly warmed to his generous show of hospitality and somewhat dishevelled appearance, barefoot as he was in a crumpled light cotton shirt and a pair of baggy cotton bottoms that appeared to have been home-made from Indian basmati rice sacking. Clearly he also had a flair for the theatrics and this too put her at ease, keeping her otherwise entertained and more than just a little curious.
“I like your door knocker,” she added, making a small attempt at being a gracious guest. Always in earnest, she’d found it rather beautiful and as a child she had always loved seahorses.
“Isn’t it just bloody marvellous? This house belonged to an artist’s mother before us. It was a gift for her. He was truly talented. My wife and I became great fans of his art. Do you know that a cat once posed for him the entire time he was sculpting the magnificent beast? A rare talent indeed. Do you like cats?”
“Well, I think that’s why I’m here. I was just recently, uh, adopted. By a stray. And it got me thinking that there’s a first for everything, and maybe, if I can feed a cat, perhaps I could welcome a plant or two in my life. Water the plants. Feed the cat. That kinda thing. Sorry, I don’t think I’m making much sense.” Amelia turned her gaze away and looked down at the tips of her sneakers, embarrassed. She realised how absurd she was sounding but her honesty betrayed her as always.
“No, no, dear child! You are. You entirely are. Cats are utterly magical. As much as I may consider myself a scientist, our own cat has remained a complete mystery to me. Perhaps you two can get better acquainted shortly.
“The naming of a cat is a difficult matter. It isn’t just one of your holiday games; you may think me as mad a hatter when I tell you a cat must have three different names... Names that never belong to more than one cat.
“But above and beyond there’s still one name leftover, and that is the name that you never will guess; the name that no human research can discover – but the cat himself knows, and will never confess. When you notice a cat in profound meditation, the reason, I tell you, is always the same: his mind is engaged in rapt contemplation of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name: his ineffable effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular name. Ah the marvel that is T.S. Eliot.
“Are you a fan? But wait, before that, here I am reciting poetry on the subject of names, while it would appear I’m yet to learn your name, which strikes me as an incredible and unforgivable oversight on my part.”
“Amelia. Amelia Young.” She blushed, grateful for his kindness, and extended a hand to shake his.
She stole a look around the room. The narrow passageway had opened into a beautiful sunroom, and the house on the inside was a great deal larger than it had belied on the outside. A double storey on a slope with a Tuscan balcony extending from the sunroom. The sunroom itself had a large glass encased bookshelf and a couple of sandy coloured, leather loungers with an ornately woven ottoman between them. There were ferns and orchids hanging from every corner in the room. She must have counted at least twenty. She noticed three striking prints along the wall to her left. Exquisite Rorschach like impressions of trees, she surmised.
“Beauty and beast. Archangel. Goodbye Summer,” she murmured softly under her breath, forgetting herself.
“Do you like the work of Arthur Henry Young?”
“The prints. Arthur Henry Young?”
“Oh. No. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. They’re just so wonderful.” She blushed in embarrassment.
“Fabulous man. Railed against racism, capitalism and war, and advocated for women’s suffrage and the abolition of child labour in his political cartoons. My wife had these printed out for me from our coveted collection of his, Trees at Night. Now, tragically out of print. Perhaps you’d like to see it? But first, tea! Would you care for a cup of tea? Let’s take it outside into the garden. Follow me.”
Guessing the tea to be obligatory and only too happy to oblige, Amelia followed Jack down the stairway, something of a death-trap for the uninitiated, being careful with each steeply inclined step, past what she could only assume was the lounge and his study, and out into the garden.
“Ah, here she is now! The spectacular specimen, Komorebi!” Jack laughed, bending to stroke the feline’s pitch black coat as she sunned herself in the speckled light beneath a tree on one of the patio chairs. “My wife was a lost cause to books you see, a self-confessed bibliophile and collector of words. ‘Komorebi’ is one of Japanese origin without translation, for the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the tree. Since this cat seems to do little else than sleep beneath the trees when the sun is shining, my wife thought it fitting. As for the creature’s ineffable effable, deep and inscrutable singular name, who knows… It’s just not the same without Val, eh, old girl? Anyway, now that you and Komorebi are inseparable bedfellows, let me get onto that pot of tea. Won’t be two shakes of a lamb’s tail!”
Jack spoke like rapid fire, but with a refined elocution, moving seamlessly from one tangent of thought to the next and leaving no time for Amelia to get a word in edgewise. But she liked it that way. She’d always preferred to be on the listening end, inevitably blundering and blurting out her every thought. She used the spare time and silence to take in the garden. Like Jack, it too had an unkempt yet charming quality about it.
“This must all seem like quite the mess.” Jack Walsh reappeared and seemed to read her thoughts, returning with a tray with a silver tea set and two adorable china teacups.
“To the untrained eye, of course. That wife of mine was a hopeless lover of all things in nature. Believed not even so much as a dandelion or caterpillar was ever out of place. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way... As a man is, so he sees. William Blake. What a mind.
“And so my dearly departed Valerie saw nothing which stood in the way in our garden. A woman of many words, a word for just about everything, well, weeds was never one of them. And as A.A. Milne wrote, weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them. Valerie always did love Milne.” He cast his eyes upwards.
“The river bushwillow. Combretum erythrophyllum. Erythrophyllum being the Greek for “red leaf.” Such sweetly fragrant blossoms in Spring and early Summer. A great one for attracting birds and butterflies. Of course, one has to be mindful of the wasps though. Isn’t she a beauty? Just what any garden needs on a balmy day. Some shade and respite and birdsong. But enough of my bamboozling the conversation. What brings you here, Miss Young?”
