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The Clock Struck Midnight: Late to St James Palace in London!

Hours off the plane into Heathrow after an all night-flight, my suitcase stored at the Picadilly Backpacker's hostel until I was able to get into my room, I went for a long walk around Piccadilly and Leicester. Jet lagged and hungry, I ambled about gawking at the ticket hawkers and the strange juxtaposition of Angus steakhouses and Starbucks with English street sweepers and constabulary, or those amazingly definitive crosswalks with bold LOOK LEFT! painted on the ground, because not even the natives know which way in hell traffic goes.

I finally got into my room and met a pair of gents I'll call Hans and Frans...two older Frenchies travelling about Europe and in London for just four days. "This, how you say {mumbles in French} ah, "afternoon," we go to TRAFF-algur."

"Trafalgar?" I ask from my top bunk, where I'm untangling power cords to charge my phone and camera.

They nod and bob excitedly now that we've made communication, "Yes! Traaaafulgr."

Ah.

I take a 45 minute nap and wakeup in time to get pretty before heading to the tube--Piccadilly to Vicotria to Central to St James Park tube stop. And then all hell breaks loose. I can't seem to get my bearings for whatever reason--the new construction that completely obscures the park from the tube stop, the maze of roads, my faulty memory. I start asking directions to the park and everyone gives me a different direction, indicated by a jutting index finger and a jowl-full of heavily accented "righ', an' then, straight froo, righ'!"

I pass a pair of construction workers who stop to watch me float by in my giant fluffy aqua skirt. I can't find a damn thing and time is running out. I don't exactly feel like running because I'd then be running in an unknown direction instead of sauntering like I know what the hell I'm doing. I ask some ladies on the street which way to St James Palace itslef, and they coo together like puzzled doves before pointing me back in the direction I've just come. I pass the construction workers again--this time they take a break and sit on the street to watch me go by, only now, I'm doing a half-jog-skip type of step that's just my normal walk with a little dash of panic.

Between these blacks and browns and the rare sari, I am the only splash of color on the street. My long black wool jacket billows, exposing white ankles and a beaming turquoise skirt of so much material, it took up half of my suitcase.

By the time I even find St James' Park I'm thoroughly confused and start half-dashing through the Birdcage Walk between the geese and swans, and the squirrels posing for pictures between the crocus. It's so pretty I want to sit down and drink it in, but I check my cell phone and I've only got 15 more minutes. I make it to Whitehall where the famous horse guards are and, panting, lay out my invitation on the desk of a security guard. "How do I get here?!" I ask in desperation.

It's exactly 4 o'clock, the starting time of the ceremony, and I have no idea where to go. The guard points me way up the street, a three long city blocks. No one recognizes the name of the street I'm meant to find (Marlborough, in fact, one lady thinks it's up in Piccadilly), and everyone has a vagueish idea of where it is. I set off again, wind whipping my skirt and the tails of my coat like a giant blue poppy in a sea of penguins. It's now 4:15p and I'm beginning to realize that I've flown all the way from America just to miss my own ceremony.

I find Marlborough by sheer chance, and suddenly see the side of the Palace where I'm meant to be--I know this because a group of signs reading Duke of Edinburgh Award, that presumably used to be out front, are now huddled together in an alcove. There are five doors and I run between them all, ringing every buzzer. I even pound on the door and shout HELLOOOO! like I'm in a tragic movie and I'm the fair and desperate heroine.

Whatever works, right?

Through the lace curtains on the last door I see the steward come trotting down the long hall. He opens the door and I fall inside, shoving my two forms of identification and my official invitation into his hands and saying over and over "Can you help me? Can you help me?" He takes them all and makes me sit down. "The first thing you need to do is take a biiiig breath!" he says, and I"m suddenly so glad I"m in English hands. Looking at my invitation, he clucks his tongue and says, "Though we might not be able to get you in at this point."

I burst into tears. For me, that means my eyes welled up and my little mouth turns into a hard upside down smile to keep from bawling. It must have worked, because a few minutes later I had my coat and bag checked and was strolling through state rooms with the steward. "A few extra minutes won't hurt now. Just relax the body, and breathe. That's it."

They let me into a jaw-dropping room decorated with red textured fabric like silk, three stories high and jammed with whale-size paintings, dark and rich with age. Two garganutan chandeliers sag from the cieiling under their own double-decker weight of gilt and crystal. I take a seat, a blue thumbprint among the more respectably attired smudges.

All the recipients are on one side of the room; the mothers are on the other. The occasional father, but mostly mothers, mothers in suit coats, tulle hats and feathers, obese mothers, tiny well preserved mothers in sensible pumps.

There's a rousing speech reminding us why we're here. "We can do anything." And the speaker, herself a Gold Award recipient back in the day, urges us to go forth and make the world better, for ourselves and for others.

The Marshall organizes us into little clusters to get ready to meet HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. A breath later, the man himself enters the room with very little fanfare and no pomp. He stands in the middle our semi-circle, the Queen's husband, the man who was almost king, and jokingly asks us how many blisters we got on our Expeditions, and if we all went to church regularly.

He's not too tall, 5'7", slight and dressed in neat brown tweeds, graying and slightly stooped, with a quiet gravelly voice you'd want to hear, not unlike John Gielgud, or a posh Albert to Mister Wayne, a kind, refined voice that insitgates peals of laughter as he movesamong the young people, congratulating them, meeting their eyes.

A moment after he's gone, people relax and realize that A. I'm American and B. I don't have a mother in a hat across the room. I've also missed the presentation of the awards themselves by the keynote speaker. Suddenly the Marshall, a little old woman with cankles and a happy face, takes my hand and pulls me to the front of the long, red hall, and there's an announcement that the late member attending the Duke of Edinburgh Award had a reason, to be late: she flew in this very morning, just for this ceremony. There's a murmur and a flurry, and I'm being beckoned all the way down the hall between the other Gold Award recipients on my left and their mothers on my right, to receive my award. The start applauding, and clap all the way as I walk, blue skirt swirling over the red carpet, and it thunders on as I shake hands with the keynote speaker and accept my certificate.

Slipping back into my seat, the Marshall squeezes my hand and whispers, "Now that made it worth it, didn't it?"

After, I had pictures taken with a bunch of the kids since I was now a minor celebrity, and was invited to the pub for pints, and all the mothers bought me Guinness, until, several pints later and lots of pictures and email swapping and looking at photos on each other's phones of sisters, dogs, boyfriends and grans, I excuse myself and run to see Mary Poppins.

I'm late for that, too, but as they sing Chim Chiminee Chim Chiminee, and dance in front of a set filled with the London skyline and bright stars, I well up again. Just. So happy. All of it. So beautiful.

These happy songs, these hardworking people, my new girlfriends in the pub, my proud family, this certificate safe on my lap that was years in the making.

And I fall in love with London all over again....or maybe just life.

Cheeree, chim, cheroo.

Wonder Russell is a scriptwriter and Producer for a commercial production company. An avid traveler, she has lived in 4 countries and tries to escape America at least once a year for exotic ports of call. After building up an email-only newsletter, she launched into the world of blogging, at http://travelwonder.blogspot.com.


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