Forever Beautiful (excerpt)

Alina.jpg

Alina arranged a halo of baby’s breath around a dozen red roses and wrapped them in pink paper. Then she fashioned a bow out of bands of thin gold ribbon and feathered the ends with her scissors, and as a final touch, she gave the bouquet a careful trim as if she were giving it a fine haircut. Her customer smiled as he left, obviously pleased with his purchase.

With a few moments to herself, she went inside the cold room and closed the door. She tried to calm herself, to stop herself from crying, but the tears came all the same. It was a difficult day for Alina. It was the first anniversary of her mother’s death.

Alina worked as a florist on the concourse of Lightmere Station. She enjoyed her work. It was not particularly glamorous or well paid, but it suited her. It required imagination, an artist’s eye, precision and prudence, and it connected her to complex souls like her own, souls who were in the throes and complexities of love and sorrow. Whether she was asked to design a wreath, a basket, a bouquet or a simple corsage, she tried her best to provide something both fitting and affordable. She enjoyed the language of floristry; the lore of color and intention fascinated her. She saw each design as a palette upon which to paint meaning—a single red rose meant one thing, while a spray of pink carnations inspired quite another. And whether it was a single stem for a buttonhole or a complex garland to celebrate a turning point in a person’s life, she arranged each canvas with care and exacting love.

Alina was one of the world’s thinkers, a careful mind amid so much carelessness. Her mother had said her daughter was born thinking, but Alina had learnt very early on in life to keep her thoughts to herself. Her questions often troubled the people around her, especially the big, difficult, weighty ones, but they were the lifeblood of Alina’s world. They sat on her shoulder like hungry hawks waiting to be fed.

Alina was never one for gatherings or the attention of her peers, not even as a child. She was always the shy, quiet girl in the background, but she preferred it that way—it gave her space to arrange her thoughts while the others polluted the world with noise and endless banality. She enjoyed taking it all in from behind the scenes, noticing what others thought unimportant. Her eyes and mind continually studied the world, analyzing everything within their field. She was in a constant state of curiosity, and spent just as much time untangling what she saw behind her eyes as she did seeing through them. Some complained that she lived upon a cloud, but Alina thought their opinions unimportant. She enjoyed floating off to other places, even if it made it difficult to connect with the everyday world. There had been days in which she’d felt vulnerable and divided, but Elsa, her mother, had always been nearby to offer the blessings of a maternal smile. Now she was gone, and Alina missed her terribly.

Like most people, Alina didn’t know how to process her grief or resolve the thousands of questions that had amassed during the year that followed. She’d reached out to a few people for help—those kind friends and colleagues, a priest, an aunt who had offered to listen—but none had given her answers, at least not answers that provided any real understanding of where her mother had gone, and why, when she had so much living left to do.

How Alina missed her mother! She missed every little thing about her: her cooking, her laughter; her eccentric hats, her dry humor, her perfume, her bright scarves, her sunny smile, the little stories she used to share about her younger days when she was courting Alina’s father, and she especially loved the way her mother made her father laugh. Indeed, they both loved making Nigel laugh—a significant feat, considering what a stern, demanding and practical man he was.

Whenever Elsa had talked to her daughter about angels, her father would tell her to be careful of such nonsense, to use her head and avoid dreaming her life away. Though she respected her father, Alina thought her parents such an odd couple. They were so different, even exact opposites, and yet they were so much in need of each other.

And then there was her mother’s love of flowers, a passion Alina had inherited. Elsa loved flowers, just as she loved her garden. Right up until her last days, Elsa would pat the ground with her palm and beckon Alina to sit at her side and read to her as she tilled the soil and planted fresh bulbs. She occasionally asked her mother the name of a certain bloom, knowing she would never get a straight answer. Her mother had ideas of her own and would give the same disapproving reply.

“It doesn’t need a name, Ali dear, except the one you give it,” Elsa would say.

“But if we all use different names for the same flower, how will we ever know what flower the other person is talking about?” Alina would protest.

“But doesn’t that make life more interesting?”



The Book of Hours (excerpt)

Sofia.jpg

Sofia loved to study islands—volcanic islands, desert islands, islands of ice and snow, islands dense with jungles and geysers, islands studded with pines and seams of precious ore. She loved to wander along their shores surveying the winds and waves that shaped them. She sought to attune herself to their microclimates and color, to search along their windswept bluffs and secret alcoves, and to imagine the staggering, sunken masses that supported them.

First, she’d appraise each island from afar, measuring its topography and character and carefully committing each of its shades and indentations to memory. And then, after she’d gained a familiarity with each island’s contour and composition, after she’d assessed its strengths and instabilities, she’d approach its waters to moor.

