by Sue Townsend
“Sit down, woman!” shouted Philomena. “Talk to me son. I hain’t as old as you. I’ll make the tea.”
She stomped off into the kitchen as though it were her own house. The Queen Mother sat down and asked Fitzroy if he was interested in horses. Fitzroy wondered if this was a trap. He had promised his mother that he would never gamble. On his eighteenth birthday she had made him swear on the Bible that he would never set foot inside a bookie’s shop. He had kept his promise.
When he was twenty-one, he had opened a telephone account with Jack Johnson, Turf Accountant. His winnings were sent straight into his bank account but, like the Queen Mother, he had never set foot inside a bookie’s shop. He lowered his voice and moved nearer to the Queen Mother.
“Yeah, I’m interested.”
“Yeah, in form.”
“Who trained my grandson’s horse, Sea Swell?” Fitzroy answered at once, “Nick Gaselee, for the Duke of Gloucester Memorial Trophy. Prince Charles finished fourth.”
“Yes, I lost twenty-five pounds.”
The Queen Mother pulled from her corsage a five pound note she had been concealing from her daughter and handed it to Fitzroy.
“Sea Mist Kempton Park, two o’clock,” she said, with her eye on the kitchen door.
“Oh yes, it’s a cert, the going’s soft, he likes it soft.”
Fitzroy took a mobile telephone from the inside pocket of his Paul Smith jacket. He pressed the buttons and placed the Queen Mother’s bet. And, just to be friendly, he put twenty-five pounds on Sea Mist himself. They swapped gambling stories until Philomena came in with the tea tray and they talked about Fitzroy’s job. He was an insolvency accountant, currently bringing a chain of shoe shops to a peaceful end. He promised to get the Queen Mother a pair of wide-fitting brocade house slippers at a discount.
At 2.15 Fitzroy’s telephone rang. Philomena was washing up noisily in the kitchen. “Yeah?” he said, looking at the Queen Mother. “Wellwotjano! You’ve won yourself a tidy amount.”
The Queen Mother’s eyes glittered greedily.
“Right,” she whispered. “Nectarine Kempton Park; two-thirty. Twenty pounds each way.”
It made him late getting back to the office but he waited until 2.35, when the phone rang again. This time his mother was back in the room so all he did was show the Queen Mother his downturned thumb. She understood at once.
Philomena collected up her photograph albums and ordered the Queen Mother to have a nap. She was tired herself and needed to sleep.
Fitzroy saw his mother to her front door and handed her a small plastic bag full of fifty pence coins. “For the gas meter,” he said. “Use them.” He walked to his Ford Sierra with an extra spring in his step, pleased with his winnings and glad that his mother had a friend. Man, it took a weight off his shoulders. He pressed a button on his key ring and a mysterious electronic process caused the door locks to pop up in unison. He waved goodbye to the two old ladies waving from their respective front windows and reversed towards the barrier. He didn’t like meeting the police head on. Never had.
∨ The Queen and I ∧
THE LONG WALK
Harris was playing in the street with the Pack. The Queen stood on her doorstep calling him in, but he refused to come. She ran out into the street, shouting his name angrily. A gang of children joined in the chase. What a scruffy bunch they were, thought the Queen. Then she noticed that running amongst them, like feral animals, were her own grandchildren, William and Harry. Harris ran and hid under a wrecked and burnt out Renault car that stood at the kerb. The Queen lured him out with a polo mint she’d found in the pocket of her waxed coat, then she thrashed him with his lead. But it was a gentle thrashing.
Harris allowed the lead to be slipped over his head and the Queen set off to walk the three miles into town. As she approached the barrier, she saw that PC Ludlow was on duty, checking the licence of a handsome and smartly dressed black man who was behind the wheel of a Ford Sierra.
When the car had reversed rapidly out of Hell Close, she went up to Ludlow and demanded to know why he had told such shocking lies in court. PC Ludlow had dreaded this moment. He hadn’t slept properly for three nights guilt had kept him awake. He had listened to the World Service on his clock radio until the early hours, trying to blot out the memory of the crime he had committed. Perjury was a serious offence; he could lose his job. It was unlikely, but you never knew nowadays.
