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The rain had stopped and the sky was unsurprisingly overcast. Wishing to honor the traditions of the city, I boarded the black TXII, the newest version of the iconic London Taxis International vehicle after waiting in queue for the best part of an hour. I found years later that the historic company had become, as more and more things that can be bought in this world, a subsidiary of a Chinese conglomerate. The driver had to help me with my suitcase since by then the fingers in my hands were numb and the color of eggplants.
The driver was a slim, bronze-skinned man whose head was covered by the most elegant light blue silk turban I have set eyes on. I asked the driver if the smell inside his car was sandal wood. Indeed, Sir, mixed with magnolia, he replied. Where do you come from, Sir? He asked in return. After I told him about my place of residence and origin, we exchanged names, his was Amin, as well as some other minor questions and platitudes. Only minutes later could I venture into questioning him about the Incident. I first asked him if he thought it safe to walk around the areas of the city where the Incident took place.
I know it is not safe, said Amin. We all know it is not. But the media and the government insist on their tapestry of lies. It is us who care for the ill and bury the dead, though. People, Sir, and even the children and the animals, started falling ill the moment that damned rock fell from the sky. We were cursed from that day, we are still cursed today. Do not go there, sir, no matter how curious you are about it.
I could see his eyes, dark and cold like dead stars in the rearview mirror. He waited for a long and silent minute and turned the radio on when he realized I would not acquiesce to his command. The voice of Boy George came through the speaker system of the vehicle singing If I listen to you lies would you say, I’m a man without conviction, I’m a man who doesn’t know, how to sell a contradiction, etc. I had not listened to Karma Chameleon for at least a decade and thought it both a pleasant and adequate addition to the conversation I had with Amin.
I bobbed my head to the music, inhaled the pleasant fragrance of the incense and looked out the window smiling. I was glad to be here at last.
The purring of the engine and the warmth and fragrance in the car worked like a lullaby. I came back to my senses just minutes before arrival to our destination. It was then that I saw on Kensington Road, in front of the cream-colored building of the Embassy of Ethiopia, a woman wearing black heels and a bubble dress of black taffeta riding a giant ostrich. The animal’s body was covered in smooth and shiny black feathers with the exception of the tip of wings and tail which were bone-white. The snake-like neck was bright pink like an uncooked sausage. A powerful pair of legs of the same sausagey color that ended in dinosaur-like feet helped the bird carry without major problem its well-attired passenger.
They are making a come back, said Amin. Another of one too many American trends that we have decided to adopt. The first of its kind opened in the late 1800s in South Pasadena and became an immediate sensation. A gentleman named Cawston bought some acres of land three miles away from downtown L.A. and charted a vessel to transport fifty ostriches from Durban and Cape Town all the way to the port of Galvestone in Texas. From there he had the birds loaded onto a freight train that crossed a thousand and six hundred miles with stops at Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson and Phoenix stations before arriving in L.A. More than half of them got sick, one got crushed in the boat, another one decapitated, two fell off the train and a couple more suffocated. Thirty two of the birds died en route. Cawston proved to be as resilient as the birds who survived, though. Cawston Ostrich Farm had over a hundred birds who carried single tourists on their backs or pairs of them in ostrich drawn carriages at the turn of the century. Kids could play with the fluffy baby birds in the play room adjacent to the hatchery and feed the adult ones oranges and tangerines that they swallowed whole.
You can visit London’s Ostrich farm at Sevenoaks. To see hundreds of those giant beasts running around is quite a view, Sir. Oh, yes. Quite a view.
I know for a fact that at least the kitchen of the Ritz serves ostrich meat and everyone I pick up in Notting Hill is always talking of ostrich soup and ostrich scrambled eggs with truffles.
You can buy feather boas, feather stoles and thick, dyed plumes to use with elegant hats in any Harrods, Fenwick and, if I am not wrong, even at Mars & Spencer. Their Victorian style hand-held feather fans fastened to montures of tortoise shell and available in chic colors like ruby-red, aqua blue or mist-grey were last summer’s talk of the town.
I watched the graceful lady-African bird chimera through the rear windshield become smaller until it vanished from my view.
Amin and I spoke no more for the duration of the drive.
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