Crystal Palace

Paint strokes of green, blue and brown danced frenetically outside the dirty taxi window as it traveled from Ottawa to Perth, Ontario. Highways turned to rural roads, farm houses to thick stone buildings. Eventually, shops and restaurants became more frequently seen before the taxi pulled up against the curb. Its driver exited and opened his passenger side door.

Lloyd Berkley’s elderly frame hobbled out, confused by this town he had never visited before. Humid August air and warm sun was a welcome change from the stale funk throughout his ride’s cabin for the last hour, rot with crumbs and forgotten debris. Like a rock sitting within a shallow stream, pedestrians flowed around Lloyd as he attempted to get his bearings. Looking back, the taxi that had ferried him here was already resuming its drive down Gore street.

It was Lloyd’s first outing in 2009 – he was deemed a hermit by the nurses and caretakers of the retirement home. No amount of their good-natured teasing incited a desire within him to socialize or join in on their daytrips. In truth, none of them imagined seeing this old man make it to eighty-six, especially after losing his wife a year before.

They were actually quite surprised when he readied himself with his best pants and collared shirt earlier that day. When asked where he was going, Lloyd responded, “Ladies, I need to see how far a penny can go.” Then, for the first time in so long, he shot them a smile.

Before they could advise the front desk of a possible escape attempt, he was gone.

Lloyd began to walk along Perth’s main vein through the downtown area. Dense buildings with various shades of stone and brick blocked his larger view of the overall town but he admired them nonetheless for their old-world charm. A young family passed by, all with buttery corn on the cob in hand. This was the first real hint that his intended destination was nearby.

Colbourne Street was the next intersection so he hung a right, going with the flow of others around him. Lacking the walker he had grown accustomed to for the past decade, Lloyd stopped momentarily to catch his breath against the window of a small-scale studio theater.

A glimmer of bright sunlight shot across his eyes.

There, nestled on a green field beside the Tay River, was the very heart of downtown Perth – Crystal Palace. With a peaked roof that ran lengthwise along its rectangular body, the basic shape was that of a rural church. It was still, however, very contemporary when compared to the surrounding heritage buildings. The communal structure was outfitted floor to ceiling with large glass panels, entirely supported by emerald-painted steel beams, and flanked on either side by full-length glass verandas. On a sunny day, so much sun would reflect in so many directions that the name quickly became obvious during its installation fifteen years prior.

Lloyd straightened his back out, getting close to his original six-foot tall height, brushed his white hair back, and headed towards the structure.

This same scene in front of him was on television two weeks earlier as a news team featured the Farmer’s Market, held here every Saturday. It wasn’t the fruit, grains, meats, or crafts being displayed that caught his eye – the retirement home allowed for so few personal items. It wasn’t the building either as Lloyd already knew portions of the Rideau Street Bus Mall, which he helped to engineer in Ottawa so many years ago, were still in use. What grabbed his attention were the people – the joy he saw on their faces during that broadcast was brighter than the sunlight now being reflected at him as he made his way closer with a steadying walk.

As Lloyd approached the nearest corner of the structure, he sidestepped the mob of farm-fresh consumers with spry agility. His hand, twisted and arthritic from years of drafting civic plans, stretched across the remaining few feet between himself and the painted steel beam. A nearby florist stand filled his nostrils with tones of lavender and lilies. Contact – straight, warm steel against his cold, wrinkled skin. He could almost swear that this particular panel previously resided just outside of The Bay on Rideau Street.

Clearing his throat, Lloyd looked at the florist and asked, “how much is this worth?”

“Sorry, for which bouquet, sir?”

“No, the building. If someone wanted to buy it today.”

Chuckling, the woman replied, “Oh, its town property. I’d think most of us would say its priceless.”

Smiling, the retired municipal engineer returned his attention to the leftover pieces of a bloated urban development.

The Bus Mall was Lloyd’s last project of his career, forced to retire after the development was derided by the very people he sought to please. It was a decade late, severely over-budget, and, worst of all, underwhelming. With increasing pressure from shop owners and locals to get rid of it, Ottawa sold sections of the Bus Mall for only a single penny to the town of Perth and transplanted a hundred kilometers away.

Here they’ve met again, creator and creation, in the town that has given it a new home. Lloyd’s original vision of the project was finally alive in front of him – a cultural hub for everyone to enjoy. The Crystal Palace was teeming with life, inside and out.

“Stubborn, stubborn girl,” he whispered to his creation. Tears began to roll down to his grin, reflecting tiny sunlight back. “What a lovely life you’ve made here, smell better too. Proud of you.”

A young boy, giggling while running by with a bag of apples, entered the front entrance doors. Lloyd merrily followed, finally enveloped in the large girth of his last project. He no longer stood out amongst the cheerful crowd of market shoppers.