A double-storey stone house located in the outskirts stood against the test of time. Weathered through the seasons in its two-century history, the cobblestone structure remained grand and fortified. The thatched roof had been maintained despite needing several restorations. The building was divided into two core sections by a staircase in the middle. The left-wing housed the Elite Gentlemen’s Club where men from society’s highest rankings gathered to socialise and discuss matters supposedly of great importance to the country. In the other wing, the wives of the gentlemen gathered to share details from the grapevine.
Over the decades, these had gradually changed as roles switched. Although many tried to deny, it was common knowledge that some of the wives were the puppeteer to their figurine husbands behind the scenes. Despite who was in control, everything could be resolved if the club members decided to intervene. The country’s economic welfare and security were held in the balance by not the government’s prime minister nor the ministries but by the people that frequent the clubhouse, people that held the darkest secrets of the government at ransom. The chatters were silent, not to be heard by neighbouring tables, yet every sentence determined the fate of many.
The inside was dimly lit to project a form of sophistication because the rich and powerful liked to deal in the dark. Mahogany panels and furniture with matching luxurious leather cushions provided the comfort for the ladies and gentlemen in their formal designer wears. The fire burning in the fireplace fuelled by precious wood, odours from the finest Cuban cigars (in the gentlemen’s club) and perfume (the wives’ club) filled the rooms. If the original group were still alive, they might not have noticed the difference. The interior was as enduring as the structure of the building.
On rare days, such as today, everyone was talking about a common topic - the debut of a new member. Unlike the old order where only established people were first approved through recommendations, or slowly transitioned in, this new member was the descendant of an existing member who passed away quite suddenly.
Many rumours surrounded the sudden death but all reached the same conclusion - it was a dangerous liaison with a woman where things got too out of hand and had ended prematurely. Of course, the family disagreed but no one could squash rumours.
“I have the deepest faith in my husband. He is the most gentle and honest man I’ve ever known. He will be missed dearly. He was a man with great foresight so, over the years, the family had been grooming our eldest son, Hansen, to eventually take over the business,” Mrs. Fung said, putting up an impassive face. She was as grey as the weather when she gave the speech on the morning after the passing of her husband.
Hansen, Abigail and the youngest, Harry, stood a few steps behind her. All had their heads bowed low. The audience was not able to guess what was going through their minds some thought they were in deep sorrow while the more heartless ones assumed they were hiding their faces in shame.
Hansen’s debut was met with cold, unwelcome stares. He could feel the tension in the room, as though the elder uncles were all going to tear him up and eat him raw. He tried to put on a reassuring smile but his lack of confidence was obvious. After brief introductions by the club manager, Hansen sat alone in a corner. He left for his office after an excruciating hour. At least in his office, the senior management had to feint respect. His mother was still the largest shareholder and due to take over as the managing director.
Unfortunately, as a member of the club, Hansen was obliged to present himself at least twice a week. After a year, he still hated going there and he remained alone, always sitting at the same corner, ‘Hansen’s little corner’.
All the ladies and gentlemen had read history. They were well aware that time eroded everything, even power. Shortly after a new king had ascended to the throne, he had issued an order to demolish the building with the reason to make way for development. No blackmails nor ransoms could turn any of His Majesty’s advisors to convince the king to withdraw the order. Even threats of plunging the country into political or economic turmoil did not matter. These threats only fuelled the fire further.
The outcast, Hansen sat alone at the corner of the room. He was toying with a cigar that he did not enjoy. He hated tobacco smoke because it did not agree with his sinus.
Even these hypocritical uncles could not resolve the issue what more a fresh newcomer to this whole convoluted mess of corrupted politics and economics. He decided some fresh air was in order so he stood up and headed to the only spot that held some hope of redemption to the place - the backyard where trees and foliage were allowed to grow wild with little intervention from the gardeners.
“If only life is as simple and fresh as this,” Hansen said to himself as he took in several deep breaths.
“It could be if you let it,” someone to his right said.
Startled, Hansen turned to find that a gardener was squatting down, tending to a pot of plant. When he gathered his nerves, he realised that the gardener was a beautiful girl. The women he had met or seen had their faces painted with layers and layers of makeup so he was amazed when he saw her. Despite perspiration and spots of dirt covering her face, she was absent of any cosmetics. Her natural beauty radiated like the sun that was breaking out from the grey clouds above.
