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A Whole Year in One Keyby Sarah Cuypers
It might say much about aunt Daisy and I, Amy thought with a mix of amusement and only a smidge of regret, if the only times we meet are either weddings or funerary matters.
Today was no exception, as they were sitting in Mr. Harper's office, together with Amy's cousin, Alexandra. The solicitor welcomed them and offered them once again his condolences at the death of Mrs. Amalia Hemmings, their mother and grandmother. He then smoothly went on to the heart of the matter: the reading of the will.
As Mrs. Hemmings hadn't possessed much, the matter was resolved quickly. Aunt Daisy inherited her mother's tiny house, while Alexandra received a small sum of money to further her university studies. Yet Amy was not entirely forgotten either: granny had left her her jewel case.
Half an hour later, the final paper work was also seen to, house keys and one jewel box had changed hands, and Mr. Harper's three guests soon found themselves on the street again, only a little richer than before.
"I hope you weren't expecting anything more, Amaryllis dear," aunt Daisy said with a pat on Amy's arm. Amy didn't flinch at the use of her full first name, which her parents had only used when she had been in trouble. Her mother in particular had developed such a way to stress 'Amaryllis Moonchild Fielding' as if it was a capital crime all on its own. These days she preferred Amy, as it was a name that was not nearly as threatening, and one that didn't require any explanations about hippie parents and their curious methods of naming children.
"She wasn't your real grandmother after all," aunt Daisy continued. This, at least, was true enough: while Amy had called the old woman 'granny', just as Alexandra had, Amalia Hemmings had been the sister of Amy's grandfather, rather than her own grandmother.
"Mother," Alexandra admonished softly as she so often had to do when Aunt Daisy exhibited her usual absent sense of tact.
"No worry, aunt Daisy. I've been fortunate enough that she wanted to be my granny. I didn't care much for her money, just for her." Amy said cheerfully, returning the favour by implicating aunt Daisy had cared more about the money.
Amy took advantage of her aunt's shock to quickly say goodbye and make her escape. But as she fastened her small inheritance, safely wrapped in her coat, on the luggage rack on her bike, she could still hear aunt Daisy's indignant complaint to Alexandra. Obviously aunt Daisy had only meant well, there had been no reason for Amy's needless accusations. Amy suppressed a snicker. She'd make it up to her aunt at the next wedding or so.
Back home, Amy unwrapped the jewel case. It still looked the same as the last time she had seen it at granny's. She had often held the jewel box as a child, but had seldom looked inside. She would rectify that soon.
Granny hadn't had great taste in jewellery and much of it was outdated, but Amy had fun poking through the different little drawers and compartments of the jewel box. She found a fake pearl necklace and a brooch with colored glass that looked rather nice. The next drawer yielded three silver rings and a golden pendant with a letter 'A'. Amy smiled, thinking that A could stand for Amy just as easily as it had for Amalia.
The final compartment held only a thin, folded piece of paper, and an old-fashioned-looking iron key. Amy curiously pried open the piece of paper and noticed with surprise it was addressed to her.
For Amy, the letter read, when she receives her treasure box. You see, I have not forgotten! It won't be worth much in aesthetic value, I'm afraid, but I hear the price of gold and silver is reasonable these days. You have my blessing, I'll have no further use for it in my current condition any way.
Amy smiled, granny always had been very practical in her gifts.
But Amy, you are under no circumstances to dispose of the iron garden key. It belonged to your grandfather once and contains the work and love of his life.
There's a saying that no man is wealthy enough to waste one day. And while I've known both wealth and poverty in my days, this key holds not just a day, but an entire year. So let no-one ever suggest I left my brother's only grandchild nothing worthwhile.
The key will fit in any lock, but pay heed! Never leave it in the door when you walk through; always keep it with you. And wear sensible shoes, you'll know what I mean.
