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Authors: Peter Dickinson

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BOOK: King and Joker
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Louise gazed at the picture, suddenly happy with Nonny's own happiness and the way it had lasted across the years. When she looked up she saw Father watching her with a faintly teasing smile.

“Isn't she lovely?” she said.

“In her own way,” said Father, almost as if he didn't want to admit it to anyone else. “Would you like a copy?”

“Me? Oh … no, I only wanted to see. It's funny, she's hardly changed, but in the photo she looks a bit like somebody else.”

“Who?”

(He didn't want to admit that either.)

“I don't know … just somebody.”

“Some film star, probably. You must've seen her in an old film on the idiot box. Half of them were sweating their guts out to look like that, and Nonny did it without trying. Sling it back, Lulu—we haven't got all evening. I think I'd better try and tell you why Bella was upset about the press-cuttings. It'll mean going into a number of things we don't normally talk about in the Family, but you'll just have to stick it out I may say that in my opinion you haven't fully understood what's been happening to you. Though you may believe you have accepted and even welcomed Nonny's relationship with me and Bella, unconsciously you dislike and resent it. Furthermore you are disturbed by your own inability to show your feelings on the surface, and you feel a need for a relationship, preferably with Bella, in which this barrier disappears. And thirdly you are aware that Durdy, with whom you have had a relationship of that sort, can't last much longer, and you would like to arrive at a situation where Bella provides a substitute. Am I being too tough?”

“No. That's all right. I don't mean that you're right—I'll have to think about it—but it's better to say things than not say them.”

“Sometimes. In this case, certainly. You see. I think that you said to yourself, unconsciously, ‘Nonny and Father have rejected Mother and in doing so have rejected me. But Mother and I still can have each other.' So that afternoon with the essay you made the offer and for a while Bella appeared to accept it and then she appeared to reject you—and reject you for a reason concerned with our past history about which you had not been told. That's why you've been brooding so much about an incident which in other ways is rather trivial—the sort of thing which occurs in most families pretty often. Do you follow me?”

“Yes.”

“Right Well, I can't replace things as they were before that afternoon. All I can do is tell you as plainly and clearly as I can about how I came to marry Bella, and the relationship that we have built up between the three of us. Effectively I shall be trying to make you accept that we are a unit of three, and that nobody has rejected anybody, and that when we had children they were very much loved and wanted and still are. I think Durdy told you that Nonny and 1 were lovers before I met Bella?”

“Yes.”

“OK, we'll start there. I was twenty-five, and that means that for the past seven years people had been parading possible wives in front of me as though I were some sort of judge at a dog-show. Most of them were nice enough and some remarkably pretty, but as soon as I met up with Nonny I was really rather spoilt for prettiness. OK, say it, but try not to interrupt too much.”

“Why couldn't you marry Nonny? I mean, even then it must have been possible for you to marry a commoner. It was after the War, wasn't it?”

“Of course it was, and of course that's what I wanted to do. There'd've been a bit of a hoo-ha, but I could have ridden that out. The reason's pretty straightforward in one way, though in another way I still don't understand it—she wouldn't have me. She turned me down. I kept count. I asked her forty-three times and then I gave up. No, I'd forgotten I was telling you the plain truth—what happened was that she swore she'd stop going to bed with me if I asked her once more, and she meant it. She simply didn't want to be a Queen. As I say, I still haven't really figured out why.”

His voice had lost its lecturing tone and taken on such a note of grumbling outrage at that old rebuff that Louise almost laughed. She remembered her own feelings as she'd looked at the painting of the scene at Berlin Station.

“I know why,” she said. “I can't tell you. Go on.”

“Well, that's how things stayed for a couple of years and then I met Bella. I hadn't met her before for two reasons—first, she'd been in a convent most of the time, and second she didn't count as suitable. I'll come to that in a minute. I knew of her existence, of course. She's my third cousin.

