Author: LA Robbins
“Fireworks!” Alice forced a light-hearted tone as she locked the front door. Nick was leading the boys down the path to the cul-de-sac. Twilight had unfurled a grey blanket overhead. He turned to point at her recent work in the front garden.
“They brighten the walk,” he said. “Remember the garbage dump when we first moved in?” She smiled and pointed out the blooms. Next to the front door a wicker basket overflowed with lobelia.
“Red geranium, nasturtium in the pots, daisies there; that small yellow flower is columbine.” She’d framed her beds in curving patterns of stones and baptized the lot with a sprinkling of the earth she’d brought over from her stateside garden. London’s glorious hanging baskets and lovingly-tended gardens had been one of her husband’s trump cards in convincing her to make the move here. Nick promised that when they did buy a house it would have a green patch so she could create an enduring private enclave. Well, she’d surprised him by giving this shoddy patch a substantial make-over. It transformed their cheap Raynes Park rental with one bathroom and five ramshackle rooms into a heart-lifting statement: we live here.
“How’d your first gardening stint go?” Nick was asking. They’d entered the neighborhood’s quiet road. The boys were scuttling along in front of them, playing soccer with a bouncing stone. Alan, the eldest, toed the rock toward the pavement; Cameron shot it back.
“Don’t remind me,” Alice groaned. “I took the bus. Asked where to get off. “Near Tooting Bec” I explained, but it must’ve sounded like Toodin Bec ‘cause everyone stared. I have to pronounce my Ts and say ‘Ta’ when I thank them, so I can blend in. The bus took ages. Out to Balham. Then I couldn’t find their place. Lady had told me: ‘not a problem, lovey’ but it was. Lost at every turn. Should’ve brought the A-Z but I was rushing to get the boys off. With you away I could only ask strangers. Not that you know London much better than I do. Anyway, everyone gave me different directions.”
“Sorry I needed the car. I made a few wrong turns, too. Guess we’re still Yanks in Queen Bess’s court.”
Alice let her fingertips ruffle the small, thick leaves of a box hedge. “I arrived late. Then, no answer to the bell – turns out they’re both hard of hearing. I banged and banged. Finally the door opens. She’s in her bedroom slippers and a shabby housecoat. Hasn’t left the house in decades.”
“Were they friendly?” Nick was hesitating at a street sign that read “Avebury”. He motioned the boys to keep going.
“Yep. He can’t get around anymore – arthritis. Shows me his claw hand, pats his dead hip. I understood half of what he said – don’t know where he’s from but not the BBC. Also wearing bedroom slippers. They walk me out to the garden, in their slippers. It’s not big – a third the size of ours in the States – but he was so proud. Shows me tools – top quality secateurs. The berberis needs a prune – and the sweet peas need a new support, he tells me. The peas are climbing on a coggly eight-foot high arbor. I think he was hinting I should build them a new one! I’m a gardener, not an f-ing carpenter.”
“Mmm.” Nick had pulled the A-Z out of his pocket. Ahead loomed an entrance to a large park. Alice strained to hear picnickers or instruments performing a concert. When they were near she could see the wrought iron gates: padlocked shut. Beyond them the vast square of night grass lay silent, a black desert. From far off, sporadic traffic sounds.
“That’s funny. No one.” Nick frowned. Alice looked to the west; the horizon was narrow slice of light as night closed the book. “I must’ve read the notice wrong – it said concert, then fireworks.” Nick was peering between the bars.
“Where were they supposed to be?”
“Fireworks here. But I guess not. The concert’s in St. Mary’s Parish Church. No church here.”
“That church is east, past the tram tracks.”
“The fireworks were to be in the park.”
“Maybe you got the wrong park. How could they have a concert in one place and fireworks half a mile away?” Trust Nick not to think the logic through.
“Wish I’d read it more carefully; I could swear…” Nick scratched his head.
Alice frowned. They’d come out late, past Cameron’s bedtime, for what?
“Let’s find the church. Maybe the fireworks are there.” Nick nodded and turned to walk in the direction of the tram tracks. A spirited kick from Alan sent the rock forward and Cameron ran ahead into the July dark. Nick caught them up and joined the kick around.