Inspector Holyland had told him what to say and he had said it, word for word. He hadn’t expected to be believed. “Kill the pig!” He had expected the magistrates and the court and the public gallery to burst into laughter at the thought of the Prince of Wales uttering these clichéd words, but he was wearing his uniform, he represented Law and Order and Truth; and Inspector Holyland had backed him up, although he hadn’t been on the scene at the time.
The Queen repeated, “Why did you tell those lies about my son?” Ludlow said, “Those were the facts as I saw them, at the time.” Harris was sniffing around the bottom of his trousers. Ludlow moved his feet and Harris, interpreting this as an aggressive gesture, sank his teeth into a regulation police sock, piercing the skin below. In Ludlow’s opinion, the Queen took an unnecessarily long time in pulling Harris away from his left ankle. There was a form to fill in before she was allowed to leave Hell Close.
Name : Elizabeth Windsor
Address : 9 Hell Close
Time : 2.45 pm
Destination : DSS Middleton
Method of Transport : Walking
Estimated time of return : 6 pm
Ludlow lifted the barrier and she walked through.
A bogus beast followed her, keeping his distance. Surely she wasn’t going to walk into town? He’d got new shoes on. His feet would be in tatters. He was festooned in corn plasters as it was. He was sick of being in plain clothes. He longed for the comfort of his old panda car. His name was Colin Lightfoot, his duty was to shadow the Queen and report back to Inspector Holyland.
The Queen was quite enjoying the walk, though she would have preferred to be on Holkham Beach, near Sandringham or striding through the heather at Balmoral. But at least she was out of Hell Close and getting some exercise. Harris hated it. The pavements were hard on his feet and his little legs could hardly keep up with the Queen’s vigorous pace.
They were walking alongside the dual carriageway that connected the Flowers Estate to the town. The Queen had visited the town before; she had opened a hospital, visited a hosiery and light engineering factory in the morning and, after lunch in the Town Hall, had visited an institution for the elderly confused in the afternoon, where she had made excruciatingly embarrassing conversation with the residents. One old, dribbling man was convinced that she was his mother and that it was 1941 and that he was still in the Catering Corps. On her way back to the Royal Train, she had called in at a probation hostel where she was given a tour of the gleaming dormitories and the freshly-painted ping-pong room. A few presentable probationers had been allowed to look on while the daughter of the Director of Social Services had given her a bunch of spring flowers. She wondered now where the other, probably less presentable, probationers had been kept.
It began to rain; a steady remorseless sheet of water. She pulled her headscarf lower, over her forehead, and strode on. The bogus beast behind her cursed and swore and shook his fist at the heavens and, as if to taunt him, a police car drove by, the uniformed occupants looking warm and smug as they conveyed Mr Christmas to Tulip Street Police Station.
She looked at her watch and quickened her step. Mr Dorkin had told her that the office closed at 5.30. He had written down the address on a sheet of paper. The Queen took the folded sheet from her pocket. The only legible words were ‘DSS Office’. The remaining address was completely illegible, rain had run into her pocket and obliterated everything below the fold of the paper.
Harris tried to match the Queen’s more
urgent pace to his own, but after a few minutes he had had enough and refused to go on. He knew he should have worn his raincoat. He had stood under the coat rack in the hall. He had barked and indicated that he would like to be strapped into his little coat, but she was in too much of a hurry to notice him, wasn’t she? Oh yes, hadn’t got a moment now to feed him and tell him that he was her favourite. And what was it with all this physical violence? A beating a day at least. If she wasn’t careful…he knew about the RSPCA. And, another thing, he had serious fleas. The Queen yanked on Harris’s lead, but he refused to budge. She tried dragging him along but he sat down and dug his paws in. A bedraggled passer-by said, “You’ll have the skin off that dog’s arse.”
The Queen replied, “I’ll have the skin off that dog’s back if he doesn’t move.” She pushed Harris with her foot and he yelped as though in agony and lay on his back feigning death. Through a slit in one eye, he watched as the Queen bent over him, her eyes full of concern and guilt. He felt himself being lifted up and cradled in her arms.
