I visited the Shugakuin Imperial Villa on the last day of my trip. The garden is situated in the hills of the eastern suburbs of Kyoto.
Tangerine, magenta, and gold maple leaves glided down and settled on calm water like peaceful raindrops. The smudged greens and oranges of the foliage and the shadow of the rounded stone bridge merged on the pond to create a rainbow. The harmonic gong of a bell brought my gaze to a little scarlet and white pagoda. Its up-turned roof corners and nine-tiered tower made it easily recognizable. For Buddhists, each tier on the pagoda’s tower represents one of nine levels of heaven. The scent of pond weed and lilies drifted up on the damp breeze. Camera snaps and elevated tourist chatter reminded me that I did not belong there. Box shrubs clustered around the edge of the pebble path. Behind them were the famous Japanese cherry blossom trees. And, every once in a while, bonsai also twisted and curled. Bonsai symbolize harmony and balance. They are grown with purposeful imperfection and the asymmetrical triangle used for their design symbolizes a continuation of life.
Japan was defi nitely worth the trip. It was a little frightening at fi rst to walk around in Kyoto, so I suggest you use the subways until you get the hang of the streets. I found the Japanese were varied in their reception of an English tourist. Some grinned hugely at my accent and were willing to try to understand me, but some got annoyed at my lack of vocabulary and avoided me. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly encourage you to plan a trip to Japan and to make sure you have the Shugakuin Imperial Villa at the top of your ‘to do’ list!
Matthew set down his quill and stared at his ink-stained fingers. He thought about how Blossom would have loved the Imperial Villa. Shaking his head as if to rid himself of the thought, he placed the leaves of cream paper in a brown envelope and wrote:
Travel column: Japan
by Matthew Stevens
For: The Daily Telegraph
He plucked his hat off its hook and shrugged on his green corduroy coat. His scuffed, battered briefcase in one hand, and the rattling doorknob in the other, he let himself out of the flat.
The sidewalk was cool in the early evening. Birds were singing and families were strolling home from a day at the park. Bird song is the best kind of music in the world, thought Matthew. Tired mothers pushed buggies with exhausted babies who drifted off to the rhythmic bumping. It had been a gorgeous day. The sun had been dazzling, the air heavy with blossoms and bird chatter. But now that evening had come, coolness rushed back in, as if trying to chase people off.
When Matthew reached the Daily Telegraph office, he took off his hat and stepped inside.
“Hello, Leslie.” Matthew smiled at the secretary who was hunched over some papers at her desk in the foyer.
“Hello, Mr. Stevens.” Leslie smiled and straightened up. “We were worried about you when we heard about the earthquake in Japan. I hope you were alright,” Leslie asked with concern on her normally bright face.
“Oh yes . . . I was alright . . . ” Matthew hesitated. How had she heard about the earthquake? “The epicenter was in the northern part of the island. Is Jane in her office?”
Leslie waited a second as if for more information, then said, “Yes, Jane is in.”
Matthew thanked her and strode along the short hallway until he came to an open door with a little plaque on it reading: Jane Cunningham, Secretary and Typist. Matthew knocked lightly. Jane glanced up from her work and beckoned him inside.
“I’ll be with you in a second, sir.” Jane finished typing a sentence and then greeted Matthew: “Hello, Mr. Stevens.”
Matthew said hello and handed her the brown envelope.
“I’ll type it up straight away and get it to Mrs. Smith for tomorrow’s edition. How was Japan?”
“Wonderful,” Matthew replied without further explanation.
“It must have been amazing!” Jane prompted, but when she didn’t get any details, she moved on. “Mrs. Smith is out at the moment, but she left a message. You’re to go to France next. It has been a long time. Four years, wasn’t it? Such a beautiful and romantic place,” Jane ended dreamily, her eyes a little out of focus.
“Yes, France is a popular holiday destination. I like going there myself. I’ll see you when I get back,” Matthew answered quickly.
“Make sure you come back with a lovely story to tell.”