The boys were settling into their new school – adapting to new learning systems and the British culture, Alice could tell. They’d come a long way in the seven months since they’d been uprooted from their American school. Here they wore uniforms, stood at attention when a master entered the room, wrote neatly in exercise books with ink cartridge pens, (Cameron’s fingers were permanently stained), mouthed hymns the other students knew by heart. “We have to say “Our Father” every morning. Everyone’s mesmerised it,” Cameron complained. Nick and Alice had smiled at the malaprop. She’d devoted hours to preparing them for cultural obstacles but they’d adjusted better than she’d hoped, in fact, far better than she had. They worked hard to earn top marks, court new social groups. They even adopted the vernacular, telling her to “pop the boot”, “fetch a jumper”, “fill up with petrol”. Alice had gaped when Cameron asked for a “rubber” – he was only seven – but he’d wanted an eraser, not a contraceptive. The Brits had some other word for this – duplex? florex?
It had always been Nick’s impossible dream, to bring the family to the country of his ancestors, let the children experience their British heritage, learn European history and culture. Once she had dizzily agreed, a flurry of emails had culminated in sending them across the Atlantic to see in the Millennial. He’d started his London banking job and Alice, uprooted from her beloved American garden center, had put their new infrastructure in place: schools, shops for groceries, doctor, dentist. The part that hadn’t yet fallen into place seemed to be Alice herself. Strange, detached, frightened – naked somehow.
A month before they left the States she’d prepared their indoor plants to sell or give away. Paddle-shaped leaves, cracked and brown at the edges, signaled that her prize Bird of Paradise was pot bound. Nick had helped her transplant it. He held the old plastic pot with the unwieldy plant inside while she snipped at the sides with strong secateurs and even used a saw at one point. Hard work – packed earth pressed tight against the container and the roots had made fissures in the bottom of the pot. When he finally lifted the enormous greenery, Alice’s eyes had widened. Protruding from the soil dangled two white roots, each thicker than her thumb – long, ugly appendages covered with thick black hairs, like unshaven winter legs or secret, unsightly sex organs. Alice swallowed a rising nausea as she brushed away remnants of plastic with nervous fingers. Roots should be hidden, where it’s warm and dark and they can gather energy. Nick lowered the plant onto the fresh soil of the larger pot and held it while she scattered dark earth around the root ball. They wheeled the plant to a sunny window. A month later, in December, her Bird of Paradise had suddenly burst into flower. Strelitzias take ages to bloom; hers wasn’t even two years old. Yet there they were, bright orange and vivid blue petals, bird-shaped, winging upward, thrilling her each time she passed.
A leaf skittered along the sidewalk as she followed the family into the darkening streets. How Alan and Cameron had raced through their North American suburb in Hallowe’en costumes, ringing doorbells, holding bags wide for processed sweets. Already in July a similar crispness tinged the night air here across the Atlantic. But there would be no Yankee-style Halloween in London; most folks didn’t observe it. There were no truly homogenous neighborhoods in urban suburbs like this one, where children’s door-to-door trick-or-treating could work, where safety could be taken for granted.
“Keep your guard up,” Alice always cautioned the boys when they went out. It was good that most of their effects were in storage; only a matter of which night they’d be burgled in the flimsy rented house. When she drove, she did so with shoulders hunched, map in hand, on the left side of streets that were narrowed with parked cars. Alice glanced to her right where dim streetlights revealed a collection of rundown shops and boarded-up row houses that led up to the corner. She shivered. Keeping her voice low, she called the boys to slow their pace. Beyond the houses stood an old pub, its boisterous noise jarring the night’s quiet. Nick waited for her to catch up.
“The pub’s the heart of London’s areas,” Alice said to him. “Smoky and full of pissheads on the dole.”
“You’re beginning to sound native, milady. Is the tough talk from this morning’s Times’ editorial about binge drinking, by chance?”
“I miss our American residential neighborhoods. Safe and boring. Everyone in the same social class. Same schools, houses, cars. No lower classes, no bums, beggars or druggies.”