Your granny, always,
Amy picked up the key and held it up to the light. It looked rather ordinary, why would granny write such strange things about it? 'This key holds an entire year'? The key was marked with what Amy at first assumed was ordinary wear and tear. But as she looked more closely, she noticed the markings were intentional. Someone had engraved the whole key with dozens of fine lines that reminded her somewhat of circuitry. What a curious thing to do.
Amy wondered if Alexandra could tell her more about this strange garden key. She would have a chance to ask soon enough, as the two of them were going out for drinks this evening anyway.
Alexandra was already waiting when Amy entered the pub. Amy waited until the drinks were ordered to present her cousin with a little box.
"What's that?" Alexandra asked curiously.
"Granny's silver ring with the inlaid amber. The one you admired on her last birthday."
"I can't take that," Alexandra said breathlessly as she firmly shook her head. "She left it to you."
"Nope," Amy said, "she left the jewel case to me."
"That's the same thing, Amy."
"No, not really," Amy insisted. "The jewellery is a nice perk, but she just wanted me to have the jewel box. I loved that box. Whenever Mom dropped me off at granny's to spend the day, I always asked if I could play with granny's jewel box. I didn't even open it, I just carried it around imagining it was a treasure box. No, really, I'm serious. It was such a glorious thing: the lovely polished wood, the inlaid ivory, the little drawers with their cute, elaborate handles…It was to me everything a treasure box would look like. So this ring, definitely yours."
"Thank you," Alexandra said softly as she finally took the box and took out the ring to fit it.
"You're welcome," Amy said with a mischievous wink, "It wouldn't have fit me anyway. But I also intended it as a small bribe too."
"Uh-oh, and for what am I now bribed?" Alexandra asked with a short laugh.
"Information, my dear Lexie." Amy took a sip of her cocktail as it was delivered to the table. "There was this key in the jewellery box, apparently grandfather's garden key. But they didn't even have a garden, did they?"
"Grandfather's garden! Now there's something I haven't heard of for a long while," Alexandra exclaimed.
"Aha! I knew it. Spill it, Lexie."
"Well, you know that grandfather died well before either of us was born," Alexandra said. "Granny never did talk much about him, but mother did, often. Back in the day, she said, grandfather's parents were loaded. Captains of industry or something. Grandfather inherited a reasonable estate in the south, and a mansion. It was called Sparrowgate or Sparrowfield, I don't remember. Something equally Brontë-styled. But grandfather had little interest in business, he loved gardening more. He practically designed the estate garden single-handedly and it was famous far and wide. Mother always muttered the garden was so deep because he'd keep sinking money into it. And if grandfather wasn't in the gardens he was tinkering with clocks and gears and such in the attic.
"But then the war came, and the bombs. A fire in the fifties dealt a final blow to what little remained. Left with barely anything, grandfather was forced to sell the estate, and moved with granny and mother to that tiny city-house that they never left again. It has always surprised mother that grandfather didn't buy a house with a garden; there wasn't even a single plant allowed in the house. She didn't see much of grandfather after that, if he wasn't at work, he often locked himself up in the bedroom. Granny then said he needed time alone.
"I suppose grandfather never recovered from the loss of his garden, and granny never seem to have recovered from his death in turn. She still kept his old gardening equipment in her bedroom closet. We found them there earlier today when we went to the house. Granny must never have gotten around to throwing it away."
"So this key should be the one of that famous Sparrowgate garden?" Amy asked.
"I suppose so, although I doubt that anything survives today. It was sold, filled up and built over with flats."
"Wow, what a story," Amy mused.
"Most definitely; you've earned your bribe. In fact, I'll buy you another drink as well."
It was only several hours later that Amy returned home. She hung her coat away and filled the water kettle with the idea of having a cup of tea before turning in. As she waited for the water to cook, she looked at the contents of granny's jewellery case that still lay spread-out over the kitchen table.
