The Gardeners of Paradise: Chapter 2

Chapter 2

By the time I had caught up unwillingly with reality, a full hour later, I found myself standing on a platform of a train station.

It was a normal Monday morning. Rush hour was over. The platform was littered with people here and there, milling around, waiting for the northbound train to come. A few kids were running around the platform, screaming in a pitch high enough to shatter glass. The morning sunshine continued to beam softly down on the heads of passengers both hairy and bald, its normal ferocity tempered by the same soft September breeze blowing through the station. I shivered despite the warmth, and walked to the front of the platform. There was going to be fewer people there.

I rested my head on a set of doors and retreated to my inner gardens. In an instant I was out of the creaking train and pushing my way through the leafy entryway of the enclosure. I saw the scattering of roses (“GARDEN ROSES”, as Teresa always reminded me) I had put at the farthest end of the garden on day one, and my brain immediately freed itself from the vice-like grip of the headache. Here I could stare into a canopy of leaves, and feel the weight of my soul soaring through it, expanding into infinity. Others couldn’t experience it that often, but I could whenever I wanted.

I sprinted to the roses and flopped down, basking in the heady smell of the flowers and the soft earth underneath. I had this heaven all to myself. If only for a while.

Despite my best efforts to locate the lecture hall, I was still ten minutes late for my first lecture. Crashing through the door in spectacular fashion, I cast my eyes around the suddenly silent lecture hall and spotted Jordan, as always, sitting in the far corner, away from everyone else. Feeling everyone’s gaze on my back, I sprinted up the steps. “Which one is it today?” I sighed as I eased myself onto the seat.

Jordan held up the book without looking at me. “SILENT SPRING?” I said, a little too loud. The professor’s head whipped upwards, scanning the theatre for the origin of this latest disturbance, and I blushed a fiery crimson. I felt an unpleasant warmth surrounding me and hastily pretended to be checking my lecture notes. “Who the hell reads that for fun?” I muttered under my breath.

Jordan just looked at me. “Okay, fine. You.” I told him. “But what use IS that book? You’ve already taken that biology course. What more would you want to know, for heaven’s sake?”

He just rolled his eyes at me, contempt flaring from his expression. I decided not to ask any more questions, or he’d finally break his silence and call my questions “pointless and misunderstanding”. He was weird like that. He just didn’t like to speak unless it was absolutely necessary.

“Why not?” I’d asked him on our first meeting on the bus.

He’d looked up at me with annoyance. “You have eyes and you can see for yourself. For the rest, gestures are enough.” Then he went back to his book. It was rude, but that just served to fascinate me further. Others found him obnoxious, but there was something mysterious, something unrealistic about his “intense privacy” that held my attention. But in reality, there was no reason for it. He just liked learning and disliked conversation.

Today we were discussing how Scandinavian concepts of well-being had affected the world. The good professor, who I doubted had ever been to Denmark, was oozing enthusiasm about the subject and was so absorbed in her lecture that she didn’t notice (or care) that half the class had already gone on a field trip to Dreamland.

“So in the course introduction last week we discussed the notion of HAPPINESS!” she roared, a massive grin on her face. I slumped in my seat. There are people who love teachers like this, but heaven knows I wasn’t one of them. Jordan, on the other hand, was riveted to every word.

“Everyone has their own IDEA of happiness, do they not? Well, TODAY we’re going to talk about the DANISH idea of happiness! So, what does everybody know about DENMARK?”

She paused, no doubt expecting her students to burst into hysterical conversation. Instead she was met with a few murmurs from the hard-working students at the front. “Well, it’s more than just the FOOD and the FAIRYTALES…” Time seemed to stretch infinitely as she said that sentence, every word of the boredom a blunt force on our heads. By the end of it I was already in my own happy place, tending to the sunflowers.

When I came to, the professor was still going on so enthusiastically that I seriously began thinking whether you could get high on enthusiasm.

“So, recapping: why is hoo-guh SO popular among the Danes and the Norwegians?” she was shrieking (oh God). “It’s because they find can find SATISFACTION in daily life. You can’t feel HAPPY if you constantly WANT something. You’ll keep on wanting more than you need. But the DANES truly know how to TAKE CARE of others. They can find their OWN SOURCE of happiness — a place where they can feel COSY and happy. They don’t need others’…”

The world roared back into focus around me. All of a sudden, I was fully awake and listening. What was she talking about? I’d never woken up to somebody lecturing me on happy places. The stuff I had to study was mostly boring, things nobody would bother to check out in a million years. This was a rare sensation: I was actually becoming interested in the course.

