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Authors: Peter Dickinson

King and Joker

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King and Joker

A Crime Novel

Peter Dickinson

“So for a day and a night and yet another day Edward Duke of Clarence lingered at the portal of death. It is fruitless to speculate on how our nation might have developed had Eddy crossed the dark threshold. In due time, no doubt, his brother the Duke of York would have inherited the throne and reigned (presumably) as King George V, to be succeeded in turn by … by whom? The glass of imaginary history reflects nothing but vague mists. Perhaps by now the world would have known a Republic of Great Britain. Perhaps George, bluff and sailorly, would have steered a course towards a more active, less amenable monarchy. Or perhaps all would have been very much as we know it today, with only the head on our stamps and coins different.

Fruitless indeed to speculate. For, to the relief of the Royal Family and the well-concealed amazement of the Royal doctors, the future King Victor I withdrew with painful slowness from that shadowed threshold and returned to the living world and, to the arms of his betrothed, Princess Mary of Teck. She saw to it that he never knew another day's illness.”

(from
King Victor I
, an unpublished fragment by Lytton Strachey)

Chapter 1

T
he first “joke” that Princess Louise actually witnessed took place in the breakfast room at Buckingham Palace on the last morning of the school summer holidays.

Father gave one of his warning snorts and looked down at the typed list beside his place.

“Two hundred and five,” he said. “Cease automatic supply of sealing­-wax in guest bedrooms.”

Mother put her spoon carefully back into her dish of Fortnum and Mason's Soya Porage (by appointment).

“Most certainly not,” said Mother. “Hue cannot expect visitors to ask for sealing-huax huenever they huish to bestow a decoration on somebody.”

“I'd have thought people who bestowed decorations carried the kit around with them,” said Nonny.

Albert, not looking up from slicing his second raw carrot into accurate rounds, said, “Sheikh Umu certainly did. When he gave me the Order of the White Oryx he sealed it by folding a strip of silver over the corner of the skin it was written on and biting it firm with his teeth.”

“Was it oryx skin?” asked Louise.

“Of course not,” said Albert. “Umu's an ecology nut. That's why we hit it off so well. Last bloke he caught shooting oryx he had publicly castrated.”

“I take it,” said Father, “that there's no suggestion that we should provide strips of silver in the guest bedrooms.”

“Couldn't one of the footmen make it his business to see that there's sealing-wax in the room when that sort of bloke comes visiting?” said Albert. He then did his usual trick of looking up for a moment from his carrot, staring like a highly intelligent blue-eyed orang at the person he was talking to, popping a slice of carrot into the hole in the middle of his wild ginger beard, and instantly starting on sixty silent mastications, still staring. Strangers found table-talk with the Prince of Wales tricky, but Father was used to it. He snorted more loudly.

“How often have I got to drum it into your heads,” he asked, “that running a palace is a labour-intensive operation? Here we are, having to make drastic cuts in expenditure, and that means drastic cuts in labour. The more activities we embark on, even to make apparent savings in material costs, the more labour we need. Remembering to put sealing-wax in the right rooms at the right times sounds a trivial chore, but it involves labour—not just by the footman concerned but also on the part of the Protocol Secretariat who have to communicate with him about which visits are relevant. A few more jobs like that and you you're increasing your labour force by one, not cutting it.

“Then it huill be cheaper to keep sealing-huax in all the rooms,” said Mother. She sifted sugar into her bowl and put it on the carpet for Balfour to lick. This was her technique for seeing that Balfour ate his ration of Soya Porage, though he wasn't supposed to eat sugar at all. Father banged his pencil on the table but didn't snort, a bad sign.

“We've reached item two hundred and five,” he said, “and so far we've accepted a total of nineteen suggestions. What's the point of hiring an O and M firm if we turn down almost every damn idea they put up?”

“Nevertheless,” said Mother, “there will be sealing-wax in all the bedrooms.”

Only Father, halfway gone into one of his rages, failed to notice the perfect English accent. Louise tensed inwardly.

“Now look here …” shouted Father.

Nonny coughed.

“Oh, all right,” said Father, making another little cross in the margin of the list.

Mother nodded, smiled and reached for her banana-shredder.