She reached for the old garden key. If this was indeed a key of a garden now long lost, why would granny have stressed that Amy was not to throw it away? Why would anyone, gardening enthusiast or not, bother with precisely decorating a key? And then there was the odd comment about the key holding an entire year, or that it would fit any lock.
Well, the latter should be easy to find out, Amy said to herself. She turned towards the nearest door and stuck the key in the lock. The key slid in smoothly, and much to Amy's surprise, the key could turn the lock without the least resistance. She stood thinking for a moment, looking at the key, and then smiled. Grandfather's garden key must have been a skeleton key. Mystery solved.
But that wasn't all the key did. When Amy looked up again, she noticed to her astonishment that a large brass dial had appeared in the middle of her bathroom door. Amy blinked. Now this, she had to admit, was intriguing. Obviously there was more to grandfather's key than just a bit of delicate engraving.
Amy peered closer at the dial. It consisted out of concentric rings with, what looked like dates and hours, engraved on them. She tapped the metal gingerly, and when nothing happened she became bold enough to turn the rings. She slid the rings into position on the 15th of August, her birthday. Within the door, something moved, grating, like the gears of a clock that hadn't been wound for a while. When the sound stopped, Amy carefully opened the door to look inside.
Someone had stolen her bathroom floor.
But then the perpetrator probably had become repentant and had replaced the missing floor by a flagstone path, a path considerably longer than her bathroom floor had been. Here and there moss was growing in the cracks between the grey stones. A colourful beetle sped across the path as Amy looked on. Where her bath had been once, the path transformed into a stairway, leading down.
Amy looked up and saw that her bathroom floor wasn't the only thing missing. Her bathroom ceiling had also disappeared, and the wide open space above extended into a cloudless, sunny sky. The air was warm, pleasant and inviting, like an August day should be.
Before her, the earth fell away into a luscious sunken garden in the shape of a bowl. While taking a deep breath, Amy took a step forward and walked down the path. The garden around her was teeming with life. Aside from the beetle, she also noticed a street of ants, and song birds in the trees and bushes. Colorful butterflies were enjoying the summer flowers along the path and Amy thought she recognized the hum of a passing bumblebee.
The path spiralled down towards the bottom of the garden. The plants and trees prevented Amy from seeing the end, but she guessed she had seen a glimmer of water. Here and there the main path diverged into side-paths that sometimes were lined with gravel or sand and other times with stepping stones. They would undoubtedly lead to some other wondrous sight in the sunken garden, she guessed, as she passed an enticing path to the left that appeared to be leading to a Japanese garden. But Amy kept to the main path for now. There would be time to explore, she promised herself.
Occasionally Amy came across water, artfully led in gullies, pools and little cascades, and forded by elegant bridges and walkways. She lingered at a particularly enthralling little pool with water lilies, bordered with grass and reeds. A marble statue of a water nymph stood at the edge. The garden must have been huge, filled with wide views as well as cosy little corners such as this one.
Turning another corner, Amy was met with the heavy perfume of lilac, which formed a canopy over the path. A little further down, the sweet smell of roses wafted towards her on the faint breeze. There was green in all shades and hues, splashed with bright as well as muted flower-colours. She passed a copse of beeches where she imagined the bluebells would appear in great numbers at their feet in spring. Although she tried to count how many different species of plants and flowers she saw along the way, she quickly lost count.
Her grandfather must have needed a life-time to plant this garden, for there was no doubt in Amy's mind that this was the sunken garden her grandfather had worked so long and hard on to achieve. And somehow he had managed to capture the garden in its entirety within the engraving of a key: a whole year in one key. It was no wonder he had never wanted or needed another garden.
At the bottom of the garden, Amy reached a wooden terrace that looked out over a smooth green lake, populated by swans and ducks. From here she looked back up again, to the circular sides of the sunken garden. She saw walls of green extending up to the sky above.
"I wonder," Amy said at last to herself, "if Lexie had any use in mind for grandfather's old gardening tools..."
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