I turned my attention back to the screen. Maybe Professor Wong would tell me more about this hoo-guh thingy. But alas, she had moved on to Sweden and something else that I couldn’t pronounce. Almost as if on autopilot, I Googled “Danish hoo-guh” on my phone (apparently it was spelt hygge). I turned to Jordan. “What did she say about hygge?” Without waiting for an answer, I snatched his notes. I could hear my pencilcase clattering onto the floor, feel the pens burst out and spill in all directions — on my shoes, down a step, out of reach — but this was more important.

I stole a quick glance at Jordan. His eyes were wide open, and he awkwardly took my notes and tried to continue writing. I knew how he felt — I usually spent lectures idly daydreaming in my paradises or texting others. What exactly could have possessed me t0 become interested?

To be honest, I didn’t know either, but I couldn’t resist. The perfect paradise had always seemed far off. Now the word hygge seemed to hold, in a nutshell, all the secrets and insights I had longing to discover. Here was the key to the utopia I had always known existed, but could never quite reach. But now it felt tantalisingly close. The impenetrable brick wall which blocked my access had now imploded. And after the dust had settled, there would surely be something wonderful beyond.

Grinning from ear to ear, I thanked Jordan for helping pick up my pencilcase — apparently he’d picked all of them up while I wasn’t looking — but he just stared at me puzzled. Probably still wondering whether I was ill or something.

The rest of the day passed by tardily. I went to tutorial after that, then lunch, then another lecture, and so on. With every passing class my will to live sagged to depths I hadn’t previously thought possible, and I kept myself awake by diligently studying hygge in my mind. I particularly liked how it had laid unnoticed for years, then suddenly caught the world by storm: the British and American media had latched onto it late last year, when the world just seemed to be unravelling. Everything the Western world knew was melting away, sudden changes were sweeping everyone off their feet. Everyone felt breathless from all the things happening around them, they lacked a place where they could unwind themselves. Hygge proved the perfect antidote to the troubling situations of the world. It was a refuge from the storms of chaos, a safe haven from all the rush of changing life.

A paradise for those who needed to get away from it all.

“See you all next week,” said a voice from beyond the void.

I started out of my thoughts. I seemed to be in another classroom, but how I had gotten into it I had no idea. From what my eyes and ears were telling me, it had hosted my last tutorial of the day and I was now another day closer to the end of the week. Everyone except me and the tutor had filed out of the classroom.

“Is there something you’d like to ask me about, Toby?” he said, staring straight at me.

My mind went on strike that moment and my mouth struggled to find the right words. “No, thank you,” I said, and got up from my chair with a clatter. I could feel the sweat breaking out of my pores even as I rushed out of the room.

A train ride and a few transfers later and I was on the last leg, a deserted path that ran alongside a motorway, leading back to the tiny village that I called home. Now let me tell you that rush hour is not the ideal time to stand by a busy road, especially here in Hong Kong. The road was blanketed with fumes and clouds of soot, coming from vehicle upon vehicle that would speed past me, all the while making their frantic chattering noises and suggesting imminent disintegration.

“Gosh, why did I even agree to move here,” I muttered as I stomped down the road. The deafening noise swamped and drowned out all other activity in my brain. I could feel the headache coming back again, a small, irritating, endless dagger of pain that seemed to push into my brain.

Just as I neared the turning back to my village, I happened to look up — and stopped dead in my tracks. The path before me sloped upwards into a pack of trees that crested the hills, and on that path, in among those trees… in among those trees… there was a tall, long-haired figure walking slowly through them, with her back turned to me. She seemed to have appeared out of nowhere — but then her green T-shirt and brown skirt made her one with the trees.

Even as I watched, she flicked her head round, as if to see if anyone was following her. Her gaze seemed to lock with mine for the tiniest fraction of a heartbeat. Then, quick as a flash, she turned and disappeared into the gloom of the forest beyond.

Two seconds later, I had reached the edge of the trees and plunged in without hesitation. There was a path through the trees that seemed to have been hastily carved out, and I decided to follow it, all the time listening for the sound of something. Anything.

