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Authors: Peter Dickinson

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“Why do we always talk about my
poor
Grandfather, Durdy? Was it just because he got drowned before he could become King, or was it because he had Queen Mary for a mother and Granny for a wife?”

“Her Royal Highness is in a very nosey-parker mood this morning.”

“Oh, Durdy, you're impossible. I bet he was dissipated too.”

Sniff.

“I'm serious,” said Louise. “I mean I'm not serious about Grand­father being dissipated, supposing he was. I don't see how it matters now. But I am serious about Father and Mother and Nonny. I think they've done very well by Bert and me. We've very lucky with them, managing so tidily, and keeping us all happy. I mean really happy. What I hate is
mess.”

For a moment Louise thought that Durdy was going to do another of her sniffs, but instead she opened her eyes and said, “There's someone in the Night Nursery.”

Louise couldn't hear anything, but Durdy bad always had hearing of extraordinary sharpness. Every rebel mutter she had picked up. If she'd been Pope at the time (Albert once said) she'd have heard Galileo's exact words. I beg your pardon, Mr G, but exactly what still moves? Come on, spit it out. I'll have no secrets in
my
Curia,
if
you please. And if anything the paralysis of her body had made her senses sharper still.

Now Louise caught the light pinging buzz from beyond the door, which meant that Durdy had pressed the two outer fingers of her left hand, the only two parts of her once busy body that she could still control, down on the buzzer that lay beneath the bedclothes. After a few seconds the door opened and Kinunu came prancing in, smiling as if she'd been enjoying the most marvellous illicit joke She did her mocking curtsey to Louise and came on round the bed, where she contrived both to smile and frown at the dials of the apparatus that stood where the bedside-table should have been. Louise never looked at this, never even noticed it, managed to cut it out of her consciousness because, like the monitor camera, it was an intruder on the ancient order of the Nursery. It was there to keep Durdy alive, to monitor her breathing and pulse, to adjust the temperature of the bed, and twenty other things which Louise didn't understand. Father had pinned up a chart above it, showing where all the needles ought to be. Kinunu peered to and fro between the chart and the machines. At last she turned to the bed.

“All OK mithmith,” she said.

“I daresay,” said Durdy sharply. “And who's your friend, Miss?”

“Pleathe?”

“I heard a man's voice in the Night Nursery, Miss.”

Kinunu hesitated but didn't seem at all to mind the bullying bite of Durdy's tone. If anything it only increased her look of wicked innocence.

“Come in here, whoever you are,” called Durdy.

A shoe squeaked. The door moved as though the wood itself were shy. McGivan came creeping in.

McGivan. Albert's account of how he had been found went like this: Father had been opening a new police station at Inverness, and that had involved the inspection of a guard of honour of police constables. Father (Albert said) had been in the uniform of a Colonel of the Black Watch, kilt and all. There he had been, His Britannic Majesty, Fid Def etcetera, pacing blue-kneed through Invernessshire drizzle, pawing at every fifth dummy to utter a gracious remark. One (asthma, poor sod) two (whisky) three (can that moon face be the start of Addison's Disease? Remember to tell his Chief to have him checked) four (mild astigmatism) five—“Well, officer, and bow long have you been in the Force?” “Twelve year, fower months, Sirr.” “You look very well on it.” “Thank you, Sirr—.” One (pity his mother didn't have those jug-ears operated on) two (nothing much visibly wrong there) three (whisky) four (coronary in a few years) five—“Well, officer … hello, haven't we met before?” “They made me shave the moustache, Sirr.” “Shouldn't happen to a dog! But where have I seen you?” “In your wee looking-glass the morrn, verra like.” “Good God! Chief Superintendent, were you aware that this officer bears a strong likeness to me?” “Yes, Your Majesty. We felt it was a choice between his removing his moustache or not taking part in the parade. It was his decision which.” “Ahem! Uh! Ahem!” (That was Albert's version of how Father swallowed his fury at this interference with the personal liberty of one of his subjects.) “Yes, of course, Chief Superintendent. Difficult situation for you. Still … What's your name, officer?” “McGivan, Sirr.” “Well, McGivan, I would be very pleased if you would grow your moustache just as it was. Otherwise I'd have to shave mine off and that'd be an expensive business because they'd have to change all the stamps, you know.”