“It’s a good day, isn’t it?” he managed after regaining his composure, although he turned away to avert her stare. Other than his family, he had rarely spoken to many women in his life.
“It’s rare to see a gentleman seeking a simpler life in this part of the building. Those that did come here had other intentions,” she gave him the sweetest smile he had ever seen.
“Things best left unsaid,” there was a disgusted look on her face.
“Well, I’m new here.”
“From the look of things, you’re not on friendly grounds.”
“How-?” shocked, Hansen turned to look at her.
“There are windows. I noticed you always sat by the corner, alone.”
“Right,” once again, he turned away, pretending to study a wild fern.
“Well, some of the members who couldn’t quite control their urges came out here to meet with the waiting wives of others from the adjacent room. You get the drift?”
“What? Drift? Oh yeah,” his parents had always said gentlemen spoke with class so it took a while to register the girl’s common language.
“You’d be surprised by who is making out with whose wife but let’s not get there.”
“Yes, let’s not.”
Another period of silence followed. Hansen’s frown deepened as thoughts about his social standings returned to trouble him. The fresh air had only provided momentary relief.
“Hey, relax, buddy. Listen to the birds sing. It’s so calming. My father never allowed me to work out front. ‘It ain’t a girl’s job to work with them men staring at ya,’ he always said. Might as well, you know. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have discovered the wonders of nature. You’re just looking at the surface. There’s a beautiful forest behind this wall of trees. Walk beyond and you’ll be in a whole new world.”
Her words opened Hansen’s unseeing eyes. With the problems in his head, he did not register his surroundings. His attraction towards the girl did not help either. An idea began to form in his head, but only for a moment because the girl had pulled him into the whole new world. They stepped through the wall of trees that lined the back border of the building.
Ahead was a mystical world of nature that a city boy like Hansen would never have dreamt existed. He thought these occurred only in his childhood storybooks. Giant tree trunks disappeared into the canopies of foliage above. In turn, sporadic sunbeams shone down to highlight little jewels of flora while keeping the rest in the shadows as mysteries waiting to be unravelled. On the ground, deers and sheep chewed down the grass to keep them trim. Little butterflies and insects floated in the air in playful flight. Higher overhead, colourful birds weaved in and out of the sunbeams in a game of hide-and-seek.
“Take a deep breath.”
Without hesitation, Hansen obeyed. Fresh forest air flooded into his lungs and revitalised his body, mind, and soul. The haze that clouded his mind dispersed. The thought he had earlier returned in a flash. The girl took his hand and led him to a tour of the forest. Flowers everywhere released pleasant scents just like when he passed girls and women in parties who generously sprayed themselves with choking perfumes, only the fragrances here were real and cleared his congested sinuses. It was a world he did not want to leave.
“The King and Queen will now have your audience,” the minister said.
Dressed as formally as possible, Hansen bowed and took his queue to enter the hall. Large and heavy double-leafed doors swung close behind him.
Hansen appeared from the palace gates with a triumphant smile. The group of old ladies and gentlemen smirked but like professional award-winning actors, their darkened faces morphed effortlessly into bright, expecting smiles like a child waiting for his birthday present.
“Success! It was a success, ladies and gentlemen. His Majesty has agreed to leave the clubhouse untouched!”
There was a commotion of unbelievable surprises. How years of experience that they possessed had failed to save their club whereas a fresh, inexperienced young man had managed in so short a time.
Little did they know that this young man had just turned their historic club into a heritage building that fronted a newly gazetted forest reserve. It was going to become the gateway into the magical forest and functioned as a souvenir shop when visitors eventually leave.
The King and Queen had openly told Hansen that the reason they wanted to knock down the building was to serve a warning to the corrupted league of gentlemen and their manipulative wives. Hansen agreed it was necessary but the landmark was too valuable to the people who had yet discovered it. He had told The King and Queen his discovery and subsequent visits together with his bride-to-be. Hansen and the love of his life were appointed guardians to the forest.
And there were whispers in the royal complex that a knighthood was not too far away in the near future...