Thursday dawned early and warm, beginning with our—by now—well practiced milling about the breakfast area by the hotel lobby, picking at muffins, croissants, and the occasional piece of fruit. After we had strewn the long table (and multiple others around the room) with plates, crumbs, empty cereal boxes, and glasses, the whole crew was counted and we made our way outside, followed by Shabby who mumbled a little sardonically, “I would hope you all know which way to go by now.” This comment was immediately responded to with a chorus of, “Shabby, I’m lost!”s and, with a dramatic eye roll from our dungaree-clad tour guide, we headed off for the Tube.
After many awkward brushes with the Tube’s archetypal array of strange, unspeaking characters of many ethnicities and, shall I say, “styles,” and of course nine stops accompanied by just as many reminders by our automated female voice that this was “a Piccadilly line service to Cockfosters” and to “please mind the gap between the train and the platform,” we reached South Kensington. We soon found ourselves amidst a mass of very small people as at least four different schools had also chosen to spend the day at the Natural History, Science, and Victoria and Albert museums. We split off to peruse the grand buildings for a couple of hours. I first visited the Victoria and Albert museum (the most mysterious of the three as Shabby could only explain it as being centered around ‘design’) and found a plethora of beautiful pieces from paintings and statues, to clothes and shoes throughout history, to ornate iron keys and locks, to stately mirrors and old furniture. We cooed over the replica of the first ever standing bookcase and a massive hanging sculpture made of thousands of little, elegantly blown glass shapes. Most of the time was spent just standing in awe of the sheer age and beauty of the art preserved perfectly around us.
With just over an hour we made our way to the Natural History museum and were struck silent and still by the majesty of the entry hall. With three large stone stair-cases, echoing floors, and staggeringly high walls ringed with gorgeous stained glass windows, the enormous dinosaur skeleton in the middle of the hall seemed rather dull by comparison. We spent a solid 45 minutes walking around the entrance hall and surrounding corridors, taking photos, leaning over the balustrades, generally commenting that J.K. Rowling would be proud to have this room in Hogwarts, and deciding that VCS’s remolding had better include little stone monkeys and huge columns. The rest of the time was devoted to examining Darwin’s pigeons, seeing a first edition of On The Origin of Species, exploring large exhibitions on sea mammals, and of course, the section on narwhals.
We gathered together outside in the hot sun, burdened slightly with a variety of trinkets from the gift shops, including Henry’s new copy of A Brief History of Time which, while he claimed it was only “some light reading,” he was so engrossed in that he had read over a hundred pages by the time Bradley joined us. We walked briskly through town, stopping at one of London’s multitude of 'Pret a Manger's for sandwiches, and found ourselves in front of 221B Baker street beneath the plaque dedicated to “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective, 1881-1904.” After getting over how fantastic it was that Holmes got the same blue plaque only otherwise used for important—once living—people, we headed on to Regent’s Park. We were immediately greeted by a beautiful crane, who was extensively photographed, and at last left to enjoy the river undisturbed. We made ourselves comfortable in the little white flowers that thronged the sea of grass, and pulled out our copies of The Merchant of Venice. We were given our roles and read through two scenes of the third act, stumbling occasionally over the rich monologues, but making good way until we were cut off by a chorus of singing in the gazebo. A dozen girls around our age began what seemed to be a poorly rehearsed performance, including a mashup of songs, some halfhearted choreography a never-ending stream of rounds, and unintelligible lyrics throughout. After attempting to make ourselves heard over the din we moved off the find a more quiet space, and ended up at the ice-cream stand instead where we waited for the singing to end. Eventually we returned to the grass and finished our scenes. We decided to spread out and enjoy the park for a short while until leaving for the British museum, but after some quick math it became apparent that we may have missed our chance to get there before it closed. Ben, Lauren, and Alex had begun to toss a disk around, and a few others had long since disappeared to take photographs, so it was decided that we would stay to relax and explore for a few hours before going to dinner. It was around this time that it became apparent just how large the park was, beyond the immediate green grass field, winding river (attracting geese, ducks, cranes, and swans as well as tourists) and willow trees, there were enormous sections we couldn’t see including gardens and bridges, there was even talk of a zoo. I went off to see the Queen’s garden, which spread out expansively with fountains, more fields of green, hedges, benches, ponds, and beds of bright flowers. The sky was still bright blue, and hadn’t once threatened rain, in fact the shade was more comfortable than walking in direct sunlight. This was the first portion of the trip that felt truly relaxed, without limited time or too many destinations to check off our list. Everyone seemed refreshed and enthusiastic again when we reconvened. Lauren had made a crown of willow branches which was quickly titled “Lauren’s Laurels” and Bradley was eager to talk about seeing wild parakeets the size of crows, and to share his video of a non-native squirrel eating a non-native nut. We eventually left the peace of the park to follow Shabby through the shabbier parts of London, including backstreets that seemed quite like the place that comes to mind when someone says “you see someone coming toward you in a dark alley….” When we reached the other side and returned to the familiar, brighter bustling city, Alex (who had not stopped talking the whole walk) told Shabby that he was “scarred for life.”
We reached the restaurant, a little Italian place called “Bistro 1” which was furnished with only a few tables, and decked with ornate glass-sphere chandeliers, and warm-lighted candles in bottles, the wax of which dripped onto the table cloth. After a delightful meal of “bangers and mash” for the carnivores, and an unnamed, but delicious, eggplant dish for the vegetarians, Shabby presented Galen with a card and a gift, as today was his sixteenth birthday. He pulled out of the brown bag a brilliant red bow tie and a pair of suspenders (or “braces” as Shabby insisted upon calling them) to boisterous laughter and cries of approval. We finished with a hasty chorus of ‘happy birthday’ and slices of cake all round, then made our way back to the Tube for the long ride home.
The night was sealed off with multiple games of Mafia in the boy’s room, in which I was killed off in the first round of every game, causing the town to unanimously vote to lynch Alex as my killer (although he never once was the mafia). This gave way to a the instantly popular phrase, “Keep Calm and Kill Alex.” In the later games Henry and Galen decided to use various forms of ‘logic’ to deduce the mafia’s identity and next victim, including Henry yelling, “I did psychology and I know it’s…” or “No, my psychology says it has to be…” despite his growing and utterly unhelpful rounds of wrong guesses. After Galen decided the mafia was either himself or Ben (by reason of the dead victims’ seats in relation to each other—although he chose to ignore those who didn’t align with his theory) and the town tossed a coin to choose which to kill before realizing that both Galen and Ben were innocent, Shabby spoke up. In each game Shabby watched shrewdly before coming, in an instant, resolutely to a culprit, and the rest of us soon began to notice that she never failed to correctly determine the mafia when she came to a conclusion. So, when she called above the din, “I think it’s Bradley,” the town immediately agreed. We hung, drew and quartered Bradley, thus successfully ending the game. Christie then reminded us of our early departure the following morning, and with many yawns and calls goodnight, we all dispersed once again to our rooms to catch what hours we could before heading off to Stratford bright and early the next day.