This was one of Albert's party pieces. Despite his own jungly hair he managed to do both Father and McGivan so well that it made even Mother laugh. Louise could see, instant to her mind's eye, how McGivan's brow wrinkled like a spaniel's at the notion of it being his fault that the stamps of the United Kingdom had all to be changed. She could also sense how the Chief Superintendent (Albert made him lanky but pompous) fretted at the knowledge of Father's anger and his own lack of grasp of its cause, and his eager promise to check out the suspect coronary and Addison's disease. And then Father pulling at his own moustache to hide his smile at the thought of the fun he could have with a double.

“What on earth do you want him for?” Nonny had asked.

“Oh, all sorts of things,” Father had said. “He'll be both useful and amusing. Anything where he doesn't have to say much. He could swear in Privy Councillors like nobody's business, for instance, or …”

“Vick. No,” Mother had said.

“But don't you see how much spare time it would give me? I could …”

“All right—perhaps not Privy Councillors, but there's all sorts of other idiot appearances I have to make …”

So in a way it was a good thing that Father's scheme hadn't worked. McGivan was amusing, but not useful. It was astonishing that two men so alike—with the same high colour, the pale pop eyes, the shiny dome amid the sparse relics of gingery hair, the little drooping moustache, the arms too short even for the pudgy body—it was astonishing that despite all that they should look so different. Albert said it was like chimpanzees—you laugh at their parody of human behaviour because they're so inhuman. If they looked more like us, they'd seem less funny. So McGivan was a joke because, despite being the spit image of the King of England, every movement he made—every blink, every frown of worry, every anxious smile, every shuffle of his tiny feet—was totally unroyal. That had been obvious the moment Father had first led him in, dressed in identical suits (Father's clothes never fitted, but with him the shabbiness was somehow arrogant; with McGivan it was mingy) and stood with him in Tweedledum and Tweedledee pose in the drawing-­room. He'd been desperately shy, very snuffly and Scottish, poor man. After a couple of drinks he'd made a surprisingly passable shot at doing Father's voice. But when he'd at last been eased out of the room Mother had shaken her head.

“Nobody huould mistake him for you, but nobody,” she'd said. “He is not a King, Vick. You are, in spite of everything. Even Mr Huillie Hamilton huould know the difference.”

“Nonsense, darling. What do you think, Nonny?” Nonny had put on the innocent-little-child look she used when she was about to make one of her rather creepy jokes.

“He might do for your lying-in-state, I suppose.”

So here was McGivan, amusing but not useful, creeping round the Nursery door, smiling and frowning and trying not to rub his hands together like a comic grocer. These days he wore his moustache waxed into neat points and spoke with an accent broader than he'd ever used in Scotland. It was as though, feeling he'd been a failure in looking like the King, he'd now determined to look and sound as different as possible.

“Come in, Mr McGivan,” squeaked Durdy. “And how are the ankles?”

“Verra much improvit,” said McGivan. “It's the liniment His Majesty prescribit, ye ken.”

“Still there's nothing like Pommade Divine, I always say,” said Durdy. “And what can we do for you, Mr McGivan?”

McGivan hesitated.

“Och,” he said, “Awed. I was after askin' Her Royal Highness a few questions aboot yon eencident wi' the toad at breakfast. I am instructit to investigate, ye ken.”

Nice for McGivan to have something to do, thought Louise. Officially he was one of the security police at the Palace, but there wasn't much in that line anybody felt like trusting him with. In one early episode he'd been sent on some outing as Albert's bodyguard, had got lost and then had made such frantic efforts to rejoin his Royal charge that the local police had arrested him. Albert had had to bail him out.