Back outside, Matthew adjusted his briefcase and started down the narrow alleyway next to the office. At the end of the alleyway, he turned right onto a quaint street with trees lining the sidewalks and tulips in every garden; their petals faded in the twilight. At number 29, he took the steps up to a burgundy door two at a time. He hoped dinner would be ready. He rapped four times and then went to the kitchen window and tapped. A woman with his green eyes and brown hair glanced up at him and grinned, her eyes crinkling. She left the counter, leaving a man in the kitchen, and after a few seconds the front door opened.
“Matthew! You’re a bit late!” She laughed.
“I know, sorry. I had to stop by the office.”
They hugged, and Matthew followed her inside and placed his briefcase by the shoe rack. He took a deep breath in of spicy coconut coming from the kitchen.
“How are you, Gabrielle?”
“I’m well. And you?”
“Very well, but starving. Are you cooking curry?”
“Arthur’s making his famous spicy masala.”
They walked into the kitchen, but before Matthew could say hello to his brother-in-law, a flash of long flowing black hair, blue eyes, and small arms flew into his embrace.
Matthew hoisted the girl onto his lap as he sat down on a kitchen chair.
“Hello, Nancie. Has Robinson Crusoe satisfied your hunger for adventure?”
“Of course it hasn’t! I want to go traveling with you, uncle! Where are you going next?”
“Mrs. Smith wants me to go to France. It’s a holiday favorite and people want to know all about it all the time,” Matthew explained.
“Can’t I go with you?” Nancie didn’t look at her mother because she already knew the answer. She always said no, and she knew Matthew would probably say no as well because she could barely remember the last trip they had been on together but she continued to ask him every time he came over anyway.
“Sorry, Nance, I can’t take you. Anyway your mother wouldn’t let you,” Matthew said genially, but his gaze didn’t quite reach her eyes. He looked over her head and suggested they set the table.
Matthew chased Nancie round in circles until the last spoon was laid and then they both flopped down on the red rug, exhausted from running and giggling. They lay there, laughing their heads off, until Arthur and Gabrielle came in with the masala and salad, and then they leapt up to their places at the table.
Dinner was an energetic meal. Nancie kept up a constant flow of conversation, gabbing about nothing and making up terrible jokes that she would laugh at hysterically, making everyone else laugh, so that they could share her joy.
After the dishes were washed, Matthew and Nancie went to Nancie’s room where he read to her from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the new book he had brought. At one point, when Alice was walking through the woods and she saw the Cheshire cat, Matthew stopped reading.
“That reminds me of when Blossom and I went to Colorado. Blossom tried to climb a tree to see if the peak of the mountain would seem any closer, but when she came back down she said it didn’t make a difference.” Matthew chuckled at the memory but his voice died away quickly.
“Do you miss Blossom?” Nancie asked. “I do. I wish she were still here to show me the fun rocks to climb.”
Matthew put down the book, and Nancie snuggled next to him.
“I miss Blossom very much, Nance,” he said. “I miss her more than I thought was possible to miss anyone in the world.”
* * *
Matthew unlocked the door to his quiet apartment and flicked on the light bulb. He hung up his coat and hat and on his way down the corridor placed his briefcase on a wooden chest full of books.
Matthew put water on the stove to boil and watched its still surface slowly agitate with tiny bubbles coming up from the bottom of the pan. It was funny, Matthew thought, how they came up in such perfectly straight lines and then disappeared when there was no more water to move through. Like raindrops, he thought, going in the opposite direction.
Matthew found the teapot, put in some black tea leaves, and poured the boiling water on top. While the tea was steeping, he went over to the bookshelf where all the European travel books were and ran his fingers along their spines.
“Ah-ha!” he said aloud when he found the one he wanted. He thumbed through it to make sure it had a chapter on Paris and then continued to search for other books. By the time his tea had steeped, there was a teetering pile of paperbacks about France resting on the armchair.
He settled down with his tea and books and read long into the night. He visited Paris, Strasbourg, Lyon, and many other places besides. Matthew read so long that he fell asleep in his chair.