“It was at a party at the Rothschilds' in Paris. I sat next to her. A dark girl, still a bit inclined to puppy-fat, not specially striking except for that marvellous pale skin, very serious. Now we're coming to an important bit, because I want you to try and understand that although I was, and still am, deeply in love with Nonny, with Bella it was—not exactly love at first sight—that's too banal a way of putting it. But by the end of the evening we both recognised that we needed each other. It wasn't just that I knew that I'd met an entirely suitable Queen of England—some of the others would have done for that. But we'd found a sort of complementarity, a recognition that we really did speak the same language—and you've got to accept, Lulu, that the language we're forced to speak is a pretty rare one these days. Of course I didn't know then that Bella felt the same about me, but I decided at once that she was the one I wanted. I also realised that I was going to have a fight on my hands—much more than if I'd announced I was going to marry Nonny, in fact.

“That's why I didn't tell anybody except Tim Belcher what I was up to until I'd found out what Bella felt. You at least will be able to guess what the hell of a job it was setting up private, apparently casual meetings between a bachelor king and a princess of a royal family in exile, Once it took Tim and me a couple of months' spadework to set up ten minutes' chat at a perfectly appalling production of
Siegfried
in Bayreuth, and I had to sit through the whole damned Ring for it. Things got a bit easier when we roped Bella's sister, your Aunt Maria, in …”

“But she's a nun!”

“She's a very good woman with a real gift for intrigue. If they'd any sense they'd make her a cardinal. Where was I? Oh yes, after that things began to move a bit, and I proposed to her, in Durdy's Nursery, as a matter of fact, with butter running down our chins. She turned me down. There can't be many Kings who've been turned down by the first two women they've proposed to. I tried again several times. No go. It was damned puzzling, because I was pretty sure she liked me, and I knew from Maria that her family were keen enough on the idea to let her become a Protestant. It took me months to get it out of her, and even then she couldn't tell me direct—she had to put it in a letter—that she was secretly convinced that she was a haemophilia carrier. You did haemophilia in biology, I think.”

“Yes. Last term.”

“I was a fool not to think of it, or I'd have twisted their arms to change the curriculum.”

“Why on earth? I'm all right.”

“Oh, not for you, Lulu—for Bella. I think I'd better give you a quick run-down on the disease, because there are bits they won't have bothered to put in. Haemophilia, a thoroughly nasty, unromantic ailment Genetic—that's to say one of nature's mistakes which can be passed down from parents to children. One of her commoner mistakes, and by no means confined to royal families. It's sex-linked, which means that boys get it from their mothers but girls have to get it from both mother and father for the symptoms to show up. Until the last twenty years it's been rare for a male haemophiliac to live long enough to breed, so for all practical purposes the popular idea has been right that's to say that the males die of it and the women pass it on to the next lot of males. Not all of them, of course. On average, if a mother who is a carrier has two sons and two daughters, one son and one daughter will be OK, one son have the disease and one daughter be a carrier. I imagine they taught you most of that.”

“I didn't know women could get it at all.”

“Well, they can, but it's irrelevant. Now, the crowned heads of Europe. Victoria carried the mutant gene for haemophilia without knowing it. Her father was fifty-two when she was born, so the odds are it began with an actual sperm mutation in him. She was horrified by the way it showed up among her grandchildren but she died, lucky old biddy, not realising that it all began with her. The most famous sufferers were the Russian royal family, but it also showed up in the Spanish one. Your uncle Carlos died of it. Maria is a carrier …”

“But how can you know? She's never had any children. She's a nun, for God's sake.”

“She's a nun partly for God's sake and partly because she's a haemophilia carrier. We'll come to that in a bit. First I want to point out that a great deal of romantic nonsense has been written about the disease, and put into films, making it seem rather beautiful in a decadent sort of way. I tell you it's ugly, painful and sordid. They make it seem like a slow welling of blood across alabaster skin while courtiers sigh and scheme in the background, but in reality it's joints swollen with black pus, and the child screaming with the endless pain. It's guts that won't stop bleeding—oh, we can do quite a bit for it nowadays, but when your Uncle Carlos was dying and your mother was a child watching it, it was hell.”

“Poor Mother!”

“Exactly. Moreover they gave her a wicked idiot of a confessor who told her that her family were being punished by God with the disease. So in spite of everything that everybody told her, she was convinced that she was a carrier too.”

