The Winter Garden

Sheffield.

From one side of the building, down the sandstone steps, the library hugs the corner and the theatre waits below a yawn of concrete plaza. On the other side, through the double doors, fountains leap from the pavement in the square and Italian restaurants work from lunch till late at night.

She chooses this place. In the middle. She always chooses this place.

When she walks in from the street the sounds stop and she’s transported to another existence. From the right, the windows of a hotel overlook and from the left, pop-up shops and take-out coffee stalls breathe into her space.

The ceiling is domed windows and larch wood. Park benches line the outer sides; and in the middle, bursting like new love, like a child only just in the world, are the gardens. It’s called the gardens, but it’s really plots of trees and shrubs arranged in the middle of a walkway. It’s a greenhouse with retail and hospitality at all edges of it. It’s nature contained.

She comes here for a handful of reasons. The air is different. Eucalyptus trees spill scent and Norfolk Island Pines mix in her breath. She feels like she is wild and free in this small enclosed space, while out in the open city she feels confined.

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She walks through to the adjoining galleries where there is an exhibition that includes an artist’s journals from when her child was small. The text on cloth talks about crushing defeat when her son wouldn’t eat, the dark days after sleepless nights and the frustration of tantrums and finding a nursery place.

Everything is familiar. Every word could have been written by her or the next mother or anyone. Yet it is so personal, reading it seems wrong.

It’s a lifetime ago for her, and she feels all at once that she’d give anything to have it back, and yet still at ease with it in the past.

She walks back from the gallery and into the gardens again. The air is instantly more alive and she stands for a moment, closes her eyes and breathes.

She might buy tea from the coffee stall. She might browse the pop-up shop for funny T shirts and purses. But her point of reference is too far away. She’ll turn over handmade jewellery and hold it in her hand, look at the colours against her pale, loose skin, and she’ll want to tell her daughter that this would look so good on her. She could take a photo and text it, she supposes, but the instant contact is missing. They have lived through what all families have lived through and she is old now and she wanders in the world alone. Such a strange sensation. And she tries to fathom what she’ll do with all the life and love that’s left.

She glances out into the city at the grey sky. Then she walks back over to the big palms from Madagascar and she feels a whole world right there in the gardens. She reaches out and touches a leaf, and she feels life, and constant growth.


Samantha in England
Samantha in England

Samantha Priestley is the author of the Folded Word short-fiction chapbooks Dreamers (2014) and the forthcoming Orange Balloon (August 2016). She’s a novelist, playwright, and essayist who spins words into gold from her home in Sheffield, UK.

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