Their journey continued along the dual carriageway towards the town where the pavements were not paved with gold they were hardly paved at all. The Council were investing their money in buying a windswept thousand-acre site on the outskirts of the town where they planned to build a theme park: a zoo without animals. Instead of the mess and the smell and the necessity to feed real wild animals, the Council had been persuaded by a private company to build a series of huge windowless edifices. Inside, electronic imagery and sophisticated sound systems were to replicate the continents of the world and their indigenous animals. It was Virtual Reality on a huge scale. Millions of goggling visitors were expected to visit the windswept site from all over Britain. A five hundred bed hotel was to be built to accommodate them. The narrow minor roads leading to the site were to be widened slightly. They had hoped that Prince Philip (in his capacity as President of the World Wildlife Fund, rather than his other well-known role as killer of small birds and animals) would open the electronic zoo for them.
When the Queen reached the town centre, she rested on a bench and put Harris on his feet. He lifted his leg and urinated against an overflowing litter bin. The Queen was reminded of Niagara Falls, the flow of which, unlike Harris, could be switched off at will.
A man was sitting next to the Queen. He had a raw, recently broken nose. He was drinking out of a brown bottle. After each drink he drew a filthy hand across his mouth, as if hiding the evidence. His shoes were of the type worn by bandleaders between the wars. Harris’s urine trickled towards these shoes and the man drew his feet onto the bench in a decorous movement, like a young girl avoiding a strolling spider.
The Queen apologised for Harris’s behaviour.
“Och, the wee dog canna help it,” said the man, his voice hoarse from violent shouting in the small hours. “An’ let’s face it, missus, he’s too wee to climb onto a lavatory seat.”
The man laughed and choked at his joke and when he saw that the Queen was not laughing, he prodded her and said, “Aw, c’mon, lassie, let yourself go. You’ve got a face on you like a wet Sunday in Aberdeen.”
The Queen showed her teeth briefly and the man was pacified.
He said, “D’you know who you look like? I’ll tell you. You look like that woman who impersonates the Queen. You do, you do, you look like her wassaname? You know the one. You look more like her than she does. You do. You do. You could make a fortune. You shid do it, you shid. You shid do it. You know who I’ve been taken for?”
The Queen looked at his broken veined face. His tropical sunset eyes, his matted hair, his verdigris teeth.
“G’wan, guess who I’m took for?”
“I simply can’t imagine,” said the Queen, turning her head away from his cidery breath.
“Hee, hee, hee,” laughed the man. “Hee, hee, hee, that’s verra guid. You sound jus’ like her. ‘Ai simplay carrnt eemaygin’,” he mocked. “Jus’ like her, jus’ like the Queen. You shid go on the clubs, you shid. ‘Ai simplay carrnt eemaygin’.” His laughter echoed around the town centre. He beat on his thighs with his fists. “I mean, you’re not tellin’ me that her accent is real. It’s not, it’s not. It’s not real. She sounds like a robot from Doctor Who. Doesn’t she, missus? Doesn’t she? Still, we’re rid of her now. Guid riddance, I say. I’ll drink to that. I’ll drink to that. Who’s in charge now?”
“Jack Barker,” said the Queen, trying to flatten her vowels.
“Tee hee, hee. Jek Barker. You’re a scream, missus,” said the Republican. “You are, you are, you are.”
He stood up and swayed in front of the Queen. She noticed that he was not wearing socks. His trouser hems had fallen down; overlocking threads trailed behind him. If ever asked by a style magazine journalist to explain how he chose each day’s wardrobe, he would have to say in all honesty that he threw his clothes on in the morning and continued to wear them day and night until many months later when they were removed by men wearing rubber gloves, overalls and face masks.
“G’wan, who do I remind you of?” He struck what he perceived to be an artistic pose. One finger on his chin, and his head turned to display his wrecked profile.
The Queen shook her head; she didn’t know.