When he awoke, he found himself as he had been the night before, apart from the fact that his empty teacup had tipped in his lap and several books had fallen to the floor. He quickly picked them up and placed them back on the chair. In the kitchen, he set his teacup on the counter and looked at the clock: 6:30. Matthew decided he might as well start the day, so he reached for a mason jar from the cupboard, took the peanut butter and soy milk from the refrigerator, a banana from the fruit bowl, and the hot chocolate powder from the shelf. He put everything in the jar and the blender whirred it all together.
As he sat at the table to drink his smoothie, he heard a knock at the door.
“Gabrielle! Nancie!” he exclaimed in surprise when he saw who it was.
“Matthew! I’m sorry to disturb you so early in the morning but I just got a call from work, and I have to go in straight away. Arthur has already gone so I was wondering if you could look after Nancie for a few hours?”
“Yes, of course. Have you had breakfast yet, Nancie?”
“No.” Nancie yawned and leaned against her mother.
“I was just about to have mine, so you can join me,” Matthew took her hand. “Go on, Gabrielle, or you’ll be late for work.”
“Thank you, Matthew! I’ll pick her up at lunchtime or I’ll call,” she shouted back as she rushed down the hallway.
“Come on, Nance. It looks like you got out of bed a little too early this morning,” Matthew chuckled.
Nancie yawned again in reply.
Matthew led her into the living room. He hastily moved all the books off of the armchair and onto the coffee table so Nancie could curl up in it. Next, he set about cooking a hot breakfast. He baked apple muffins and fried eggs (he didn’t like scrambled eggs and neither did Nancie) and then blended up Nancie’s favorite frozen berry and yogurt smoothie. The warm smells of Matthew’s cooking drifted over to Nancie, and she roused slowly and rubbed her eyes of sleep.
“Matthew, why do you have all these books about France out? You’re about to be there; you don’t need to read about it!” she proclaimed.
“It never hurts to know more about where you’re going. Anyway, most of these are travel guides.” Matthew turned back to the counter, away from Nancie.
Nancie held up one of the books. “This one isn’t. Look, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and this one isn’t either . . . or this one.” Nancie held up several books.
“Oh? I must have put the guides in my room then,” Matthew quickly busied himself by cracking eggs into a hot pan.
“What kind of adventure do you think you’ll have in France?”
Matthew smiled and finished salting the eggs. He loved it when Nancie asked him that question.
“Well now. I’ll sit by the Seine while drinking a glass of Bordeaux and eating Camembert on freshly baked baguette. I’ll watch the sun turn the water to liquid gold and set the trees on fire. Fairy lights will twinkle in the dying light and the romantic hush of French voices will drift along with the current of the Seine. Butterflies will land next to me and tiny forget-me-nots will nod their heads. Aubrieta and black-eyed Susans clustered at the base of the bridge will sway in time to the allegretto played on a piano by delicate fingers.”
“Is that what France is really like?” Nancie said, amazed.
“Yes.” Matthew placed a hot plate in front of Nancie, then sat down with his own breakfast.
“It sounds splendid. I wish I could come. Are you sure—”
“Quite sure. I will take you to the park, though, if you finish up your breakfast.”
“But I . . . alright,” Nancie sighed and finished her smoothie.
Before they left, Matthew made sure he had his briefcase, a pad of paper, and a pen. He made Nancie wear a sweater, put on his own coat and hat, and then they walked out the door.
The park was relatively large with a playground at the center. Buttercups and tulips covered the bright lawn. It was still chilly outside, but Matthew could tell it would be another lovely day. The only sounds were their voices and those of the birds. When they got to the playground, Nancie went straight to the climbing structure. Matthew wasn’t surprised; he knew how much Nancie liked to climb. He sat on a bench near the bottom of the structure and set his briefcase beside him. He took the pad of paper from under his arm and began writing. Every once in a while, he would look up at Nancie to make sure she was alright. He got nervous when she climbed, and he didn’t like to take his eyes off her for more than a few minutes at a time. As Nancie was nearing the top, Matthew had an idea spark and was scribbling quickly when he heard the scream. His eyes flashed up and he jumped to his feet. He saw Nancie lose her grip and tip backwards. His blood went cold. Nancie! His long strides got him to the structure just as she fell. Matthew caught her in his arms and put her down gently. His arms were shaking badly.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” Matthew inquired with a trembling voice.