“Um, well, I had a lime tree once. And that didn’t exactly go very well... I think I may have murdered the poor thing...” She trailed off, hesitant. But Jack quickly came to her rescue.
“I see, I see. Difficult family. The citrus. Quite demanding on the unsuspecting. Don’t let that deter you. Do go on.”
“I’d just like to introduce some greenery into my home. Into my life, really. I loved my grandfather’s greenhouse but he was so very good at it. But perhaps I could start small? With something I’m unlikely to fumble? I don’t have very high hopes I’m afraid but the woman at the nursery seemed so confident you could help.”
“Mmm. Yes.” Jack nodded, rubbing the grey stubble on his chin. “I think we’re in luck, Amelia. Come this way.”
Not to seem thankless, Amelia swallowed the last swig of her tea and followed Jack further down into his canted garden. He had a deftness of movement and she had to walk quickly to keep up, being sure to avoid the mushrooms and patches of verdant groundcover that sprung up all around her. He led her to a shaded corner at the very end of his garden, walled off by tightly bound tall bamboo stalks.
“A feisty competitor in any garden, but a truly industrious plant. You can literally just about watch it grow. But that is neither here nor there,” Jack remarked gesturing to the fence before turning to a table of plants of varying sizes in chipped cups and old coffee tins and jam jars. “Here you go.” He handed her one from the lot.
“Adiantum raddianum. The maidenhair fern. A delicate and lovely specimen for a delicate and lovely lady. But as is with most seemingly delicate ladies, they’re tougher than they look. While not instantly recognizable as a fern, one only has to look under the leaves of this native to Brazil to see the tiny clusters of raised brown spots on the undersides of the leaves of more adult plants. These are the little sacs with their fern spores.
“If you were to plunge a frond of this dainty fern into water, you would witness the leaflets appearing silvery, covered as they become in a layer of bubbles. Adiantos is the Greek for ‘dry’ in reference to this particular fern’s characteristic impermeability to water on the leaf surface. Oh, but there I go again. A bore beyond saving, Valerie used to tease me.”
Amelia picked up ever so slightly a momentary lapse in his joviality, and trusting her better judgement, waited for the moment to pass. Besides, what could she truly say.
“Well, what do you think?” He seemed more himself again.
“It’s perfect.” And she meant it, deeply. “And I don’t find you at all boring.” She meant that too, in equal measure.
Honestly, she wasn’t sure if she’d ever met anyone as intriguing as the professor, and she’d had some pretty interesting characters in her life. Jack smiled in return, a grateful smile, even if perhaps he didn’t entirely believe her. They shared a brief pause in contented silence. Amelia regarded the small fledgling fern in her hands with its fine stems and rounded, little leaflets. She lightly stroked it, this plant that was to be hers.
He handed her a beautiful sea-foam green terracotta glazed pot.
“This plant likes a humid environment. So leave a shallow layer of water at the bottom of the outer pot with pebbles. The fern should be placed above the water mark on the pebbles so that it’s free to absorb the moisture without getting its roots soaked from below. Ah and a spritzer. They love the occasional misting. Warm indirect sunlight. And that’s you good to go.
“Some may say she’s a tricky starter, but I dare say I have more faith in you than that, Amelia. A good feeling indeed. Of course, if you really want to help things along and create the kind of humidity most indoor ferns thrive on, there’s no better solution than a house full of plants for that. But we’ll get there. As they say, there are no gardening mistakes, and nothing can be more humbling.” There it was again. That magnanimous grin of his. “Now that that’s settled, I do believe I promised to show you a book. Shall we retire to the sunroom? I’ll put on another pot of tea. Please do make your way so long.”
Nimbly making her way back up the treacherous staircase, arms laden with the fern and its accessories, Amelia placed it all on the floor in the sunroom, before approaching the bookshelf. She couldn’t help herself when it came to the bookshelves of others.
She had always felt that a bookshelf reveals so very much about a person. As much, if not more, than the contents of a refrigerator, or even a diary.
Northern Farm: A Chronical of Maine by Henry Beston. Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer. The Song of Trees by David George Haskell. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Thoreau and the Language of Trees. And a journal of Henry David Thoreau. The Firmament of Time by Loren Eiseley.
“Aha! I see you are already inspecting the shelf of wonders and all my weird affectations. At least my wife made sure of one thing before she left me for the leaves in the trees, rest her soul; she turned this heathen into a reader.”
Amelia jumped with a fright, feeling at once like a small child caught out.
“I’m sorry. It’s a bad habit. You have such fascinating titles though.”
“Well I do believe there was one special title in question. Why don’t you take it with you for now? And you can report back to me in a couple of weeks on the matter of the fern. In fact, I’ll have some organic fertiliser ready and waiting which the plant will greatly appreciate every six weeks or so. Then you can peruse the book at your own leisure and let me know your thoughts when we next meet. What do you say?”
He selected a slim volume from among the books and handed it to her. Trees at Night by Arthur Henry Young, the book containing the prints she’d admired earlier.
“Might I read some Thoreau to you while we enjoy our tea? It was a common pastime, for myself and Valerie, and I find it a fitting way to unwind at the end of the day. Trees move so slowly through time in comparison to us. If we were to keep up, so to speak, we would see how they flow like water, just so imperceptibly infinitely. It is a quality of theirs I’ve always striven to emulate where and however I can. That is if you don’t mind.”
“I would like that very much.” And for the third time that day, Amelia really meant it. Finally she had found in silence and in the warmth of the sunroom a comforting resting place.