“The Duke,” shouted the dissolute one. He saw that the Queen was not familiar with the name. “Prince Philip. I’m a dead ringer for him; everybody says, everybody. Can you not see it? Can you not?”
The Queen eventually admitted that perhaps there was a ‘slight resemblance’. He drank the bottle dry, then shook it and steered two brown drops into his gaping mouth. He shook it again, inverted it against his mouth, waited, got angry when nothing appeared and banged his teeth on the rim.
“You wouldn’t have the price of a Big Mac, would you missus?” he asked.
“No,” said the Queen, placing the cider bottle against the litter bin. “I do not have a penny.”
“Och, that’s what they all say, though not in such a classy accent.”
The Queen asked him for directions to the DSS office. He offered to escort the Queen to the door, but she declined graciously. As she waited for the green man to give her permission to cross the road, she heard the grimy one shout, “Jeanette Charles! That’s her, that’s her, that’s the one. You’re a dead ringer for her. A fortune! A fortune!”
The Queen joined the queue outside the DSS office. A girl in unmemorable clothes gave her a numbered disc thirty-nine. She stood behind number thirty-eight and was soon joined by forty. Those in the queue with watches looked at them, frequently. Those without asked the time, often.
Time, invisible and invincible, fled by, mocking those waiting outside. Would they be seen? There were twenty-five minutes left. They did mathematical calculations inside their heads. Little children stood stoically holding onto the pushchairs of their younger siblings. The rush hour traffic jerked by, three feet away, sending fumes directly into the lungs of the occupants of the pushchairs.
Harris coughed and strained on his lead.
The queue shuffled in until the Queen was sufficiently far forward to be able to see inside the large room where a menacing clock with black hands and a hurrying second hand told her that it was twelve minutes past five. A baby began to cry and was given an unopened packet of crisps to suck.
“‘S no good givin’ him a actual crisp, they’re salt and vinegar,” said the young mother number thirty-eight. “‘E don’t like salt ‘n’ vinegar.”
The Queen nodded, reluctant to open her mouth and advertise her class. Her accent was proving to be rather a bother. Should she try to modify it? And her grammar was a nuisance. Should she throw in a few double negatives? It was terribly difficult to work out where she belonged any more except as a number between thirty-eight and forty.
As the hands of the clock moved towards 5.30, the queue started to panic and surge towards the counters where claimants were seated, pleading their cases through grilles set into sheets of safety glass.
Words of su
pplication, anger and desperation passed one way through the screen from the waiting room to the office. In the other direction passed words pertaining to regulations, explanations and refusal. A man stood up and banged on the screen, “I need some money now,” he shouted. “I can’t go home without some money. We’ve got nowt.”
The clerk sat impassively and watched a security guard lead the man away.
“Thirty-six,” said the clerk. “Thirty-seven,” said another.
A third clerk left her desk and gathered her papers and her boxed pen and pencil set together. She slung the strap of her bag over her shoulder and prepared to leave.
The Queen left her place in the queue and said through the grille, “Excuse me, but at what time do you leave your work?”
The clerk said reluctantly, “Half past five.”
“Then you have five minutes left,” said the Queen. “Perhaps your watch is rather fast.”
The clerk resumed her seat and said, “Thirty-eight.” The Queen rejoined the queue, who were pleased at the small victory. Behind her, forty said, “Good show, ma’am.” He came closer and said out of the side of his mouth, “I had the honour to serve in your regiment, Welsh Guards. Saw action in the Falklands, Bluff Cove. Honourable discharge. Nerves gone to pot.”
“A bad show,” said the Queen, who was the former Colonel-in-Chief of thirty-eight regiments and the Captain General of seven others.
Her number was called by a pleasant-looking Asian youth. The Queen had two minutes in which to state her case and leave with bus fare, food money and coins for the meters. “It’s impossible,” smiled the youth, after she had answered that no, she had no documentation to prove who she was and where she lived.
“To get an Emergency Payment, we need proof; a pension book? A gas bill?”
The Queen explained that she had not yet received her pension book. She had only been in her present accommodation for four days.
“And where did you live before?” asked the youth.