The islands she loved to explore were not in some distant, far-off place or surrounded by lapping waves and gulls on the wing. The archipelago Sofia charted consisted of commuters and wanderers clustered around small round tables dotted here and there along the walls and bookshelves in the Peppermint Café at Lightmere Station.

Sofia was a waitress, one who possessed a vast and vivid imagination. Pretending her customers were islands was a way of protecting herself, a way of keeping her distance, and she had good reason to. As well as being a visionary soul, Sofia was a deeply empathic woman. She could feel everything around her to an extraordinary degree. She could sense the smallest shifts in a person’s temperament and was prone to absorb their moods and melancholy, so she had to be careful. Indeed, she could easily be overcome by a person’s energy from far across the room—by their rage, their loneliness, their regret, despair or uncertainty just as much as by their softness or love. What was theirs became hers, so she imagined each person as an island across the sea and never approached land until it felt good and right.

Once she’d decided to sail into a customer’s territory, she’d do so with a special word or a smile, though she preferred the touch of a hand upon their arm so she could trace a particular thread of feeling and find its cause—a family dispute, a difficult childhood, an injury, a death. It was difficult to keep secrets from Sofia.

Sometimes she could even read a person’s thoughts, though she would be hard pressed to explain how. Some might have accused her of hearing voices, but then she would point out that people listen to their minds all the time, don’t they? It wasn’t her fault that they hadn’t realized their thoughts were not private to a sensitive soul such as her. Her ability came naturally. She just relaxed and then there it was—a word or sentence as clear as if it had been whispered in her ear.

Sofia had learned a long time ago to trust her gifts, but also to keep them private. She had no desire to be ridiculed or humiliated, and yet the fact that she’d become a keeper of secrets made each appraisal infinitely more special, even sacred. The more peaceful and beautiful her heart, the clearer the thoughts came to her. Knowing the power she possessed held as much potential for harm as it did good, she kept her intentions pure and did all she could to help the struggling souls around her.

In many ways she felt it was her calling to offer a spark of joy to each little island in the Peppermint Café. Each encounter was a mission of love; no matter how lost or lowly, how reserved or unapproachable, how tired or absent each person was when they first drifted in from the cold, Sofia saw it as her responsibility to offer them a moment of tenderness and thereby help scatter any darkness they harbored. She was a healer of injured hearts, and she knew it, though the idea of it sometimes seemed a little odd. It was just a smile, after all, and she was just a waitress, but she also knew the great power of kindness, how a gentle word could lift even the dourest creature into a clearer, more beautiful light.

Sofia’s position as a waitress provided only a modest income. To make ends meet, she had several other jobs—hairdresser, caregiver, babysitter, occasional ballet teacher—but without fail, every weekday morning, she’d arrive half an hour before the first train to unlock the Peppermint Café and begin her shift. Even though the hours she worked were long and demanding, she felt at home when she was at work, sailing from one table to another, bringing sustenance and succor to the archipelago of souls who would otherwise be adrift on the concourse of Lightmere Station.

There was often a small line outside the café when she arrived at the dawn hour, made up of new faces and regulars she knew by name, people from all walks of life pulled toward the Peppermint by impulse, curiosity and the guidance of an invisible hand. Sometimes her customers wanted to talk, seeking a word of encouragement or even private counsel, as if Sofia could provide a channel toward to an uncommon peace. Some came to feel the warmth of her presence, to receive a smile, while others sought nothing more than to feel valued, even if only for the time it took to order a hot drink. But mostly the people who visited the Peppermint Café wanted to be in the same room as Sofia, all without really knowing why.

Not a day went by without the islands of the Peppermint shifting and evolving in myriad ways. Indeed, Sofia’s efforts affected a vast number of people over the years. With each little gesture of kindness and reassurance—a disarming laugh, a sympathetic glance, a word of respect offered to calm a tide of crisis—she saw how an island of jagged, angry rock could soften into dunes of velvet sand. A patient ear could transform an isle of mountainous sorrow into one of hope and calm waters; a soft smile could lift a barren isle into a land of azure lakes and joyous waterfalls where riptides once tore at its corals. Even if the effect only lasted for a minute or two, it was a minute spent basking in a ray of love.

With just a smile or a sigh, she impressed upon each of her guests that they had found safe harbor among the tables of the Peppermint. After all, Sofia knew about loneliness. She knew about loss and grief and the pain of heartbreak. It was twenty-five years ago in the Peppermint Café that Sofia had watched her dear sister die in front of the world.