“Mmm. What’d you do for the couple’s garden?” Alice pressed her lips together. Nick was refusing to engage. No, worse, his determined cheeriness had become a mantra. An irritating one. What was there to like? Cameron shot the rock to Alan, who stopped it with the side of his sneaker. She sighed.
“I mowed. Trimmed the fuchsia, deadheaded rhododendron. They have a magnificent quince – it had flowered in May. Tidied the beds. Amazing what they’ve crammed into tiny spaces: Japanese anemone, even trillium. And the garden walls are swimming with healthy jasmine and honeysuckle. They invited me in for tea when I finished. We sat in the kitchen; that’s where they live. Stuffy. Windows painted shut – those ginormous sash windows that take three marines to open. These folks don’t bother. He was complaining they couldn’t get the plumber out. Said you could make a fortune as a plumber in London. ‘Not enough of ‘em and they don’t like work. If you get one, he shows up when he feels like it, has a fag and a cuppa, leaves the job half done while he buggers off to another.’” Alice shrugged. “There’s a native, telling me what I have to look forward to. Our plumber came the very evening our faucet broke at home. I felt sorry for the old Londoner.” She glanced over, got a brisk nod from Nick. To lighten the mood she told him about St Michael.
“I complimented the cake the old lady served. She bowed her head and murmured ‘We have St. Michael to thank for that.’ I put my head down, too, then asked: ‘Do you pray to St. Michael?’ Stupid me. She was talking about ‘St. Michael’s, the brand name for Marks and Spencers’ prepared foods.”
“Ha! It’s not called St Michael’s nowadays – just ‘M&S’ foods. And some folks do worship them.”
“There’s so much I don’t know or can’t get. Alan begs for root beer and I want the box mixes for Betty Crocker cake or the packets for fajitas or taco sauce. I can’t cheat in the kitchen. Cameron says the ice cream is yucky; he wants to go to Silver Diner for dinner. He hates mushy peas. And what is ‘Spotted Dick?’”
“Sounds like venereal disease.” Nick laughed.
The novelty had worn thin; Alice was nostalgic for America’s spacious car parks without meters, of all things. Also for bright airy libraries where new books were alphabetized on the shelves, and where there were librarians to wait on her. At home money shouted from the hi-tech gadgets, the vanity plates on custom-made SUVs, the designer labels, the McMansions – everything state of the art and shiny.
“London is crowded and dirty; full of hunched elderly and dusty history,”she announced impulsively. “Monuments to the Great War or the Second World War in every borough. It weighs down on me, this legacy from the past.” The ‘telly’ was always broadcasting black and white docu-dramas – on the Irish famine, Hitler’s offensives, Churchill’s War Rooms’ plotting, on unemployed miners in the north, or the life of Queen Victoria, as if that was current news. Plus the anachronistic pomp of the Royal family, always on the front page.
“D’you think it’s tonight – the fireworks?” she stopped suddenly and stood, hands on hips.
Nick was peering at the A-Z again. He looked over at her. “Uh huh, almost there.” He tapped her back, urging her to walk again.
Alice moved forward slowly. “We’re always lost. It’s too different here. The high streets are lined with charity shops for the aged, or heart and cancer victims; they sell frumpy polyester stretch-knits to geriatrics. That’s what Britain is – an old lady pensioner in a beige coat, with – with baggy stockings and soiled gloves.”
“You don’t have to shop at those charity shops,” Nick said. “There’re plenty of trendy stores here – there’s that place in Wimbledon – the mall. A smaller version of the ones in the States.”
“Yeah, the States.” Alice slouched across the street beside him.
“Alice, give it time.” There was an edge in his voice. “We’re here now. It’s a trade-off. The States can be vapid, easy, new. There’s no past there, only youth and future. America is -” he looked up to find his thought – “a chubby, clumsy boy who leaves the tap running and the lights on while he zooms out in his car to eat fast food.” He snorted at his rebuttal, slapping the A-Z on his thigh. Then he looked at Alice. “C’mon, Honey. We need to connect, that’s all. And whatever we do can lead to something else. That guy in my office, Murray? He’s getting his hair cut. Barber mentions his daughter sells computers. So Murray phones her, the barber’s daughter. Now she’s installing a new tower for him.”