All at once, in that cough, in that yielding, in that nod and smile, Louise realised that Nonny was Father's mistress. Louise had just poured herself another cup of chocolate and had a piled spoon of sugar half way to it; she didn't spill a grain but carried it smoothly across and stirred the chocolate to a froth. When she was satisfied, she glanced across the table at Nonny. Miss Anona Fellowes was leaning back in her chair looking, as usual, both amused and bemused. She had a glistening blob of honey near the corner of her wide mouth, and like everything else that happened to her it seemed to suit her. Louise remembered a time when at a shoot at Sandringham a Land-Rover had started with a jerk and Nonny had tumbled out at the back, landing asprawl in tyre-churned mud. About five men had helped her to her feet and as she stood up, shaky but laughing, Prince Bernard of the Netherlands had whispered to Louise, “So, now mud becomes the smart thing to wear.”

Louise's first jolt of astonishment changed quickly to a more general surprise that she hadn't realised before. Thirteen years … no, that wasn't fair—babies are so self-absorbed that you can't expect them to notice things till they're six, at least—say seven years of knowing that Nonny was completely one of the family, despite only being Mother's private secretary … perhaps that was actually what made it harder to see that she was also one of the Family.

Louise sucked the froth off her chocolate and as she did so looked round the table. She knew no one would guess that she'd suddenly found out—it was a family joke how little she showed her feelings. Sometimes that was a nuisance, when everybody assumed that you were as happy as a sandboy when really you were perfectly miserable, but other times it could be useful. She stirred again to try and whip up another layer of froth. Did Mother know? Of course she did, because Father and Nonny could never have kept it such a secret without her help, and not even
France Dimanche
had suggested it. Did she mind? She always seemed so fond of Nonny, not only in public but also “among ourselves”. Perhaps it even suited her. Everybody knows that short bald men like a lot of sex, and poor Father was certainly not tall and his head had been shiny right across the top ever since Louise could remember. You could be passionate about Mother—she was marvellous—but it mightn't always be easy to be passionate with her …

The second layer of froth refused to come. Louise shrugged and coldly decided not to think about it any more until she'd had a chance to talk to Durdy.

The pinger pinged its warning that they bad only ten minutes more to themselves. Father gave a last snort, turned the O and M list face down, rose and crossed to the sideboard. Breakfast was always the same on weekdays. Soya Porage, half a banana and low-calorie chocolate for Mother. Croissants, honey and China tea for Nonny. Orange juice, muesli and raw carrots for Albert. Weetabix, fried eggs and grilled streaky bacon and high-calorie chocolate for Louise. And for Father first a small cup of very hot black coffee, then a vast cup of milky tepid coffee, then two eggs laid yesterday by the Palace Wyandottes, boiled for two minutes and left wrapped in a hot napkin for another five, and finally, when the pinger pinged, two slices of York ham carved by himself from the ham under the silver dish-cover on the sideboard.

“Really, this is too bad,” said Father in a voice so curiously between laughter and anger that everybody looked round. He was standing back from the sideboard with the dish-cover in one hand, like a distorted shield. On the dish where the ham should have been was what appeared to Louise to be a large cow-pat, palpitating with strange life.

“Hey! That's my toad!” said Albert.

Nonny gave a small scream with a giggle threaded through it. Mother rang the bell for Pilfer. Father pulled the corner of his moustache and put the cover back on the toad.

“It's got to have air,” said Albert.

“Quiet,” said Father.

Pilfer slid into the room, bespectacled, stooping, all in black.

“Your Majesty rang?” he said in his slightly nasal whine. He spoke to Mother because he knew that Father, if he'd wanted something, would have shouted and Nonny would have gone and asked.

“My ham is not what it should be, Pilfer,” said Father.

Pilfer's eyebrows rose above the rims of his lenses. He sniffed the air but seemed to detect no odour other than the usual mixture of coffee, chocolate, Soya Porage and Balfour. Then he slid to the sideboard and lifted the dish-cover with a black-gloved hand. For three seconds he stared at the toad. Louise saw the toad blink back. With complete silence and decorum Pilfer fainted.

At once Father was crouched by the body, loosening the collar and straightening the limbs. Nobody said anything while he took Pilfer's pulse.

“Bert,” he said. “Get on the house phone and tell them to send up a stretcher.”

“Is it a heart attack?” asked Nonny. Louise could detect behind the sympathy and concern a note of pleasure at the drama of it.

“No, no,” said Father. “Just a faint. Heart quite steady. Bloody silly of me.”

“In that case,” said Mother, “he must stay huere he is until he huakes up.”

“Are you sure he's a union member?” said Nonny.

“There'd still be no harm in having a stretcher,” said Albert. “There's nothing in the union agreement against that. Only against Father providing medical attention to union members without a second opinion.”

