The working title for my novel, AN UNCHOREOGRAPHED LIFE, was Pelican Park (better known to some as St James’s Park) where many pivitol scenes take place. Regular visitors will be aware that the pelicans often retreat to a rocky outcrop, where only the zoom lenses of those standing on the terrace of the Swiss Cottage can reach them. Today we were in luck!
An Extract from An Unchoreographed Life
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The grip on her hand loosened, she was set free inside the gates of a park where she came to an immediate halt, all thought of metal hats extinguished. “What is that?” Belinda was face to face with a comical-looking thing: a great white bird with a too-large head. At least as tall as she was, he reminded her of a dodo, something that should be extinct.
“That’s what I wanted you to see.”
She was in rapture. “What is it?”
“It’s a pelican.
Belinda liked the feel of words that slipped neatly into place, like pieces of a jigsaw. Trying out the name inside her head – pelican – Belinda was dubious. Just as the duck-billed platypus did, it looked as if someone had made the bird from leftovers. The pelican was the Mr Potato Head of the bird world. A few too many feathers? Pass the glue. We’ll just stick them here on the back of his head.
“That bit under its beak?” she laughed. “It’s like the wobbly bits under a fat lady’s arms.”
“Ssshhh!” her mother said sharply. (It was an unfortunate coincidence that a very fat lady happened to be passing.) “That’s his fishing net.”
“What is he doing in the park?”
“There are several of them. They were a gift from the Russian Ambassador.”
“No, not Uncle Sergei. Where do you get these funny ideas from?”
Having found Belinda lacking in interest, the bird waddled off along the path. “What’s he doing now?”
“He’s going for a walk, just like everyone else.”
The pelican seemed at ease among the tourists. Americans weighed down by carrier bags from Harrods and Hamleys. Japanese teenagers in tartan kilts and cartoon t-shirts, with their cameras and machine-gun voices. Setting off in pursuit, Belinda fell into the pelican’s way of walking, side-to-side and straight from the hip. When anyone paid him attention, the pelican’s clapperboard bill snatched imaginary treats out of thin air. He crossed a bridge and turned right where another pelican – there were actually two of them! – sat on a park bench. The second one was smaller. A lady pelican, Belinda presumed. Her webbed feet stuck out over the last wooden slat, expression quite offish, but every so often she risked glancing at the newspaper the old man sitting beside her was reading. The old man seemed to be minding his own business, as if he hadn’t noticed that his wife was a pelican. Responding to an inner urge, Belinda moved closer.
“Uh-uh-uh! Don’t touch!” came her mother’s warning before she even realised she had reached out an arm.
Behind the rustle of his newspaper and under his hat, the man remained faceless.
Knowing that if she protested her mother would say, ‘You were going to,’ Belinda settled for a question: “What stops them flying away?”
“A supply of food – although someone told me that one of them flies over to London Zoo every day to steal the fish that is meant for the penguins’ dinner.”
“Yuk.” Belinda pulled a face. The only time they had been to a restaurant, she had been served a fish with its head on, bulging eyes blind but staring. And there had been bones like sewing needles that had pricked the inside of her throat. From then on, if someone mentioned ‘fish’ she made sure they meant fish fingers, otherwise it was definitely a ‘No, thank you!’ “Look! There’s another one. Over on the grass.” Belinda pointed, her expression a question mark.
“Alright, go on. But don’t run off where I can’t see you.”
She glanced back over her shoulder, without really looking. “I’m only going to -”
“Wait for me by the railings!” And, as an afterthought, “Remember: no touching!”
Belinda came to a halt beside a man in a peaked cap who was throwing chunks of bread directly into the pelican’s bill, hardly a challenge for either of them. He delved into his Kingsmill bag and offered Belinda a crust. The smell of stale rose off it. “Want to try?”
No way, José. Mummy would be watching, plus, after her earlier experience in the Underground station, Belinda was done with strange men. Besides, she had already seen a sign saying Do not feed the Pelicans, which she assumed applied to her. (Mr Kingsmill might be there in an official capacity. Grown-ups often were.) She shook her head, clamping her mouth shut.
“Go on! Hey, I bet you haven’t heard this one. A marvellous bird is the pelican. His beak can hold more than his belly can.”
Unable to stop it, a delighted giggle escaped from Belinda’s throat.
“He can store in his beak enough food for a week -”
Having extended his arm, the man was holding the bread bag in front of her while looking the other way. She dipped her hand, took a slice, tore off a corner. Belinda misjudged her first throw (it turned out to be more difficult than it looked).
“And I don’t know how the hell ‘e can.”
The pelican’s clapperboard bill swung in her direction like the boom of a sailing ship. Instinctively, she pulled her hand back sharply and gasped.
Laughing in the reckless way that is only possible when danger has been avoided, she asked, “Will you say it again?”
“You’re pushing your luck!” the man retorted, but Belinda could tell he was only pretending.
“I’ll remember it properly this time.”
“Once more, then. A marvellous bird is the -”
“Pelly-can,” she populated the gap he left for her.
Looking bored – no doubt he’d heard the limerick many times before – the bird waddled off and snatched greedily at the grass. What followed happened so quickly that the grey-spangled pigeon didn’t see it coming – or perhaps he saw it but never imagined he was the pelican’s target. Having been hoisted to shoulder-height by a man from London Underground, Belinda could appreciate how the smaller bird must have felt, caught up in the fishing net. A wheezing sound like a bicycle pump attracted more witnesses.
“Gee, will you take a look at that?” A female voice expressed the combination of fascination and horror Belinda knew she should be feeling. On any other day, the woman who had spoken would have held her undivided attention. Almost as wide as she was tall, she was wearing a wrinkled pac-a-mac and an I love London t-shirt over bosoms so large they were terrifying. “Jeez! I’ve gotta get this on film.”
“What did I tell you? His beak can store more than his belly can.” Mr Kingsmill sighed with the regret of a prophet.
Some bonus swans – plus a pigeon that got away