“But you must have known she wasn't, or …”

“I knew. You can do a test, and though it was pretty primitive in those days and though her family were a conservative lot, they'd had it done. That's why Bella came out of the convent and Maria stayed in. Blood is a complicated stuff and it takes a dozen different things to make it clot at the right time and not at the wrong time. Two of these things are called Factor Seven and Factor Eight. If you haven't got enough Factor Seven you've got Christmas Disease, and if you haven't got enough Factor Eight you've got Classical Haemophilia. The symptoms are practically identical, but if you mix two batches of blood, one deficient in Factor Seven and one in Factor Eight, the mixture will clot. Now, although the symptoms don't show up in a woman carrier of either disease, in a way she can be said to have the disease, because although she's got enough of the relevant Factor for her blood to clot OK, she still hasn't got as much as a healthy brother, and nowadays it's possible to test the blood for both factors. Bella's family was in fact the completely average family of the text-books, so there was a healthy brother, your Uncle Juan, and Bella's Factor Eight count was almost identical with his. I knew this because I persuaded her to have the tests done again. I thought that if I explained it all to her she'd be convinced. Of course what I found was that though I'd convinced her intellect I hadn't made the slightest dent on her emotional horrors.

“Then a funny thing happened. I'd got it into my head, not unreasonably, that the haemophilia business was really a transference from an even more deeply buried set of sexual fears. That's not the sort of thing one can conveniently discuss in a letter—not with Bella, at least—so I had to wait till we could set up another meeting. We spent a perfectly marvellous day riding along old mule-tracks in the Basse Savoie—it's incredible how much more private a mountain can be than a closed room—and thrashed the whole thing out. I felt that if I was going to force her into total frankness I couldn't do any less myself, so it all came out about me and Nonny. In fact Nonny and I had settled that if Bella accepted me we'd bite the bullet and split up … You tell me what Bella did, Lulu.”

“Oh … of course … she'd have come and tackled Nonny. I don't think she'd write—she'd come and see for herself.”

“You're a perceptive child behind that mask. Yes, she was fairly quiet for the rest of the ride, told me she'd think it over, got home, packed and came over incog—didn't tell me or anyone—found Nonny's flat—it was in Pavilion Road, just behind Sloane Square—and called on her without an appointment. Naturally they were a bit wary of each other to start with, but when I turned up a couple of evenings later to tell Nonny how the campaign was going I found Bella sitting there looking as smug as the cat that got the canary. They'd really hit it off.”

“I'd love to have seen your face.”

“I daresay. They almost made me feel a bit de trop. And they'd come up with this idea of Nonny joining the establishment as Bella's secretary.”

“But surely somebody must have known.”

“Tim Beicher knew. Durdy guessed. I don't think anyone else had an inkling. We had my mother to thank for that. I know you get along with her OK, Lulu, but I think she's a perfectly frightful woman, despite her bringing what brains we are endowed with into the family. If she'd heard the slightest whisper about Nonny she'd have shoved her oar in to cause maximum misery. So it was a possible arrangement. Though it was jolly for me, I didn't think it was fair either on Bella or Nonny, but they insisted it was. Nonny got what she wanted, which was to be to all intents and purposes married to me without having to be Queen. Bella was more complicated, but she'd been able to tell Nonny all sorts of things she couldn't tell me, the most important being her horror not of sex but of childbirth—not the pain, but the idea of giving birth to babies who couldn't stop bleeding. She thought she could face the prospect of producing an heir, but you've got to remember that she was a convent-reared Papist, and though she knew about contraceptives she hadn't really come to terms with the possibility of her using them. Furthermore she'd got it into her head, quite rightly, that I was a pretty randy young man, and she'd felt that if I wanted a lot of sex that'd inevitably result in a whole string of babies—royal families tend to run largish, you know. So from her point of view there was a rather sordid practical advantage in Nonny being—well—available. So that you don't get the wrong ideas I'd better tell you that Bella is in fact capable of very considerable physical passion. It took us a year or two to find it out, but it's there. It's very important that you shouldn't get it into your head that Nonny's function is to be a sex object and Bella's to be an official wax-work Queen.

BOOK: King and Joker
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