“Fire ahead,” said Louise. “I don't think I noticed anything special until Father lifted the lid.”

“The whole Family was no verra obsairvant the morn,” said McGivan­. “Noo, Your Highness, when ye cam into the breakfast-room, who was there, besides yourself?”

“Oh, I was first down. I usually am. Mr Pilfer had only just rung the gong. I suppose that makes me chief suspect, because I'm pretty sure nobody went fiddling around with the ham-dish after I came in.”

“Och, you and Prince Albert are already eleeminated. Baith o' ye were in Scotland when Her Majesty had the misunderstanding with the advertising agency, and also when the eencident occurred in His Majesty's toilet.”

“In Father's loo! Honestly? What incident, for God's sake?”

(Albert said it was really Durdy's fault that Father's time on the loo each morning had become part of the Palace ritual almost as sacrosanct as, say, the Changing of the Guard. No wonder everybody had been so stuffy about the nature of the earlier jokes.)

McGivan coughed and looked away. Durdy sniffed.

“Oh, all right!” said Louise. “What else can I tell you?”

Painstakingly McGivan took her through all the details of the toad-finding and Pilfer's faint, seeming most interested in things that couldn't possibly be any help. Her impatience must have showed.

“Ye ken I must ask questions of the serrvants,” he said. “And I canna do that unless I can tell them I have questioned the Family equally severely.”

“Yes, but surely you want to start with who knew about the toad? I think Prince Albert said it only arrived yesterday.”

“Correct,” said McGivan. “I checkit the box mysel'. It could have been a bomb, ye ken?”

“But who else knew? That's the point.”

“Aweel, Sergeant Theale crackit a wee bit joke aboot it. Was Constable Sanderson there? I dinna mind. And there'd be the messenger who took it to the Prince. Aweel. Aye, yon's a guid suggestion, Your Highness. Verra guid for a lassie. I'll investigate on those lines. Aye.”

With another monstrous snuffle he crept away. Kinunu giggled as he left, but Durdy sighed.

Are you tired, darling?” asked Louise. “Shall I go?”

“Not tired, only old,” whispered Durdy.

“How old? Don't tell me. As old as your tongue and a little older than your teeth. Right?”

Durdy smiled peacefully and closed her eyes. Louise bent to kiss her forehead, nodded to Kinunu and tiptoed away. Walking back down the corridor she took the oxer and the water-jump each with an absent-minded bound. Visiting Durdy always made things seem all right—Nonny and Father, for instance: in half an hour that had stopped being a strange new portent and become something that Louise had known and accepted all her life, without knowing that she did so. In fact as she went down the stairs she was thinking neither about that, nor about the clearly impossible suggestion that Durdy should be moved to a nursing-home, but about the joker. An incident in Father's loo! Wow! It was funny but it was also a bit uncanny. In some ways Father was a very secretive person, so not many people in the Palace would be aware of how much his morning ritual mattered to him. That meant that either the joker had been dead lucky in his choice of target, or he was one of those who knew—somebody “among ourselves”.

Chapter 3

“H
ow old? Don't tell me. As old as your tongue and a little older than your teeth. Right?”

Miss Durdon felt her face smile, felt the brush of lips on her forehead, listened to the loved footsteps tiptoeing away, heard Kinunu's giggle and shut it out of her mind. My last baby, she thought. My very last. The thought drifted her away, back and back.