“I’m okay. I just got scared.”
“Never do that again, Nance, alright? You nearly killed me.” Matthew sat down next to her.
“Sorry, Matthew.” She hugged him, and he held her tightly. That’s when he noticed his papers. In his haste to catch Nancie, Matthew had let all the papers fly out of his lap, and they were now strewn all over the ground. Nancie and Matthew went over and started to pick them up. Matthew moved as quickly as possible and whenever Nancie picked one up he took it from her as soon as she had it in her hands. But Nancie saw snatches of his writing, however hard Matthew tried to hide it from her. She picked up the last one and then stepped back so Matthew couldn’t take it. She read the first few lines.
“Thank you, Nancie.” Matthew reached out his arm demonstrating that she needed to hand him the paper. “Go play while I finish tidying this up.”
But Nancie didn’t move. She stayed as still as a statue.
“Go on, Nancie, just don’t play on the climbing structure anymore,” Matthew insisted.
Nancie still didn’t budge and didn’t hand back the paper she clutched in one hand.
She began to read off the sheet: “The sun was falling behind the trees, catching them on fire. As it touched the earth with its magnificence, the Seine turned to liquid gold and a soft allegretto started up somewhere high above, played by delicate fingers. Butterflies twirled in the air, dancing to the music. Clustered at the base of the bridge, tiny forget-me-nots nodded their heads and dandelions shook their manes.”
She stared up at Matthew in confusion. “This is the story that you told me this morning. Why are you writing the column when you haven’t been to France yet?”
“Nancie, come here.” Matthew gestured for her to sit next to him on the bench.
Nancie joined him. Matthew took a deep breath, lifted his briefcase onto his lap, and undid the clasp. Matthew’s hands shook as he took out two passports and a few photographs.
“These are the photos from my last trip. And our passports. Blossom’s and mine. This was the last photo I took of her before she died.” Matthew held up the crinkled photo of a woman in shorts and an orange t-shirt. “She was laughing because I had just told her a joke. She let go of the boulder she was climbing and fell. I couldn’t catch her. She was too far away. She shouldn’t have died. I ran to help, but I wasn’t quick enough. I haven’t gone anywhere since. I’m too afraid that something else might happen.” He fumbled with one of the passports. The portrait of a slender woman with round amber eyes and chestnut hair gazed up at them.
“She never liked having her photo taken for her passport because she couldn’t smile. She said that if she couldn’t smile she wasn’t who she was,” Matthew said in a hushed voice.
Nancie gently took the photos that Matthew had set aside and stared at the top one. It was of the same woman, but this time her eyes were laughing and Matthew was with her. They were standing on a bridge, the water behind them a dull blue because the sky was overcast. The dismal weather had not dampened the young lovers’ spirits. They both beamed at the camera. The next photo was of Blossom again, where she sat in front of the Eiffel Tower, the sun kissing her face. The last one was of Blossom with her arms outstretched and her head tilted back as she looked up at the sky and let the rain drench her from head to toe.
“Matthew? Why did you pretend to keep traveling? Why didn’t you just stop and tell everyone?”
“I’m not sure, Nance. I suppose I thought that if I continued to write the column, I could pretend that I was getting over Blossom. I also didn’t want to disappoint you and was embarrassed that I was scared. Also, I needed the money. How would I pay my bills?”
“You could have come to live at our house,” Nancie said.
Matthew hugged Nancie. He didn’t know what he would do without her. He held her tight, thankful that she didn’t let go. He was still her idol, even if he made gigantic mistakes.
The sky had greyed, and a brisk wind made Matthew pull his corduroy coat around Nancie. The air rumbled with a passing airplane.
“Take me with you to Paris,” Nancie said.
Matthew considered his courageous niece and smiled.
Then he stood up and held out his hand, and together they walked with renewed purpose out of the park. In Matthew’s free hand, he held his briefcase, considerably lighter than it had been the day before. He was ready to go on a new adventure.