“Except in an emergency,” added Nonny quickly, but Father was already into his tirade about the idiocy of paying for a doctor for the Palace staff when he, the King, was a qualified practitioner who had worked his way up every step of the medical ladder without cutting one damned corner.

“I suppose if I'd settled for being a vet,” he shouted, “I wouldn't even have been allowed to operate on the bloody dogs!”

At this moment Louise saw Pilfer's eyelids flicker and the colour begin to seep back into his cheeks. Father was too angry to notice.

“Stretcher's on the way up,” said Albert unnecessarily clearly. Louise guessed that he also had seen Pilfer coming to, and wanted to spare the poor man's feelings by letting his faint seem to continue until he was out of the Royal presence. But the sound of his voice drew Father's temper as a golf-club draws lightning.

“And get that frog out of here!” he bellowed.

“It's a Blomberg toad,” said Albert.

“It's terribly handsome,” said Nonny.

“What's its name?” asked Louise.

“Amin, of course,” said Albert. “I saw the likeness at once …

“No,” said Mother. “You will not call it that. President Amin may well be misguided, but he is a head of state.”

“You call your dogs after Prime Ministers,” said Albert.

“That's different,” said Mother, lapsing quickly back to her Spanish accent. “It began with Huinston. Do you remember darling Huinston, Lulu? And then there huas Baldouin, who huas rather a dull dog, but very affectionate …”

“And then,” snarled Father, “we had to get a bloody stupid sentimental red setter and call it Attlee because some crass oaf on the Labour back benches asked a question in the House about our naming dogs after exclusively Tory Prime Ministers—just the sort of idiot interference with my private life which first stopped me going into the Navy and forced me to have a so-called socially useful training and then prevents me touching my own butler when he faints in the middle of my breakfast and anyway where's my damned ham?”

“But you like being a doctor,” said Louise.

“That's got nothing to do with it, Lulu” said Father, suddenly mild and sensible at the sound of her voice. “I'd probably have liked being an admiral.”

“You are an admiral,” said Albert.

“A proper bloody admiral,” snapped Father.

“But there will be no question of calling the toad Amin,” said Mother.

“Certainly not,” said Father. “You can call it Fatty if you like, Bert, but you're not to tell anyone why. You hear? And now get it out of my breakfast room.”

“Please can't we keep him for a bit?” said Louise. “I've got to do a full biology project next term, and I want to do it about Blomberg toads. What does he eat, Bert, and how do you spell Blomberg? May I have a bit off your pad, Nonny?”

Nonny tore off a couple of sheets and swung them round to her on the Lazy Susan, then rose, drifted out into the lobby and came back a few moments later carrying an ordinary china dish with the ham on it.

“It was in the dining-room,” she said. “Lulu dear, could you make a bit of space for me on the sideboard?”

Once more the great toad blinked at the light as Louise removed its dish-cover and carried the salver back to her place. She was hardly settled before the First Aid men came in, and behind them Father's Private Secretary, Sir Savile Tendence. His bluff face pinkened and blue eyes popped and the rigid little bristles of his moustache seemed to twitch when he saw Pilfer supine on the carpet and the King not yet started on his two slices of ham.

“Sorry we're a bit late this morning, Sam,” said Father, carving carefully away while the stretcher men fussed behind him with the body. “We've had a bit of a brouhaha. Pilfer saw a toad, fainted. Come and sit down. Give the poor man some tea, Nonny. What have we got on today, Sam?”

He always asked the same question and it was always unnecessary. All four members of the Family had in front of their places a typed form, one column for each member, showing all engagements for the week. Louise's entry for yesterday read, for instance, “11.00 a.m. HRH shopping. Clothes for new term. Jean Machine. Laura Ashley. 2.30 p.m. HRH open Sports Centre, Romford, Lady Caroline Tonge in attendance.” Today was blank, at Louise's insistence. Tomorrow disgustingly said “08.50 a.m. HRH starts new term at Holland Park Comprehensive. Photographers.” After that it was plain “School, School, School,” and back to living a bit more like real people.

“This luncheon for Prince Albert at the London School of Economics canteen,” Sir Savile was saying. “We've made strong representations that nothing special should be laid on by way of food. They normally include a vegetarian menu. I understand, though, that a demo is expected.”

“That's all right,” said Albert. “I'm hairier than your hairiest Trotskyite, and a good deal further to the left, if the truth were known.”

BOOK: King and Joker
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