A sunlit terrace. Great lumpish hills, brown and mauve with heather. A dark pine plantation. Heavy grey stone walls below fanciful turrets. Over all this the sunlight, northern and pale. On the lawn between the castle and the pines at least twenty lolling dogs, and on the terrace a tea-time ritual, with wicker chairs, cake-stands, four tall ladies all in black, two kilted servants holding silver trays, a funny little Indian in a turban pouring out tea. The ritual centres on a stout little grey-faced lady whose solid outline is made vague by billows of black lace. She has an Aberdeen terrier on her lap. Her face, sulky in repose, smiles with sudden eager sweetness as into the picture walk three small girls in white, wearing wide white hats. Durdon sees them from behind. The smallest girl, Princess Rosie, gives a couple of skips of happiness but Princess Louise hisses her back to propriety. They curtsey to the old lady whose pudgy little hands make a patting motion against her legs, causing the girls to settle like white doves around her knees. The Indian gentleman hands her a plate and the old lady takes a knife and cuts a rock bun into equal sections which she gives to the girls as though she were feeding three of her dogs. Durdon watches all this with anxiety—that Munshi, she thinks, how can you tell if his hands are clean? The old lady smiles along the terrace and speaks to one of the other ladies, who beckons. Durdon checks that the baby in her arms has not started an unprincely dribble and walks forward, less nervous than she'd expected. The old lady scuffs the terrier off her lap and holds out her arms for the baby. As Durdon rises from her curtsey and passes the royal bundle across their hands touch. The Queen looks straight into her eyes.

“I have not seen you before, have I? What is your name?”

“Durdon, Ma'am. Nurse Bignall has the influenza, Ma'am.”

“You are not very large, are you?”

“No, Ma'am.”

“Never mind. I believe children like small people, and you certainly look healthy. Where were you born?”

“Thaxted in Essex, Ma'am.”

“I know the place. Excellent people. Wait. I think I shall hand you back the Prince directly. They are not so amusing until they can talk, are they?”

“I love them when they're tiny, Ma'am.”

“But you love us too, Durdy?”

(Princess Rosie, three and a half; wide-eyed with sudden alarm under the starched hat-brim.)

Durdon smiles quickly down at her, anxious to take the baby back and not be thought pert or intrusive.

“Tell the child outright, Durdon. It is wrong to let them fret.”

“Yes, Your Highness, of course I love you too.”

“And my highness loves you.”

The Queen, whose speaking voice is rather light and high-pitched, gives an extraordinary deep-throated chuckle. Princess Vicky, aged six, loses her frown of fright at Rosie speaking out of turn before Great-grandmama. The Queen seems not to have looked away from Durdon's face during all this time but she has somehow noticed Vicky's anxiety.

“No,” she says. “Princess Victoria shall hold the Prince for me. You may retire, Durdon. I see that you will be with us for a long time, and will have other opportunities for nursing the little ones.”

She nods decisively, as though settling a dispute between provinces of her Empire. Durdon backs away, terrified of tripping over one of the dogs and sprawling down in a vulgar flurry of petticoats, but at the same time content to see Vicky's back bent to coddle her living doll …

The time-drift quivers and for a hideous few instants Miss Durdon is standing in a vaguely seen corridor and hearing a voice screaming “Durdy! Durdy! Where's Durdy!” That is Vicky dying of cancer at the age of fifty-two, a convert to Christian Science, refusing drugs but shouting in the delirium of pain for an older comfort. It happened in America and Miss Durdon hadn't been there, but they'd told her about it. Now she uses her strong will to push the imagined scene from her mind and coax the drift back to that earlier time, the time of her first babies …

Abergeldie, the Prince of Wales's Scottish home, a few miles down the road from Balmoral. (However often the drift takes her back to this scene, Miss Durdon can never remember why the Prince should have been up there at Christmas, when he'd normally have been at Sand­ringham, nor why his grandchildren should have been visiting him without their parents. All that is vague, but the details of the actual event are as sharp-edged as a photograph.)