The boys passed under a streetlamp ahead of them.
“When I went to the antique shop I found that Indian restaurant, the one the Royal family uses,” Nick continued. “You said it’s brilliant.”
“That was a fluke, finding that restaurant.”
“But if hadn’t gone to look for old prints I’d never have found it.” Nick tilted his head. “Remember that game when we were kids? You found a clue, near the stove, and it told you to go to the cupboard. That clue sent you to the yard; another clue was in the bird house, one in the mailbox and so on.”
Nick took Alice’s hand. His palm pressed her calluses, hard and leathery.
“So everything. Wait and see.”
“The boys haven’t made friends yet.” Alice shook her head. “I miss our friends. My family. I go everywhere with a map, like an f-ing tourist. Only I’ve overstayed my welcome; I’m not a tourist. But I don’t live here, either. We haven’t found a house. We depend on each other. Only on each other. We’re on the high seas – a sealed unit, a submarine, drifting into enemy territory.” She looked over. Nick was pulling a face. After a minute he hunched his shoulders and stretched his arms out in front, fingers wiggling. He tiptoed forward, swaying slightly; an underwater prowler in the dark. Alice frowned and smiled.
Thick lime trees flanked the pavement now. Under their foliage an elderly woman was being wheeled along by a carer. When they came within speaking distance they answered Nick – St. Mary’s Parish Church was across the road, on the left. Alice glanced at her watch: 10:15. The fireworks were to have begun at 10:00. Fireworks, and in July, to boot. They’d missed the Fourth back home; this would’ve made up for it. But there was silence. No lights in the sky. Ahead was the cobbled path that led to the church. A stone archway crowned the heavy wooden doors. Shut tight.
Alice entered the churchyard hesitantly, the boys at her side. “Maybe we should go home -” Nick pushed ahead of them. They followed him around to the back of the great stone edifice.
“There could be a field – a park nearby,” he was saying. Alice shook her head. They were peering into the church’s gloomy graveyard which was bordered by a thick yew hedge when a sharp shriek of rocket and magnesium flare shot into the black sky. The boys’ mouths dropped opened as another bright arc blaze across the sky’s dark canvas, accompanied by an ear-piercing whistle. A startled flock of birds winged overhead. A procession of fireworks illuminated the copse of trees beyond the hedge, each echoing its predecessor with a shrill zip and crackle, presaging a bright fiery trail into the heavens. Behind them the thick walls of the church amplified and reverberated each sudden blast: whistles, screeches, snaps. One after the next, bright rockets shot up, showering starry fountains of white and red, blue and orange.
Alice stood, elbows resting on Cameron’s shoulders, fingers jammed in her ears. Each flash briefly lit the graveyard. She moved with Cameron to lean close to the great church, which stood like a solemn stone mother watching over gravestone children. Where were the fireworks coming from? No noise of human involvement could be heard from behind the hedge. Beside her Nick was motioning for Alan to walk with him into the graveyard. They returned moments later.
“There’s a stone wall, forty feet high, behind the hedge. We can’t get closer,” Nick shouted, eyes skyward. Alice was smiling broadly. She released Cameron and gave Nick a happy squeeze.
“Our private show!” she bounced on the cobbled stones. The scream and dazzle had had whipped off a blindfold, unveiled a glint of treasure in a dusty cave.
“Magic!” Nick hugged her. “What a fluke. Brilliant fireworks.”
When a long silence told them that the show had finished they started for home. Alice glanced at the boys, following behind. They had woven their arms around each other’s necks. Cameron was telling a joke, Alan was giggling, and they swayed along like two drunks. Something about “pansies” but she didn’t think it was flowers they spoke of. Alice slipped her hand into Nick’s.
“Where’s Ms Moan Bum?” he leaned his shoulder into hers.
“I need to follow the clues, make the connections. Puzzle through the tangle of streets. I’ll find more gardening work.” She inhaled. “Nurturing plants takes time. How else to coax buds into bloom, leaves into unfurling?” She lifted her hand and opened a tight fist. “I can prune and weed. Sweep away debris. Transplant stragglers and introduce new species. Convince them to trust the pale English sun.”