I must have searched for about ten minutes before my legs gave way and I flopped down in a space where the trees seemed to part a little. My head was swirling in endless circles and aching like hell, but the girl I had just seen was nowhere to be found.

It couldn’t be Teresa. She was dead. She was as dead as the leaves I was disturbing with my rushed steps, as dead as the brittle twigs that had snapped off the branch in this clearing I had come up to. It had to be someone else, someone who looked like her. Whoever she was, she was doing a good job of playing hide and seek with me. I could find no footsteps in the dust, no sign of disturbed leaves. There was no one around to watch my every move, just the brief sigh of the wind as it rustled through the trees and a faint smell of lavender that wafted through the dead branches.

A smell of lavender.

I raised my head up, sniffed the air cautiously. This was too strange to be true, and yet lavender… lavender… it was unquestionably there. I tried to suck in more air, more of this scent, till my lungs just could not do any more. I spun around too quickly — and slammed my head straight into a tree. Pain shot through the top of my head, a rock met my heel, and I tumbled straight back onto my bottom.

After I had finished seeing stars and feeling sorry for myself, I picked myself up to go — there wasn’t really much hope of me spotting her at this time, not in my wretched state. Then I spotted it in the gloom: an opening in the trees just ahead, barely enough for one person to fit through it. It seemed strangely familiar… maybe I’d seen it in my dreams or something, or maybe…

I walked to the entrance, and pushed aside some branches that seemed to be in the way.

“Oh. My. Gosh.” I breathed.

There are many adjectives to talk about what I saw in front of me: beautiful, sublime, amazing. But the word that can encapsulate it perfectly has yet to be invented. How can I even begin to describe what I could see before my eyes? Because what I could see was a logical implausibility. Because what I could see was my very own paradise.

It was all there: the bed of roses that blossomed blood red and snatched your gaze all at once; the sunflowers that ensured that the sun stayed in the garden, come rain or shine. The carefully positioned trees that allowed the sunbeams to shine through, the bubbling brook that provided the only soundtrack… and on top of all that was the lavender that framed the entrance as one entered, its show-stopping aroma filling the air, its sweetness capturing your mind and your imagination.

I felt my nose prickle and hastily blew it, before anyone could be around to see. This… this was just not possible. I’d had dreams come true before, but all of them had been like minor details, a snapshot in my mind that came and went. But this: this was an exact replica of something I, and I alone, had been dreaming for ages. It was almost as if Teresa had just stepped out to get fertilizer. For a minute or so, I could only stand and gape.

Then — the sound of twigs snapping from behind me. I whirled around. The leaves covering the entrance were rustling. I wasn’t going to be alone in this garden for very long. My aching head kicked into overdrive.

“Okay, Toby, you know this place. Yougotthis yougotthis yougotthis,” I repeated, as if it would automatically become true if I said it enough times. “Think. THINK. Where did you put a hiding place?” But this was supposed to BE a hiding place. My OWN hiding place. How did you run away from that? I had no time to think, so instead I just threw myself behind the sprigs of lavender. The strong smell of the lavender tickled my brain, threatened to send it to sleep, but I was too nervous about the consequences of discovery, to worry too much about it. Plus, the lavender tickled my armpits.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the girl from earlier drifting in, her back to me. Now that I was up close I could see that it wasn’t Teresa after all, just an average girl who looked and dressed like her. They shared a few characteristics: rustic clothes, long hair that liked to cover her face — but there was a lot that was different with a closer look. Gait, skin tone, hair colour… how could I have made such an elementary mistake…

She floated gracefully to the roses and started examining them one by one. Five minutes passed. Ten. I could feel my tired legs cramping, some ants on the forest floor beginning to explore my exposed calves. I winced and pinched them off as silently as I could. Obviously I couldn’t leave without making a racket and then having to explain myself (which made me grimace just at the mere thought), so my only hope in escaping lay in her leaving the garden.

Then she threw a passing glance in my direction.

I shrunk instinctively further back into the trees and wished that my heartbeat would stop being so loud. What if she heard the noise and saw me? Oh thank God, she was focusing back on the roses…

And then she smiled. “You’re not very good at hiding, you know.” Her head swivelled upwards, and her eyes looked directly at me.

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