Bathtime in the nursery suite, Two brown hip-baths on the floor. Small bright-pink bodies nestling into vast white towels. Steam, and the smell of talcum and Wright's Coal Tar Soap, and the drift and hiss of a Highland storm against the shutters, and the new electric light very yellow. Nurse Bignall rigid by the fire with the hairbrush in her lap. Princess Rosie, nearly four now, turning away from the fire already wise enough to hide her grin of relief as the torture ends; her new-brushed hair floats with no weight above her shoulders, glinting in glistening waves, Durdon gives Vicky a last reassuring surreptitious hug, then makes her slip from her lap and go to let Bignall tug at the tangles of her coarse, intractable hair. Sober, Bignall does this with energetic pleasure, like a minister rooting out sin; tonight she has made herself a pot of “tea” before bath-time, a brown liquid which she drinks cold, without milk. Catriona is drying Princess Louise. Durdon can't stop glancing at the new under-nursemaid; she is extraordinarily striking with her pointy-chinned small face pinkened by steam and nervousness, her red-gold hair piled under her cap, her full bust and tiny waist accentuated by the starched white apron of her uniform. Vicky's first suppressed whimper is followed by the slap of the back of the brush on flesh.

“Stand still!” growls Bignall. Durdon feels herself stiffen. Three times more, she says to herself, and I'll take the brush out of that witch's hands and face the consequences Oh, if only …

As the door opens the whole room seems struck into stillness, as though they were all posing for a photographer.

“Curtseys, girls,” says Bignall in her soldierly voice. Rosie does a beauty in her nightdress—grace will out—Vicky a gawky one, Louise a mere token in her towel. But Bignall, trying to lead the dance, stumbles and only saves herself by grabbing the fender. The tubby, bald, slab-faced, bearded gentleman in the doorway appears not to notice.

“Don't let me interrupt you,” he says. “I felt like a change of company, my dears. You're lucky. I wish I had pretty ladies to bathe me.”

Rosie laughs. She loves Granpapa—but then she loves everybody. The Prince of Wales closes the door and strolls to the fire, where he rests his cigar on the mantelpiece. The wild, foreign reek of it joins the plainer nursery smells. The ice tinkles faintly in the top of his tall glass of hock and seltzer. Bath-time proceeds, but only to the next whimper. No slap, but the brush was poised until Bignall remembered that there was a stronger power than hers in the room now.

“Here, you!” barks the Prince. “You're doing that too roughly. It is not the child's fault that her hair has knots in it. You—you're doing nothing. You brush the Princess's hair.”

Vicky tiptoes across to Durdon, too intelligent not to dread the consequences, despite the immediate relief. Durdon doesn't even dare to look at Bignall. This'll make it happen, she thinks as she begins to brush, What'll she do? What'll I do? She'll wait till we're back in England. Then she'll … yes, she'll go to Duchess May with a bottle of “tea” and say she found it in my drawer. She'll say she found it up here, so she'll go the moment we get back. I won't have time to prove anything. It'll be her word against mine. Vicky would bear me out, but I can't …

A sudden giggling scream and a man's deep chuckle. Durdon, though she is tense as a terrier, manages not to jerk at Vicky's hair as she looks round. Catriona appears to be having a fit, throwing her arms about and wriggling her whole body like a snake. Her cheeks are as red as a ripe apple and her giggles are made worse by her efforts to control them. Only her feet somehow remain respectful of the royal presence, as if they were glued to the floor. Rosie is crowing with laughter, Vicky smiling, Louise looking disgusted.

“What happened?” whispers Durdon.

“Granpapa put some ice down the back of her dress,” breathes Vicky.

Bignall stalks slowly forward, a black pillar, a storm.

“Sir, I must request you to leave my nursery,” she says. “The children are over-excited.”

The Prince swings round, amazed. His cod-like eye stares at her and wavers. In the instant given her Durdon raises her right hand to her lips and tilts her wrist with her fingers cupped round an invisible glass. At once she turns back to the thicket of dark ringlets.

“Stand closer to me,” snaps the Prince's voice.

“Sir?”

“Do what you're told, woman. Now breathe in. Out. Again. You've been drinking. I thought so. Get out of the room.”

“Sir!”

“Get. Out. Of. The. Room.”

Footsteps. A gasping sob. The door. His voice again.

“You there. What's your name? Durdon, Come here.”

