Come Saturday morning, in our hotel bed, I opened the presents and cards Samantha had brought with her. This included an annual subscription to the National Geographic from her, on top of everything else she was doing for me today.
For breakfast we returned to Comptoir Libanais and both ordered the Breakfast Beiruty; Sumac fried egg on toasted Comptoir bun, halloumi and zaatar croissants, organic labneh, warm pita bread, Lebanese rose jelly, fig jam, coffee and freshly made to order orange juice. It was even better than dinner the night before.
At just gone 10am we entered the Natural History Museum, into the huge atrium with its dinosaur bones and Darwin statue. We were here for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit. In a darkened room, photos are fitted to black monolithic frames, backlit, looking crisp and stunning. And oh, aren’t the pictures wonderful?
From the underwater category in the entrance, with swimming penguins and catfish portraits; to animals in their environment, and a polar bear looking out at a barren landscape, his footprints leading the eye; to animal behaviour, and a calf running from adolescent cheetah learning how to hunt, or a fox, leaping into the snow; to wildlife and humans, and a squirrel in an abandoned cottage, and another on a lime green rusty car. And birds too, they had their own category, we loved the snow fox and goose fighting over eggs, the white and black on each them creating a beautiful symmetry; to gorgeous misty landscapes and the northern lights; to artistic compositions of flamingos from the air, or microbes under a microscope. Each picture was stunning, in its own way. To protecting our wildlife, and graphic painful to see images of Rhinos without horns, and hunters with their trophies.
We stayed for almost two hours, in the dark, quietly looking, thinking, imagining, being astounded. Our legs ached, you always forget how tiring museums can be. This was our third time seeing a Wildlife Photographer of the Year event, and it was just as beautiful as ever.
From the gallery we explored the new Darwin Centre, a cocoon for storing specimens, with interactive displays for explaining categorisation and storage of millions of species. At the bottom we had a light, but very expensive, lunch and a refreshing cup of tea.
And onwards, to my next surprise. We got the underground to Embankment, crossed the Thames and we were in Southbank? “What are we doing now?”, I asked. “Ah…” Sam said, again, keeping quiet, not revealing anything. After a quick stop in the Southbank Centre, where we rested, watching a boy solve 7x7x7 rubicks cubes blindfolded, Sam led me to the BFI cinema. We were here to see Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion”. Sam had tentatively booked it, unsure whether she would enjoy the movie; reading the notes accompanying the showing, I was nervous, would she enjoy this sort of thing?
The movie, if you’re unfamiliar, follows a foreign girl in London, Kensington by coincidence, and her mental illness; absent mindedness, quietness and hallucinations, driven by a paranoia or fear of men. It’s mostly from her perspective too, the world is different, muted, confusing, menacing. Tiny noises are amplified, a disconcerting clicking clock, a ringing bell outside. I shan’t divulge much more, but the movie was truly stunning, a masterpiece of cinema. We both very much enjoyed it. I spent much of my time afterwards comparing it with Black Swan, which has a similar premise and used many of the same techniques, I’m sure knowingly.
There’s nothing better than sitting down in a warm, comfortable cinema to relax, when tired after walking around a museum and cold from the snow outside.
Finally, the last of my birthday surprises. An evening meal, for which we changed into our smarter clothes. Shiny black shoes, etc. “Do we need to get on a tube?”, I asked again. No, instead we walked along the bitterly cold river, to the OXO tower. Samantha had made a reservation at the excellent restaurant on the 8th floor.
Out of the lift, fake trees decorated with flowery lights greet you. We handed our bags in at reception, tried some cocktails in the bar, and were led to our table. From my seat, basking in a strange blue light, I looked out at the Thames, and St. Pauls, and Blackfriars bridge. We spent a short while considering what to order, questioning what some items on the menu were, Châteaubriand for two?
At last we settled on our order:
The food was stunning. My langoustine were perfect, delicate, soft and tasty. Sam couldn’t believe how a sweet potato could taste so strong, and it was excellent with the crab (and a bit of bread). Her fish was lovely too, and the mash had large parts of lobster. My mallard, I’d been warned, might contains pellets, as it was wild. It didn’t, and it too was marvellous. The dessert to share was a perfect Sam and Paul concoction — passion fruit and mango, with profiteroles? Yes please.
After we’d finished we explored a little more, and stood outside, in the cold, taking photos of the view. We walked back along the Thames, on the slippery snowy paths, to Southbank, across the bridge to Embankment, and onto a tube to our hotel. What an incredible birthday.
The following morning we discussed whether to do and see more, perhaps peruses the museums a little more, but with the weather and trains we decided to go for brunch and head home. We found a cute little place near Earl’s Court called “Bencho”. At the back, on small table in a cove, we ate a good full English breakfast, not too greasy, with good homemade hash browns and a cappuccino.
And that was that, my birthday over. We checked out, took the tube to Victoria and the train home, or at least to Three Bridges, where, from there, we took a replacement bus down the A23.