I’ll fly away

Pearly Kings

In November, our English friends threw a Guy Fawkes party with soup and jacket potatoes, a fire pit and sparklers.

Even though Alabama’s state lines are dotted with shacks emblazoned with a big kaboom and Snuffy Smith-style cartoons, bonfires and fireworks are forbidden in the city. Hence the fire pit, which is a kind of patio furniture.

Among the guests were British, American-born kids who consider themselves American; British kids who consider themselves British, but probably not all of the time; and our own American, British-born kids who will most of the time consider themselves American but enjoy our digital radio for hearing British accents and watch YouTube videos shot in the Underground when they feel homesick.

Gathered around the fire in the dark, listening to the accents, I think of the parrot tree in Richmond Park.

We had heard for years about the wildlife in Richmond Park, the red and fallow deer that roamed the unspoiled wilderness of it, a king’s park for 700 years, a place to ramble, but it took us about 10 years to make it out there. We went with our expedition friend who shared our love of picnics and public transport, both as means and end. We had holidayed in Sheringham together (winkles, tide pools and the Norfolk steam engine); taken the Metropolitan Line out to the mini-steam engine in Watford; made an annual trip to the Acton depot to see the tube memorabilia and expo, where my older daughter recognized model trains from YouTube.

Armed with Nalgene water bottles, cut up fruit and a packet of biscuits, we could walk our children for miles, and so it was he who lured us out to Richmond Park. The herd of deer that ambled by were both impressive and scary in the way that wildlife can be, but what surprised me was the flock of parrots, a green swarm punctuated with red and blue, estranged pets massed like a horde of Victorian urchins or expats being homesick, like the Thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s. Guy Fawkes in America or Thanksgiving in the UK. You flock together, you adapt, you modify.

One parrot would have tried to keep a low profile among/st the pigeons. Not being a pigeon himself, there was always a bit of disconnect. The pigeons had a long history with each other and internecine issues around crumbs and lampposts. Perhaps one day, feeling a surge of homesickness and anomie in the greyness of Trafalgar Square, he spied another parrot, and they took flight together. Someone had told him about Richmond Park and he had been meaning to go, but you know how it is. The day starts full of good intentions but you just end up pecking trash outside of Tesco Metro.

Like the parrots, with their tropical origins and their bright plumage, the American cheerleaders who tipped up for the 2009 Lord Mayor’s New Year’s Day Parade, are an exotic flock. They shiver in their skimpy uniforms. I imagine the fatigue they must feel, with the 5- to 8-hour time zone difference, the vigorous sightseeing that would be done to justify the expense of such a long journey, the group meals, the waking up in whatever cheap hotel close to Waterloo or Victoria, wherever it is that school groups stay.

They would rise at what would feel like midnight, to apply a full face of makeup and straighten their hair, then stumble out into the dark 6 a.m. of the new year. Ear warmers and an extra layer of tights were no barrier to the chill coming off the river as they assembled at dawn in the streets around our house. (You can read their account of it here. There were 600 of them.)

We lived near Parliament Square and woke on New Year’s Day to the sounds of drums and brass tuning up. A marching band, in long wool trousers, gathered by the pub at the corner. Remembering to swap our slippers for shoes, we wrapped up and followed the parade.

Pearly Kings (see photo above), street theater, mini-cars, reenactors filled the road that ran alongside the Houses of Parliament. Around this time, High School Musical was a big deal and the American cheerleaders, winners of some competitions to be there, they told us, were a source of fascination. My older daughter had gotten a camera for Christmas and she took photographs of them, and of it all.

We didn’t know that in six months we would be driving down this same road, away from it all. We would touch down in the midst of the land of the cheerleader, and seek, gradually, to join a new flock.


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