Fully calm she puts the brush down and walks across to him, stopping when there is barely a foot between them. He is not a tall man, but her eyes are level with the first diamond stud of his gleaming shirt-front and she has to raise her head to his. She takes slow, deep breaths and lets them out, as if showing the Princesses how to do their regulation breathing exercises at the window each morning. The Prince's breath smells of his cigar, and something else, musky and fierce.

“Right. You take charge for the moment,” he says. “I will write to the Duchess tonight. Now, you, girl. What's your name?”

“Catriona McPhee, Sir,” whispers the child.

“Come here. I shan't hurt you. Stand there.”

He puts his dumpy little hands on her shoulders.

“Now breathe in,” he says. “Out. Again. Hm. I like a sweet breath.”

They stand there for some seconds, the Prince staring at the girl and the girl looking back at him with her head half turned away, her bosom rising and falling under the snowy stiff linen. Suddenly he grunts, a slow and meditative sound, then wheels away to the door. At once Vicky, usually so hesitant, darts across the floor and catches at his sleeve, pulling him down so that she can whisper in his ear. When he straightens, his cold opaque-seeming eyes stare at Durdon. He nods and goes.

As the door closes Rosie, inexplicably, bursts into tears.

Time-drift again, but not far, not far. The current that floats Miss Durdon into the first two of those sharp-lit bays now always nudges her into their once-forbidden neighbour.

A sob in the shadowed dark, and another. Nurse Durdon is awake at the first and sliding her sheets back at the second. For a moment the shadows seem to lie in the wrong direction, and then she remembers that Bignall is gone, and the smell of her and the fear of her, and now she is Nurse Durdon and has the tiny room between the Blue Nursery in which the baby Prince has his cot and the Pink Nursery where the Princesses and Catriona sleep. Their nightlights cast shadows through the two open doors, making angular patches, of dim yellow on the ceiling of the middle room. It is icy cold. The glitter of moonlight off snow-swathed slopes is sharp as a spear through a crack in the shutters. The sobs half-stifle, then still completely as Nurse Durdon creeps bare-footed into the girls' room.

Vicky is deep in dreams and no mistaking, though she sleeps frowning as always. Rosie has actually missed Bignall for a couple of days but in her sleep she has forgotten the loss and lies like a child made by God to express His pleasure in children, a sinless joy. Nurse Durdon has never heard Louise cry, or even sigh, and she sleeps with that look on her face as though she were already Queen of a flat kingdom full of honest, dull subjects. Catriona …

Her eyes are shut, but her pretty little features are taut and even in the dimness a tear glistens on her long lashes. Nurse Durdon crouches by the bed.

“Hush, hush,” she whispers. “You'll wake the children. It's only a nightmare.”

“Och, but I'm frightened.”

“It's only a nightmare. Go back to sleep, you silly girl.”

“I canna sleep. I havena slept a' nicht. I'm frichtened.”

“The idea! Here of all places!”

“Aye, here of a' places.”

“I'm getting cold. Listen. If it will help for this one night I'll treat you like one of the little girls and take you into my bed. That's what I do when they have nightmares. But I won't do it again, I promise you that.”

Nurse Durdon tries to imitate Bignall's gait as she stalks back to the middle room. Of all things! As if nursing four children weren't enough, to have to nurse the nursemaids too! But Catriona's body is so beautifully warm, as warm as fresh bread and as easy to hold as little Rosie, that the stiffness and irritation quickly ebb away.

“If only there was never any men in the world,” sighs Catriona.

“God made them for a purpose,” whispers Nurse Durdon. “We must not question His ways. Are you worried about some young man in your town?”

“Och, no!”

“What's the matter, then?”

“I canna tell ye.”

“It's not anything to do with the children?”

“No.”

“And you haven't, stolen anything?”

“No, no!”

“Or done anything else like that?”

“Then there's no harm in telling me. I'll help you, whatever it is.”

“Ye canna.”

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